screen gems

A Broadway legend. A Hugh Hefner playmate. A dark, crazy Hollywood story.

Star 80

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Overlooked: Star 80

We love Hugh Hefner. We miss Hugh Hefner. We still rejoice at the recent revelation that the love of Hefner’s life was purportedly another man, with whom he had an affair spanning four decades. Still, for the Playboy icon, not everything was a party. In fact, sometimes the euphoria of sex-positivity and hedonism gave way to violence.

Star 80, the final film of screen and stage legend Bob Fosse, recounts possibly the darkest chapter in Playboy history. In 1978, a not quite legal beauty named Dorothy Stratten (played here by Mariel Hemingway at her most ethereal) living in Vancouver caught the eye of a local con artist and pimp named Paul Snyder (Eric Roberts). Snyder immediately recognized Stratten’s model looks, and began to insert himself into every aspect of her life, becoming her boyfriend, charming her mother, and convincing Dorothy to pose for nude photos.

Those nude pictures eventually caught the eye of Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson), who recruited Dorothy as a Playboy bunny, and later made her Playmate of the Year. Hefner relocated Stratten to Los Angeles, and Snyder followed, forcing her to marry him. Snyder began to think of himself as the celebrity, relishing his access to the Playboy mansion and Dorothy’s money. When Dorothy began to romance a Hollywood director, however, Snyder turned violent.

In an industry known for starlets engulfed by tragedy, the story of Dorothy Stratten still looms large. At the time of her death, she’d begun a promising movie career, acting for director Peter Bogdanovich, whom she also started to date. In Star 80, Fosse sees Stratten as a kind of angel sullied by showbiz, and most of all, by her abusive husband. Indeed, Fosse seems much more interested in Snyder as a character than Stratten herself. Fosse wants to explore how male vanity, ambition, and failure can drive a man to violence. Fosse’s scary conclusion: it doesn’t take much.

Roberts and Hemingway both give fantastic performances, and should have both won Oscar nominations for their work. Back in 1983 though, Academy voters shied away from material this bleak, especially when it portrayed so many of Hollywood’s own in a negative light. Bob Fosse never directed another movie after Star 80, and today, it ranks alongside Cabaret as the director’s best work. It also plays as a certain memorial to both Fosse, a creative genius who died too young, and to Stratten, a warm, innocent talent who had her life stolen from her.

Star 80 doesn’t always make for pleasant viewing, but whether shining or morose, it captivates with every frame. Just as Virgil led Dante through Hell, Fosse wants to guide viewers into Hollywood’s seedy underside, and explore how men like Hefner and Bogdanovich (here fictionalized as “Aram Nichols” for legal reasons), however well-intentioned, contributed to the tragedy of Dorothy Stratten. This is a movie where only the victim comes out looking innocent.

In Fosse’s estimation, only Stratten deserved to.

Streams on Amazon, Hulu, YouTube & VUDU.