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Paul Snider is a narcissistic, small time hustler who fancies himself a ladies man. His life changes when he meets Dorothy Stratten working behind the counter of a Dairy Queen. Dorothy is a pretty but naive high school senior. Paul immediately falls for Dorothy, who sees in Paul a wise, worldly person unlike herself. Paul believes Dorothy is Playboy material, the magazine he sees as only a springboard to bigger and better things. Paul's dream does become a reality: not only does Dorothy eventually marry him, she becomes the August 1979 Playboy Playmate and ultimately Playboy Playmate of 1979, which does indeed lead to the start of an acting career. As Dorothy's star rises, Paul's life is one of a hanger-on as those in Dorothy's new circle, including Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner and movie director Aram Nicholas, don't much like Paul. Paul is unable to eke out a life of his own without using Dorothy's name, which she increasingly is reluctant to provide to her husband. Those that know ... Written by
Before Boogie Nights or 54 there was Star 80. Star 80 is similar to these latter-made films in that it charts the rise and fall of a beautiful and naive youth. But much more so than those films, Star 80 is a dark film, saturated with the seething decadence of 1970s shag-carpeted hip celebrity culture. The film itself is not so blatantly pulse pounding in that head-tripping disco style characteristic of the 1970s, but it certainly evokes that feeling. The Southern California setting of the film pulsates in its strip joints and private duplexes, but our view of it, through the filmmakers' perspective, does not. We remain all-too aware of the conclusion of the film and fate of Dorothy Stratten. The filmmakers, to their credit, rouse our imaginations of the hip LA nightlife, by not revealing too much of the underbelly. The sense of displacement for both the doomed heroine, who is from Canada, and the audience is evoked by such cinematic techniques as scene-crossing voice-overs, still-image montages, and back-flashes. When the filmmakers let us see shots of a naked Playboy Bunny's corpse and let us hear her sweet, soft voice at the same time, the visual-aural juxtaposition is unsettling to our sense of continuity. We hate what we see, but like what we here. Even with the film's explicit nudity and outright sexual overtures, there is still a sense of unexplored quarters behind the glitzy veneer of Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion and LA's raunchy strip clubs. For example, Paul Snider is portrayed as the self-destructive lover/shadow to Dorothy Stratten, but little is known about his personal history. We get only casual remarks about his imprudent personality and of course what we see of him when he walks and talks onscreen. We, like the characters around him, must infer the rest about Paul Snider. The surface of the film is that there is no smooth surface, just a dark brooding landscape filled with the nooks and crannies of human emotion. Only a film this textural would resist painting Hugh Hefner in a superficial manner like the public media persona that precedes him. Underneath the silken pajamas and smug look of this sultan of playboys is a man who seems every bit as seedy as Paul Snider is. But money and confidence apparently can wash away a lot of dirt. For example, when Hugh Hefner silently refuses to entertain Paul's "business" ideas, we get a peek at how a highly self-assured man avoids engaging a darker mirror image of himself. The final scene is tragic, depressing and truly the antithesis of a traditional denouement; no tension is relieved. That's pretty amazing considering that the audience knows from the opening shot how the film will end. The scene is elaborately played out with Paul plummeting to the nadir of his obsession, plastering the walls of his apartment with glossy, air-brushed images of Dorothy Stratten in order to create some sort of sacrificial shrine for the young maiden. His altar, a homemade "workout" bench, introduced earlier in the film hints at his creepy, unplumbed psychology and perverse desire for control. If Star 80 had been made today, the final scene would have been portrayed in a trashy, over-dramatized "re-enactment" like those from the tabloid television shows. Star 80, which was made in the early 1980s, seems to have a more organic feel of its subject than Boogie Nights or 54. Because these films were made by jaded and introspective perceptions of the 1990s, it's reasonable to assume they don't have the immediacy and grasp that Star 80 has over the 1970s. It's much easier to make a film shortly after a certain time period when the era has been lived through and digested into the cultural subconscious. Although this is true for Boogie Nights and 54, the mood isn't as easily drawn out onto film because the interim gestation period was much longer than for Star 80. After all, civilization has recently persevered through the 1980s and most of 1990s both painfully and triumphantly. On the scale of time, this difference is insignificant, but the cultural gaps between the time of disco and the time of DVD are mind-bending.
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