Cinema: A Centerfold Tragedy of Manners

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STAR 80 Directed and Written by Bob Fosse

Hugh Hefner is distressed. He does not like his centerfolds to be married: it undermines their girl-next-door image. Besides, it is disruptive to the "family" atmosphere that he likes to believe pervades the mansion in Los Angeles. Hef surely has his self-delusions, but in this case he also has a point. Any would-be father figure might have his doubts about Dorothy Stratten's choice of a mate. Granted, it was Paul Snider who discovered her behind the Dairy Queen counter in Vancouver, B.C., sent the first crude nudes to Playboy's talent scouts and faked her mother's name on his underage protegee's release form. But gratitude must have its limits, and as the publisher says, Paul "has the personality of a pimp." To which Dorothy replies, in her flat, little girl's voice, "Oh, Mr. Hefner, that's just the way he used to dress."

This exchange is almost thrown away in Star 80, the terse, harrowing movie Bob Fosse has made to explain what finally led Snider to murder the one he loved (and kill himself as well). But the words pierce to the heart of the matter as the writer-director sees it. Everyone Dorothy Stratten meets wants to exploit her in some way. Yet in this peculiar moral universe, Fosse suggests, the differences between Hefner (played with slithery menace by Cliff Robertson), Snider and the upscale moviemaker (Roger Rees) who aspires to be her ultimate Pygmalion are more a matter of style than of principles.

That is why Dorothy's response is so unconsciously acute. She instinctively understands that what is developing around her is a tragedy of manners; Snider has read the bottom line shrewdly, but he has a blind eye and a tin ear for the social pieties, even the dress code, by which naked need and manipulative greed must be clothed for the sake of the respectability he desperately desires.

The force and originality in Fosse's recounting of a true story that has attracted much journalistic attention and has already been done as a TV movie (Death of a Centerfold) lie in the way he defeats one's conventional expectations of his material. Mariel Hemingway's Dorothy is not the tragic tart that custom usually dictates in works of this kind. In an arrestingly straightforward, naturalistic performance, Hemingway suggests neither portents of doom nor a sense that she is self-destructively abandoning herself to a media fairy tale from which the only possible awakening is a rude one. If her physical resemblance to Stratten is only approximate, her portrayal of an adolescent girl caught up, giggly and unaware, in the excitement of a surprise party that someone, mysteriously, decided to throw for her is fresh and touching. And one that, in effect, concedes the dramatic center of the film to Eric Roberts, who plays Snider, obviously the object of Fosse's appalled interest from the first. Given the hypnotic power of Roberts' complex performance as this unsympathetic victim, one finds oneself in cringing agreement with the director's emphasis.

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