Star 80

Year: 1983
Production Co: The Ladd Company
Director: Bob Fosse
Writer: Bob Fosse
Cast: Eric Roberts, Mariel Hemingway, Cliff Robertson, Keenan Ivory Wayans

Nobody – nobody – does slimeball better than a young Eric Roberts. Even without the porn tache and steely, predatory eyes, he'd absolutely perfected the attitude and the way of carrying himself that promised simmering rage under an insecure exterior dressed in distracting bling intended to convince you (and himself) that he had class, when you just know he's a violent psychopath.

The other particular talent on show here is musical polymath Bob Fosse, who elevates the structural style of what could have been a very tepid telemovie-type production destined for the bargain basement of flashy but empty 80s thrillers.

On the surface it's the story of Dorothy Stratten, who went from everyday British Columbia teenager to international stardom as a Playboy playmate. But I actually think it's Paul's (Roberts) story, Dorothy (Mariel Hemingway) merely a foil for his more complicated character.

A smalltime hood and a thug who can't ever escape who he really is, Paul has designs on money, respect and glamour, feeling like he's always deserved his ultimate destiny to rub shoulders with the rich and beautiful.

He sees his chance in the wholesome-but-sexy Dorothy when he sees her serving in a Dairy Queen, still a high schooler. She has little chance of resisting the fast-talking hustler, promising big things and sweeping he off her feet with attention and gifts.

Only her wise mother sees the truth about Paul, but she can't get around his conniving nature to exploit her daughter and when she realises what he's up to he's forged her signature on consent forms and taken Dorothy away.

As much as he seem to genuinely love her, Paul sees Dorothy as his ticket to the big time, convincing/coercing her into photographing nude and trying to orchestrate her success by sending photos to Playboy in LA, where they immediately start to open doors for the couple.

But where Paul sees it as his entryway into the gilded fantasy he's always had of his life, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson – yes, Uncle Ben from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies) can see Paul for what he is, guiding Dorothy's career as a Hollywood starlet but excluding Paul from the process as much as he can.

It makes Paul – who bears a begrudging suspicion he is actually trash, a suspicion seemingly confirmed by Hefner and his circle's rejection of him – desperate and enraged, especially because none of the other cockamamie business ideas he has ever get off the ground, Dorothy's success eclipsing his own and adding jealousy to his broiling psyche.

Dorothy sees less of Paul as her career escalates and she gets a few movie roles, but she's still exhausted by his constant neediness. It's not until she gets a serious role and really connects with the director that she realises she's leaving Paul behind.

After a few months of separation she agrees to see him in the LA apartment they've shared with a friend to try and make an amicable break, but Paul has already bought a dodgy shotgun and stashed it in a closet and as history remembers, going to see him was the last tragic mistake Dorothy ever made.

The script, written by Fosse, was based on a magazine article about Stratten's short life and violent death, and it depicts what we know happened and what has to be surmised very skilfully. It starts with Paul skulking through the dark apartment, covered in splattered blood and with Dorothy's dead body nearby on the floor, and presents how they got there in a series of flashbacks.

You also have to look a little bit past the early 80s-era cinematography and the performances are also a little overegged (Roberts has never done 'subtle'), but it's the characters – and no small amount of morbid fascination – that make it still worth watching after so long.

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