Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Might Have Been

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been!' "

John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892)
Maud Muller (1856)

No one will ever know if Dorothy Stratten was as talented as some people said — or if she was just another pretty face.

Stratten was a Canadian–born beauty who fell under the spell of a smooth–talking con man, a narcissistic wannabe who peddled her to Playboy magazine. She succeeded there beyond his wildest dreams, becoming Playmate of the Year and getting movie deals. Most of the movies weren't even good enough to be considered B movies, but Stratten got good reviews and her circle of friends widened to include people like director Peter Bogdanovich, who cast her in one of his movies.

She slowly slipped from her boyfriend's grip, which was something he couldn't accept, and he eventually killed her.

Their story was the basis for a TV movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis and a big–screen movie that was released 30 years ago today starring Mariel Hemingway, "Star 80," named for the vanity license plate Stratten's boyfriend selected for her car.

Hemingway was suitably beautiful in the role of Stratten, but, frankly, she was little more than eye candy most of the time. And that may have been the most tragically revealing part of the cinematic account of Stratten's life story. She was completely gullible; most viewers must have felt that they were watching Hemingway convincingly duplicate Stratten's relationship, and that told me everything I really needed to know.

Ultimately I had to conclude that there just wasn't much there there. She might well have been a talented actress, but there were certain relationship issues that always seemed to get in the way.

So maybe Stratten was misunderstood, pigeonholed as an airhead starlet. Or maybe her character really didn't challenge Hemingway sufficiently.

Different matter entirely with Eric Roberts, who played the thoroughly reprehensible boyfriend, Paul Snider. He overwhelmed the story as surely as the man he portrayed must have overwhelmed Stratten — and might have deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance (although he might have deserved a spot on the American Film Institute's list of villains more).

If anyone affiliated with "Star 80" deserved to be nominated for an Oscar, it was director Bob Fosse, but I'm not even sure about that. He was nominated — as he should have been — for "All That Jazz" a few years earlier and for "Lenny" a few years before that, and he won the Oscar for directing "Cabaret." Those were the high points of his directorial career, not "Star 80," which seemed to lack a certain amount of direction.

It often seemed to me that, as grim as Stratten's story was, there was a point to be made, a moral to be learned, somewhere and whatever it was. Fosse just never managed to express it. Maybe Fosse himself didn't know. I sensed that kind of ambiguity in the movie.

For me, it was disappointing that his final film turned out that way.

Make no mistake, though. "Star 80" really packed an emotional punch. Roberts' character clearly used Hemingway's character to climb the social ladder of the Playboy world, and I have often wondered if Snider was more distraught over losing his sense of influence and prestige than he was over losing Stratten, who had fallen in love with Bogdanovich.

Stratten's mother wondered the same thing.
Paul Snider (Eric Roberts): I do love her.

Dorothy's mother (Carroll Baker): What did you say?

Snider: I said I love her.

Dorothy's mother: Funny — I could've sworn you said 'I love IT.'

Snider was the reason why whatever potential Stratten possessed will never be fully realized. That is tragic.

But it is more tragic that what should have been a re–telling of her story was mostly about the man who killed her and what drove him to take her life.

Seen from that perspective, Stratten was victimized twice — first by Snider, then by Fosse.

And we're still no closer to answering the question of what might have been than we were before.