A Star is Dead: Remembering Dorothy Stratten

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I’ve listened to all the episodes of the popular Hollywood history podcast “You Must Remeber This” without watching any of the movies that host, Karina Longworth, brings up. The past season of Dead Blondes has discussed some fascinating actresses with legendary careers and tragic deaths from icons like Marylin Monroe to forgotten starlets like Peg Entwistle. The final episode struck a cord with me though, the story of the brief stardom of Dorothy Stratten, a Playboy Playmate turned actresses who was murdered in the most horrendous of circumstances. It’s a story of exploitation, domestic abuse and the seedier side of Hollywood a la Boogie Nights. Maybe it stuck out because it plays out more like a “My Favorite Murder” episode than a “You Must Remember This”, for all you podcast nerds out there. It’s gory, graphic and salacious like many of the true crimes Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discuss on that show and their catchphrase “fuck politeness” would have proved quite applicable to Stratten who was trapped in an abusive relationship almost out of obligation. Maybe my interest stems from it being is a Hollywood story, that I may have driven by the home where she was murdered on my way to the west side. Or most likely, that her life was adapted into a movie by Bob Fosse titled Star 80 and after I happened to watch All That Jazz last week, this biopic jumped out at me as one of Fosse’s final films. Here is where the first time a “You Must Remeber This” episode prompted me to actually dive deeper, at least in the form of Star 80.

It’s surreal watching this movie immediately after listening to Karina’s in-depth, well-researched retelling. Everything see says is played out directly on screen but with the creative flourishes of Fosse, of course. The narrative is semi-straight forward, beginning with Stratten in her hometown of British Columbia then being swept away to Hollywood and her demise but it’s not her perspective. This is a movie told through many perspectives, those who knew her, those who loved her and primarily Paul Snider, the husband that killed her. Throughout the progression, the film jumps to either talking head interviews with acquaintances, Stratten recounting her own experiences to reporters during her Playboy heyday and to Snider’s final hours as he releases his verbal and physical rage towards a dead Stratten. Fosse is bringing a documentary authenticity to the narrative, making it all the more brutal as it’s a constant reminder that this all indeed happened. Assisting that is the film’s refusal to shy away from the brutality. Movies of the 1980’s have never been the shining beacon of feminism and abusive relationships were not treated with the gravity they deserve so the fact that Snider’s manipulation and exploitation of a young woman is depicted as pure evil which is vindicating. I still was genuinely shocked when the film does major alluding to the fact that Snider raped her post-mortem which I was horrified to hear on the podcast, let alone see the set up to him doing so in a movie made in 1983.

What really sells this story aside from Fosse knowing how to construct a tension-filled arc are the performances of Eric Roberts and Mariel Hemmingway. I never thought I’d be praising music video actor Eric Roberts but his Snider is chilling. He is sleazy, self-obsessed and fiercely jealous and it scares the shit out of you. As a grown woman, of course, I finding him shady and repulsive but when he hits on a young 17-year-old Stratten at a Dairy Queen, you understand what would appeal to her. It’s a tight Eric Roberts’ bod offering her the world on a platter, a promise of getting out of Canada even if it means coaxing her into photographing nude. He has that charm that would make a young girl fall for this older man. One of the few things Karina mentions about Star 80 was that Hemmingway was criticized for treating Stratten like a bimbo and I couldn’t disagree more. Her presentation plays like the child that she is thrown into a very adult situation. At times she doesn’t know the answer to questions when we cut to those interviews but I read that as naive and overwhelmed than a dumb blonde stereotype. I like this performance because it is a reminder that she was a child, a Playmate at 19 and dead by 20. Hemmingway plays that innocence as well as the progression to the more mature woman who decides to confront Snider post break up, though it was a poor decision in itself to do so.

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Karina remarks that Hugh Hefner despised his portrayal in the movie too, here played by a leathery Cliff Robertson. It’s not particularly scathing especially considering it never broaches the subject that he slept with Stratten or as stated in Peter Bogdonavich’s book “The Killing of the Unicorn” that Hefner raped Stratten during her stay at the famed mansion. The movie is more a criticism of the objectification of women perpetrated by Playboy. In the movie during one of the returned to interviews Stratten herself says “Playboy’s motto is the girl next door, they look for girls who are wholesome, fresh, young and naive” which is equating that Hefner’s company tactics are not too different from Sniders. Fosse bombards the screen with the pinup images of a semi-nude Stratten, often inferring that these are the images that Snider is obsessing over as we see them plastered all over his apartment. Even though he brought her into this world of voyeurism, he is also a part of it and with all these photos made specifically for men to gawk at, it’s no wonder he interprets her as an item made to please him and now is reluctant to let go.

