The Unnominated: Star 80 (dir by Bob Fosse)


Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claim that the Oscars honor the best of the year, we all know that there are always worthy films and performances that end up getting overlooked.  Sometimes, it’s because the competition too fierce.  Sometimes, it’s because the film itself was too controversial.  Often, it’s just a case of a film’s quality not being fully recognized until years after its initial released.  This series of reviews takes a look at the films and performances that should have been nominated but were,for whatever reason, overlooked.  These are the Unnominated.

First released in 1983, Star 80 is an examination of fame, obsession, misogyny, and finally madness.  All four of those qualities are exemplified in the character of Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), a man with a charming smile, a ludicrous wardrobe, and the personality of a pimp.  When we first see Paul Snider, he’s naked and he’s covered in blood and he’s ranting about how the world is trying to destroy him.  Even if he wasn’t holding a rifle, he would be terrifying.  Suddenly, we flash back to a few years earlier.  Snider is being dangled out a window by two men.  Snider pathetically begs to be pulled back into the room.  The men laugh at him before pulling him up.  Snider, looking fairly ridiculous in a cheap suit that he probably thinks makes him look like a celebrity, fights off tears as he says he deserves to be treated with dignity.

Star 80 is based on a true story.  Mariel Hemingway plays Dorothy Stratten, the actress and Playboy playmate who was murdered by Paul Snider.  Snider, who often claimed credit for having “made” Dorothy, was married to her at the time, though Dorothy had filed for divorce and was dating director Peter Bogdanovich.  Unwilling to let her go and return to being a small-time hustler, Snider shot Dorothy and then himself.  Director Bob Fosse, who was best known for directing musicals like Cabaret and All That Jazz, was attracted to the story because he understood that type of world that produces sleazes like Paul Snider.  According to Eric Robets, Fosse even said that he probably would have ended up like Paul Snider if not for his talent.

Snider, the film quickly establishes, really doesn’t have any talent beyond the ability to manipulate people who are too naïve to see through his bullshit.  Snider wants to be a star.  He wants to be rich.  He wants people to kiss his ass.  When he meets Dorothy, he sees her as his ticket.  Dorothy’s mother (a poignant performance from Carroll Baker) sees straight through him from the start.  Tragically, Dorothy doesn’t realize the truth abut who he is until they’re already in Hollywood.  As Dorothy tries to break away from him, Paul desperately tries to find some sort of success, all the while complaining that the world is conspiring to keep him from being a man. 

Eric Roberts dominates the film and it’s one of the scariest performances that I’ve ever seen.  Roberts is convincing when he’s ranting and raving against the world that he feels is against him but what’s even more disturbing is that he’s convincing when he’s turning on the charm.  Paul Snider may not be smart.  Paul Snider may not be talented.  But he know how to gaslight.  He knows how to destroy someone’s fragile confidence, largely because his own confidence has been shattered so many times that he’s become an expert in exploiting insecurity.  Snider is a tacky dresser and nowhere near as smooth as he thinks but, intentionally or not, he uses that to his advantage.  He tries so hard to impress that it’s easy to see how someone could feel sorry for him and want to help him.  However, because Fosse lets us know from the start what Snider is really going on inside of Sinder’s head, we never make the mistake of trusting him.  We know who Paul Snider is because we’ve all known a Paul Snider.

Eric Roberts’s performance is so intense that it’s unfortunate but not surprising that it was overlooked at the 1983 Oscars.  He was playing a truly repellent character and he did it so convincingly that I imagine many viewers had a hard time realizing that Eric Roberts was not Paul Snider but was instead an actor playing a terrible character.  Some probably said, “Why should we honor such a loathsome character?” and again, the answer is because there are many Paul Sniders out there.  Roberts captured much more than just one man’s breakdown.  He captured a sickness at the heart of a fame-driven culture.

Of course, Paul Snider was not the only symptom of that sickness to be depicted in Star 80.  Every man that Dorothy either uses her in some way or just views her as being a commodity.  Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson) presents himself as being a fatherly mentor but Robertson plays him as being just as manipulative and ultimately narcissistic as Paul Snider.  Director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees, playing a character based on Peter Bogdanovich) seems to love Dorothy but their relationship still feels out-of-balance.  Aram, afterall, is the director while Dorothy is the actress.  The private detective (Josh Mosel) that Paul hires to spy on Dorothy seems to have no lingering guilty over the role he played.  Even Snider’s roommate (David Clennon) is more interested in talking about his dog and his car then about the murder/suicide of two people with whom he lived.

It’s a dark film and not one to be watched when depressed.  At the same time, it’s a portrait of obsessiveness, misogyny, and an overwhelming need to be “someone” that still feels relevant today.  Along with Sweet Charity, it was the only Bob Fosse film not to be nominated for Best Picture.  (This was back when there were only five best picture nominees.  Three of the nominated films — Terms of Endearment, Tender Mercies, and The Right Stuff — hold up well.  Two of the nominees — The Dresser and The Big Chill — are a bit more iffy.)  Eric Roberts was not nominated for the best performance of his career.  Again, it’s a shame but not a surprise.  This was a dark and disturbing film, a true Hollywood horror story.  One imagines that most members of the Academy wanted to escape it far more than they wanted to honor and be reminded of it.

Previous entries in The Unnominated:

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