SOMETHING’S ROTTEN IN SoCal: STAR 80, BABYLON AND THE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD MYTHS
When director Damien Chazelle’s long-anticipated BABYLON, about the transition period in Hollywood between silents and talkies, was released last December to withering reviews and non-existent box-office – neither of which an $80 million studio prestige pic can afford – the reaction reminded me of that generated by one of my favorite films, choreographer-turned-director Bob Fosse’s STAR 80, in 1983. Both movies shine a harsh spotlight on the barely concealed rot underneath some very pretty surfaces, specifically those of the entertainment industry, and neither were applauded for such exposure, even though history remains firmly on both their sides. I loved STAR 80 from the jump, but my immediate response to BABYLON baffled me: I hated the movie for most of its running time, and I was ready to bow down in praise to Chazelle’s achievement by the time the credits rolled. The darker, dirtier, sweatier and grungier the movie became, the more I got into it. BABYLON is so much greater as a whole than when judged on its individual parts; it’s loud, obnoxious, relentless, and gives no fucks about romanticizing the past or the people who inhabited it.
BABYLON seemed to spark critical ire for focusing exclusively on the ugly parts while ignoring anything good about the era in which it’s set, which is odd considering ambivalence never got anyone very far in Hollywood, certainly these days. There’s no way to discuss Harvey Weinstein’s championing of independent and international filmmakers without mentioning the decades of sexual violence that recently landed him in prison; his misdeeds arguably nullify any positive impact he made on the industry. Chazelle was roasted for voicing this about the people who made movies a hundred years ago, and while I’m hopeful that, in years hence, Chazelle’s film will be reevaluated for what it does rather than what it didn’t do, I’m still waiting, 40 years later, for such consensus reappraisal of STAR 80. If anything, opinions on STAR 80 today seem even more dismissive than they were in its original release.
Like many an R-rated film that came out in the early 80’s, I saw STAR 80 when I was way too young, which may be why the feel-good stuff never much appealed to me later. For some reason known solely to him, my father allowed me to watch similarly sex-and-violence-filled EXCALIBUR, ALTERED STATES, and BLADE RUNNER, but not the one movie I really wanted to see, FLASHDANCE (go figure), which looks like POLLYANNA in comparison. The mature themes conveyed by most of the others flew right past me -- save a few indelible images, they didn’t make much impression at all until I saw them again in adulthood – but STAR 80 lodged itself in my consciousness at an early age and never left.
How old was I when I first saw Fosse’s retelling of the brutal, real-life rape and murder of Playboy Playmate and budding starlet Dorothy Stratten at the hands of her estranged husband Paul Sinider? 9? 10? This seems insane to me now – and speaks to just how engaged my parents were in guiding the entertainment I consumed, having also read my first Stephen King novel, CUJO, in the fourth grade, along with V.C. Andrews’ gothic incest romance FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC – but STAR 80 is one of the few hard-R movies I felt I immediately understood. My precocious estimation of this film as a wised-up masterpiece did not lessen as I grew older, and my comprehension of what it communicates has not changed or gotten complicated with time. STAR 80 pulled no punches regarding myths we like to tell about Hollywood, men, women, and America itself, ideas and perspectives I received as hard truths before I ever experienced those truths in my own life. That said, I since learned that I’m one of the few people who defend the film as such.
In the past few years, I’ve come across several podcasts, essays and reviews that rip STAR 80 as exploitative trash, misogynistic reductionism, or simply as Fosse’s worst film, a total downer that undercuts all the technical virtuosity and razzle-dazzle of his earlier SWEET CHARITY, CABARET, ALL THAT JAZZ, and even LENNY. “Why would Fosse make such a depressing, cynical, straightforward film about showbiz?” all the criticism seems to moan. Which, to me, indicates none of the critics were paying attention to the downward trajectory such razzle-dazzle took if you view Fosse’s films in chronological order, or the arc of Fosse’s own life. Fosse, for all his creative innovation and accomplishments, was a victim of his own vices, and never saw his characters – self-deluded strivers all – as anything but doomed. Do we really envision a happy ending for Sally Bowles or Charity Hope Valentine? We know what happened to Lenny Bruce, and Fosse’s autobiographical doppelganger, Joe Gideon, ends up flatlining on an emergency room table. The hook of CHICAGO – which Fosse brought to the stage long before Rob Marshall ripped off his style for the film version – is its demonstration that athletic choreography, sexy costumes, and jazz hands can obscure a rather bitter pill. STAR 80 is free of such distractions or disguises, and rather than negating his prior work, serves as the ultimate swan song for a man who fell dead of a heart attack at 60, brought on by a lifetime of drinking, drugging, and womanizing. Is it a bummer? Sure. So is CHINATOWN. So is RAGING BULL. So is THE CONVERSATION. STAR 80 is a tough movie, no mistake, but it was built to be tough. Fosse’s telling of this story was never meant to sparkle. It was meant to chill.
