Thursday, February 02, 2006

Star 80

A few weeks ago, I saw Bob Fosse's autobiographical opus All That Jazz, and loved it. I watched the film again earlier this week and it prompted me to bump Star 80 and Lenny, his preceding and subsequent films up on the Netflix queue. And that led to me watching Star 80 earlier today, a film that goes to an even darker place than All That Jazz.

First, something that really annoyed me is the fact that this movie is only available in a pan and scan format. It appeared to be one of the first DVDs ever produced, the menu was just the Warner Bros. logo, and there were no special features whatsoever. I'm glad that the film got out early, but at least have the respect to put it on in the proper aspect ratio. So, hopefully we'll get a reissue of the film sometime soon.

So, the film chronicles the rise and fall of Dorothy Stratten, who goes from working in a Dairy Queen to posing for Playboy, and on to a career in film. Even though she's at the heart of all the events of the film, she remains an enigma. The most fully realized character is Paul Snider, the man who "discovers" her and goes on to manage her on her rise to the top. Paul is a motivated guy with a lot of drive, but little actual talent.

This film, regardless of its own merits, was clearly majorly influential. It uses a lot of documentary style interviews within the narrative, a device I hadn't seen in a film made before this, this was one year before Spinal Tap popularized the format. The film it struck me as most similar to is Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, a film that could function either as a parody of Star 80, with its swapping of flesh and blood protagonists for Barbie dolls, or a strong companion piece to the film. I would say companion piece because both films have a similar message about the pressures that a rapid ascent to fame place on a woman. Both films end tragically, and even though I found Superstar a more affecting film, I think Fosse lays the groundwork for the genre that Haynes builds on in the laterwork. If I had to guess, I would say that Haynes is a big Fosse fan, since his film Velvet Goldmine has a lot of stylistic similarities to All That Jazz, as well as similar themes as are present in all of Fosse's work.

Here, the documentary stuff isn't the primary driving force behind the narrative, it's more an exposition device. The opening credits give us snapshots of Stratten, along with soundbites, which are rendered forboding by the ominous music and intercutting of the black titles. The knowledge that the film is adapted from an article titled "Death of a Playmate" certainly doesn't make things seem any better. The effective thing about the opening is the way it sets up the public image of Stratten, someone who's bubbly, joking about what it means for her to pose, and seemingly control of her own image despite the way she's allowing herself to be molded into what Playboy thinks she should be.

The film is built on the assumption that the viewer is already familiar with Dorothy's story, and that gives even the good times at the opening of the film a menacing air. Snider is someone who seems utterly determined to make it to the top, but we don't see this as a good thing, he's someone who uses people as stepping stones, and when he meets Dorothy, she sees in her his best chance yet to make it big. Paul is the kind of person who needs to be in control of things, he needs to be the big man and leader, that's why it would have worked out better for him had he stayed in Vancouver. There, working a car show or running a wet t-shirt contest, he'd be the entrepreneurial genius, whereas once he gets to L.A., he finds himself humbled, no longer to give off the impression of being the big man, the leader in town.

The film is more concerned with portraying Paul's story than Dorothy's, thus there's little emphasis put on Dorothy's initial decision to pose. We never even see her making this decision, presumably Paul pushes her into it, and it's Paul, not Dorothy, who argues to her mother that it's a good thing to do. Dorothy is his in, and Paul plans to use her to get contacts and find a place in the business.

The basic irony of the film is the fact that Paul wanted to use Dorothy as the gateway into a life of power and luxury, it wasn't personal affection that drew him to her, it was her potential to be a star, however, in the end it's Dorothy who uses what Paul has, his connections and drive, to put her on the path to stardom. Rather than him using and discarding her, it's she who uses everything he has to offer and then moves on. Paul is all about being in control, and once Dorothy doesn't need him anymore, he finds himself completely without purpose in life. In the past, he was able to work hard because he believed that if he just kept pushing ahead, eventually he'd find success. However, as he tells Dorothy at the end of the film, he's not going to become a big director, any dream that he had is over.

