For all its qualities, Star 80 will not leave your mind alone primarily because of Eric Roberts who is astonishing in a searing and deeply disturbing portrait of a hanger-on parasite unable to overcome his own insecurities. This is based on a true story and his Paul Snider does some horrific things but because of the performance and the script we feel for this monster. This man who was beaten by himself, unable to adjust his social dial when needed. Though the film ends with a rape/murder/suicide, I had just as hard a time watching a scene where Snider meets Hugh Hefner. He introduces himself by misquoting Hef, his pimped-out loser persona made up of self-loathing and desperation oozes out of him to the point where it becomes difficult to watch. And then he obsesses over the encounter afterwards. He’s identifiably nervous and rightly over-analytical of himself.
He ‘discovered’ Dorothy but couldn’t hold onto her, couldn’t keep her. The act of ‘discovering someone’ doesn’t go any further than the initial action requires and so Paul is left on the sidelines, back to proudly hustling together wet T-shirt contests which fail to make the projected profit. As Dorothy rightly breaks away from Snider (he is clearly a ticking time bomb), he tries to refocus his energies as advised by his roommate. When he tells Dorothy over the phone about his new health spa pet project, she is uneasy and unenthusiastic about the whole thing. She wants out of the marriage at this point, and it’s just a matter of getting up the nerve to tell him. And though he will be the one to end her life, and though we couldn’t be more empathetic to her conflict of interest, Eric Roberts makes us feel for this man in that moment when we see that he’s trying and she’s over it. We’ve seen characters like this before, these desperate hustler types trying to inch in at a taste of the spotlight. Reconciling the impossibility of actual fame with the hopefulness of at least being surrounded by it. But Roberts takes it to a new level of complexity, impressive all the more because of the context of the story.
Fosse never lets us forget where the story is going; happy moments are tinged with the future. This was a filmmaker who burrowed in deep, who lives in the dark corners and presents them to us with a streak of pizzazz and patterns of repetition. This is exploitative material, based on something that happened two years before the film’s release. It’s the type of story that immediately gets turned into a tawdry and untimely Lifetime movie (and of course there was an even earlier take on this material in the form of a TV movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis) but Fosse lifts it up and actually does something with it. He looks at that line that divides fame and the endless outskirts. What gets you in and what keeps you out? The Dorothy Stratten story is a worst-case scenario of what this craving does to a person when its a perfect storm of insecurity, mental imbalance, and ambition.
A special shout-out to Mariel Hemingway, equally impressive with a less complicated role. She carries with her an indefinable innocence and a buoyant youthfulness that becomes far more difficult to see stamped out than other potential actresses in this role.