This same type of “You didn’t make the movie we wanted you to make!” grousing greeted the arrival of BABYLON. Critics who loved Chazelle’s LA LA LAND salivated from the first press release over the idea of his fan-boy take on the renegade silent film era. And then the movie dropped. Surprise! Instead of nostalgic, white-washed reverence for the artistry of Hollywood’s pioneers, Chazelle instead chose to focus on their well-documented hedonism, racism, sexism, debauchery, and abuse (substance and otherwise). Critics cried foul, audiences avoided it like the plague, and I found myself finally respecting a Damien Chazelle movie. Just like STAR 80, BABYLON prepares you from its opening frames for what’s ahead. As an elephant gets shoved up a hill to some producer’s nouveau riche estate, shitting on every below-the-line laborer in sight on its way there, we realize this will be no sepia-toned tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age. Is BABYLON fun? Nope. Does it exhibit a singleness of purpose? Boy, does it ever, and one much less full of said elephant dung than something like Chazelle’s earlier WHIPLASH, which argued that verbal and physical abuse is actually a great way to cultivate artistic genius, or LA LA LAND, a two-hour riff on AN AMERICAN IN PARIS’ dream ballet with even less of a plot. (His minor-key, meditative FIRST MAN is not only, to me, his best film, but also an outlier for Chazelle in every way.) When a jaundiced, high-off-his-nut Tobey Maguire leads Diego Calva’s ever-more-disillusioned everyman down into a dungeon of unspeakable entertainments, I was asking myself: how did one-time industry darling Chazelle, the youngest person to win a Directing Oscar, the guy who once filmed an entire freeway of deadlocked commuters literally dancing in the streets, get here? What happened in the six years between the wildly praised LA LA LAND and the utterly reviled BABYLON to make him sour so on the industry? The story of those six years is the celebrity memoir I want to read.
Compared to BABYLON, STAR 80’s curdling of Hollywood ambitions seems downright somber, but no less damning a portrait. For me, STAR 80 began a fascination – obsession? – with the story of awkward Canadian teenager turned glamorous American pinup Dorothy Stratten. I’ve read the Pulitzer Prize-winning Village Voice article on which STAR 80 is based – Teresa Carpenter’s “Death of a Playmate” – many, many times; studied it, really. Carpenter’s feature story frames Dorothy in terms of the three men Carpenter argues used her as fulfillment of their own self-centered dreams: Playboy honcho Hugh Hefner; director Peter Bogdanovich, who was in a romantic relationship with Dorothy at the time of her death; and Paul Snider, the man who “discovered,” managed, and married her, until Dorothy’s career upswing and his controlling, violent jealousy created a rift between them. On August 14th, 1980, Snider locked them both in his bedroom, raped Dorothy, shot her in the head, and then turned the gun on himself.
Carpenter’s story is more merciless and sharp-edged than Fosse’s film, and becomes less about Dorothy than the men in her life. In Fosse’s film, Snider also takes center stage, which is one of the big complaints about STAR 80 that’s difficult to argue with – no matter how empathetic and compelling a presence Mariel Hemingway brings to her characterization of Dorothy – but whatever lack this creates for some viewers is more than made up for in the absolutely mesmerizing performance of Eric Roberts as Paul Snider. I’d go so far as to argue that Roberts’ work here is the single most egregiously ignored by Oscar of the 1980’s: Roberts brings the same vulnerability, brutishness, vanity, insecurity, and bullying, masculine rage to Snider that Marlon Brando brought to Stanley Kowalski. We cringe as Snider makes an ass out of himself in front of Hefner; we pity him when a group of hoods dangle him out a window, causing Snider to vomit all over his new suit; we cower in fear when he lashes out at the one person who really seemed to love him as she slowly but surely – and necessarily – freezes him out. In Roberts’ hands, Snider is a posturing, reactionary loser, one that’s also uncomfortably human, just handsome enough to fool some of the people some of the time, until he doesn’t. Those of us who live in L.A. have all met – or been, or both – this guy. STAR 80 is A STAR IS BORN taken to homicidal, rather than suicidal, extremes. Is it a tragedy, a cautionary tale, or a cold rebuttal of Hollywood myths? I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter, based on Fosse’s prior work. From Weimar Germany to 1980’s Los Angeles, everyone’s putting on a desperate, agenda-driven performance, and none of their stories end well, least of all Dorothy Stratten’s and Paul Snider’s. The ultimate corruption of innocence conveyed by the final moments of STAR 80 completes the downward slide taken by Fosse’s cinematic dreamers: Charity is barely pulled back from the brink by hippies, whose own idealistic days were numbered; Sally doubles down on shoving her head in the sand as fascism rears its own; Lenny OD’s on nihilism and morphine; Joe actively embraces the angel of death as his heart – literally and metaphorically – gives out. Where else was there for Fosse to go?
Even if my story’s never been as violent or destructive as Dorothy’s, there are so many moments in STAR 80 to which I relate as someone trying to make their way into the industry over the last 13 years: the time Dorothy embarrasses herself trying to sound more sophisticated than she really is; the interviews in which she parrots the corporate party lines while a jaded reporter repeats them under his breath; the way those who claim to be on her side diminish, underestimate and refuse to take her seriously despite her sincerity; the slow erosion of her belief that other people have her best interests at heart. There’s a moment in STAR 80 when Dorothy tells Paul that she’s willing to give everything up and go back to Canada, just to have a quiet life again. She wouldn’t, of course, but that idea is still appealing, and certainly is to me after well over a decade spent in frustrated pursuit of a childhood dream. I watch movies like STAR 80 or BABYLON and wonder, “What exactly is it I’m trying to be a part of? And would I even enjoy it if I got to whatever success I fantasize about?” By the time he made STAR 80, I imagine that Fosse was far beyond enjoying anything he’d achieved; if ALL THAT JAZZ is to be believed, the pressure of his position was too much to bear without his storied excesses. STAR 80 may not be the movie his fans – critics and audiences alike – wanted to cap his career. But to me, STAR 80 tells the truth about Hollywood as only someone like Fosse could tell it, no jazz hands allowed.