So, the film is about the fallacy of the American dream, and both main characters tie into this. A central tenet of American philosophy is based around the protestant work ethic, the idea that if you keep working, you'll be rewarded. However, Paul's experience shows us someone who works as hard as he can and winds up nowhere. The most depressing scene for him is the "well hung" men show, where he goes to all this effort, seems to be very successful and winds up with little money. So, even the means he used to use to support himself aren't enough, he's become completely dependent on Dorothy.

The basic myth that both America and Hollywood propagate is the idea that if you work hard enough you can end up rich and famous. That's why in the 50s, the studios presented these stories of people being discovered at drug stores and soda shops. It's to humanize the stars and build up the myth of the movies, if you believe that you too could be up there one day, you'll continue to believe in the illusion they're selling.

So, Dorothy does achieve the dream of becoming a famous movie star. This is what she comments on in the movie's final line, saying the excitement she receives from being asked to give her autograph. In all these sound clips, she's saying what she's supposed to, the line that is designed to forward the agenda of Playboy or the studios. So, here she's bringing herself down to Earth, saying that being recognized by fans isn't just a thrill for them, it's a thrill for her. A number of times in the film she talks about how Playboy is looking for wholesome, "naive" girl next door types. The use of the world naive is likely not something the publicists would have wanted, because while it has no innate negative characteristics, it implies that the girls posing in the magazine are being used by people who are more aware of the world than they are. For the viewer, use of the word naive has a menacing connotation because it reinforces the idea that Dorothy has no control, that she gets used by various people and it's her naivete that will eventually lead to her death.

Despite the fact that in theory she's the film's main character, Dorothy remains something of a blank slate throughout. As I mentioned before, we never see her making the crucial decisions that determine her character's fate, it's always just something that's been made for her. As the film progresses she's molded by a series of men to match whatever job they have for her. So, Paul turns her from Dairy Queen waitress into sexy girl next door model. He pushes her on the next step of her journey, to the Playboy mansion, and once she gets there, she doesn't need him anymore. If she had just cut him off at that point it would have been cruel, but in the long run, it would have been better for her.

Under the guidance of Hugh Hefner, she becomes a Playmate, modifying her behavior to fit the image of what he wants her to be. This is evidenced in the scene where she's a waitress and picks up the glass the wrong way, so she redoes it, using the bunny drop. The conflict for her comes from the feelings that she has for Paul. Now, I'm not sure whether this is genuine love for him, or if it's a sense of obligation because he gave her a start. I would suspect it's more obligation, a view that would be reinforced by the final scene. More on that later.

Paul creates conflict for her with Hef because he views her as an in to this world. Hef is so fond of Dorothy that he'll put with him when she's around, however when he goes there without Dorothy, it quickly becomes apparent that he's not welcome and is only useful as an appendage to Dorothy. That breaks his self confidence because it's one of the first times he realizes that he's no longer in control, Dorothy has the access and the contacts, and even though he feels he has the talent, there's nothing he can do about it. This is evident in the scene where Paul and Dorothy talk after their first visit to the mansion. Paul is angry at her for not talking to the b-list actor, and even contemplates pimping her out to him as a way of getting an in.

This conflict comes to a fore in the scene where Dorothy tells Hef that she's going to go ahead and marry Paul, even though he doesn't want her to. This is one of the few moments in the film where Dorothy definitively asserts herself, it's a bluff that pays off because she still gets her spot in the magazine and gets to marry Paul. However, later, when she's doing interviews, she doesn't have the confidence she displayed there, and looks to the publicist to guide her on how to answer the press's questions.

Her association with Playboy leads to a film career and a relationship with Aram Nichols. Again we see someone who views Stratten as a blank slate on which to create his own fantasy woman. In their first meeting Aram just stares at her, apparently so wowed by her beauty that he casts her without a reading. He plans to turn her into a "real" actress, and she goes along with this, doing everything she can to help him facilitate this transformation, in the same way she did for the two previously influential men in her life.

