In August 1980, the model and actress Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) was shot dead by her estranged husband Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), who then turned the gun on himself. To understand why this crime occurred, or at least try to understand it, we must go back into the life of Paul and see what he was before he believed he made his wife the success she became, as he was to many of his associates' opinions a pimp, and if he wasn't then he certainly behaved like one. This meant he became involved with some shady characters, though his ideas for enhancing bar rooms with wet T-shirt contests nevertheless provided him with a source of income. But what he really wanted was to find a woman who he could truly make a star out of...
Director Bob Fosse might have thought his final movie was going to be the autobiographical All That Jazz judging by the way it appeared to put a full stop on his career, but it turned out he didn't actually die until 1987, and had one more film left in him. Star 80 was that film, and true to his usual preoccupations with showbusiness and death and how the two intersected, he chose the then-recent tragedy of 1980's Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten as his subject matter. It's a mark of how this was still a sore point with many that in writing the script he found he had to change names and events so as not to upset some of those involved, but he didn't change Hugh Hefner's name, and as a result the production was sued.
You couldn't observe that Hef was portrayed as badly as Snider, but then again it was prescient in the view that men are a big problem when it comes to women and how they treat them, especially in dividing fantasy concepts from real people. The movie's Hefner is a slick businessman, always dressed in silk pyjamas, and before long you twig that if Snider was a small time pimp and a loser in that unlovely realm, the Playboy empire was little but a multi-million dollar version of that desire to make money out of a male regard of female sexuality. There may well be those who read the magazine for the articles, but when we see Hefner personally choosing Dorothy as he has so many others, it's clear where his interest lies and this sheen of sophistication is all that separates him from the exploiters in the sex trade further down the ladder.
Indeed, there's barely one man in Star 80 who would qualify as even slightly admirable, so Dorothy becomes an icon of every woman who has suffered trying to please males and wound up paying a heavy price for it somewhere down the line. Yet it was perhaps a mark of how male-dominated the view of her was that she wasn't the main character, in spite of Hemingway's top billing, as Fosse was patently more interested in Snider, a man he saw as a terrible warning of how he himself could have ended up should he not have had the opportunities in life that he did. Fosse was selling himself short as he genuinely had talent, whereas Snider was a lowlife set to get his success on the back of his naïve wife and unable to cope when that prosperity left him in the dust, but something about the man haunted the director.
Here was a film that had you concluding Andrea Dworkin had a very valid point, and that there was no reconciling between the sexes if one side wants something the other has to be humiliated to offer, so you would hope that was a view that was not reflected in the majority of relationships, be they romantic or simply platonic. Time and again Fosse returns to scenes of Dorothy as an innocent taken advantage of by those males, who are all more powerful than she is - whenever she tries to assert herself, it never goes well, ultimately leading to her murder. Hemingway was good, Cliff Robertson made a smooth but uneasy Hefner, Carroll Baker was convincing in her suspicion as the mother, but it was Eric Roberts' movie as far as the acting went, he owned the role of Paul Snider in a manner that made you worry for him that he was able to get under the skin of such an unpleasant, pathetic man. He was helped by excellent editing from Alan Heim and Fosse's harrowing vision that showbiz just wasn't worth it, but if ever there was a film you wanted a shower after, Star 80 was it. Music by Ralph Burns.