Here, the problems in her relationship with Paul come to the fore. Now that she has a new male guardian and lover, she doesn't need him anymore, yet she is still tied to him and feels indebted to him. It's Aram who forces her to confront Paul about this, she's still unable to muster the courage to initiate divorce precedings on her own. So, even as she's trying to dismiss one authoratitive man in her life, she's doing it to please another.

This all culminates in the final sequence, where Dorothy goes to Paul seeking a divorce. I love the way the scene was staged in front of a giant picture of her, reinforcing the idea that to Paul, and all the men in her life, she's just an image, a fantasy, rather than a real person. We see those images of her so much that we gradually lose sight of whether there's a real person under there, and that's what the blank slate characterization of Dorothy reinforces, the idea that she was only a beautiful vessel that people would use to their own ends.

This scene shows us Paul behaving in the same way he was in the bathtub scene earlier, when she was first planning to go to New York, but this time Dorothy is aware that she has no need for him. Thus, he can't merely apologize to her and expect her to stay, he has to threaten her with a greater level of physical violence to keep her. By this point, his faith in the American Dream is broken, he knows that he'll never make it big, and Dorothy is his only chance to do anything with his life.

Dorothy offers him a very small amount of money, which he knowingly rejects. The basic question of the scene is whether Paul really does love her and want her to stay or whether an offer of more money would satisfy him. I would say that the money here was just an excuse to be angry at her, as we see in the detective scene, he's not really concerned with getting any evidence or suing her, he only wants her. He's aware that she has more value to him than any money because she has the connections and fame that can get him ahead.

I don't think either of them love each other. Paul is in love with her image, but has little concern for the real person beneath. Dorothy merely feels indebeted to him for what he did to her. She knows that without him she'd have never made it to L.A. He not only took the initial pictures, he instilled the confidence in her beauty that allowed her to proceed. When the downstairs scene breaks up, Dorothy is given the chance to leave, and instead chooses to go to Paul and stop him from killing himself.

Regardless of whether or not she would actually have pulled the trigger when she left, she's aware that leaving him would kill Paul, leave him with nothing. However, she still feels indebted to him, even after all this time. That's why after he attempts to rape her, she allows him to have sex with her. This is her attempt to finally pay the debt, give him what he wants one last time and then move on. That's why she goes along with it, not out of love for him, but because she feels like this last act will clear the slate and make it even between them, thus ending the relationship.

I get the sense Paul feels this way too, and that's why he kills her. He knows that if she walks out she'd never come back, and he'd be done. So, rather than letting someone else possess her, he kills her. The crucial thing here is the fact that we don't see her actual damaged face, we just see the blood on the poster of her. So, it's the destruction of the image that's more important than the destruction of the real person.

From here, Paul kills himself and we're left with the haunting image of their two dead bodies in the apartment. From an emotional point of view, I'm not sure about the decision to end on the clip of Dorothy talking about the autograph. It's clearly thematically appropriate, but I felt like some of the other clips would be a better capper on the action. However, the move from the real dead body to the immortally frozen, happy image is appropriate. Dorothy was a construction rather than a person, and when she wanted to reconstruct herself, she found that Paul was not willing to let her do this. He'd rather see her dead than serving someone else's dream.

I know Fosse is primarily known as a choreographer, but the man was a phenomenal film director. Both this and All That Jazz are emotionally apocalyptic portraits of both showbiz and America in turmoil. He's very inventive in terms of how he constructs and shoots his films, and his films are full of challenging, disturbing material. He definitely belongs in the pantheon of great American directors.


rahul m said...

gr8 review of a gr8 movie ,i just saw the movie and was shocked to see less than 15 reviews on imdb and yours is best among them ,i think u have analyzed the movie very well,also there is an indian movie called "bhumika" by shyam benegal,its thematically similar to this movie

rahul said...

What namely you're saying is a terrible blunder.