It’s important that Dorothy Stratten’s story lives on as devastating as it was. The next year would show the release of the battered wife expose TV movie The Burning Bed which was a smash hit for NBC and an even more iconic portrayal maybe because the woman comes out victorious. Watching this also reminded me of the underrated Lovelace biopic of Linda Lovelace, an eerily similar case of a possessive husband who pressured wife Linda Lovelace into a pornstar career, starring in Deep Throat. These movies are so moving and effective because they’re all true stories. There’s no need to make this up because these horrid narratives occur daily and these adaptations are valuable in term of awareness of domestic violence both psychologically and physically. I was shocked that I was unaware of Stratten account until now but by means of films, podcasts and whatever medias exist in the future that she never got to experience, we can keep her memory alive.

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The Vintage Dives Into The Abyss

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If you’re a fellow Blankie like me, you’re probably spending the month of October revisiting the films of James Cameron as host Griffin and David embark on their mini-series of the director’s distinguished career. Even though so far I’ve skipped out on The Terminator since I rewatched those last year in preparation for Genisys, I gladly dusted off my quadrilogy to watch Aliens and followed that up with an inaugural viewing of The Abyss. I’m embarrassed to admit as an open-minded viewer that I was unfairly pessimistic going into this one. Originally I had lived most of my life assuming this 1989 feature had something to do with the Ghosts of the Abyss, the 2003 doc in which Cameron attempts a dangerous undersea expedition to find the sunken Titanic. I saw this reportedly “must-see” 3D event at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg, the only IMAX in Central Pennsylvania at the time, and was sorely disappointed that it was in no way as great as the illustrious romance/murder by sea fest that is Titanic. As I grew in my film education I learned that The Abyss has little to do with the series of deep sea diving docs and rather is a narrative manifestation of Cameron’s true passion: the sea. I was still skeptical of this movie because considering Cameron is such a titan of the screen, why was this one so often omitted in conversations of his work. No one has ever hyped The Abyss which is my defense of remaining so ignorant. I wasn’t expecting it to be bad because bad is exciting, bad is funny. I was worried about it being bland. For a nearly three-hour running time, bland is a death sentence. Thankfully, after sitting down and watching it on a medium sized TV screen, the exact opposite of the director’s intention, I realized it’s not bad or bland, it’s just derivative. Cameron rips off himself in this submarine sci-fi adventure.

The story begins with the mysterious sinking of an American submarine that requires a nearby oil platform to search for the wreckage. Our introduction to this crew headed “Bud” (Ed Harris) is a mix of both the Alien movie tropes. These sweaty, blue-collar riggers look as over worked the crew of the Nostromo and are militant about their contracts but the crew of the Deep Core amass the energy and enthusiasm of the Marines aboard the Sulaco. Everyone has got their nickname and quirky attribute, “One Night” is a cowgirl, “Hippie” has a pet rat, a bunch of them are southern, etc. Boarding the oil platform for this mission is Bud’s estranged wife Lindsey (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) who’s playing the Ripley role, present as the expert since she designed this rig. The antagonist that joins her is Cameron favorite Michael Biehn as Lieutenant Coffey sporting an atrocious mustache to indicate his villainy. He and is two Navy Seal companions are there to oversee the findings and more nefariously, rescue the warheads carried by the sub. This is unbeknownst to the crew much like Paul Reiser’s plans to bring back a xenomorph, an equally deadly weapon. I’m less bothered by the character similarities and more by the general aesthetic. This feels like a movie meant to be set in space but due to the obsession with the mysteries of the deep, the plot is dropped underwater. You look at the high-tech diving suits, the enormous isolated ships, the impaired gravity of the outside, the ALIENS! Cameron is trying to convince you that water is as interesting as space and we all know that’s not true. It’s a valiant effort but no one is swayed. It feels like an interest that is being forced on me by delivering it in the Aliens shaped way I liked it the first time. I don’t like being tricked as if I’m a child being told to take my medicine. If you’re going to make a submarine movie, make a U-571 or Down the Periscope, just try something different. It’s too easy for Cameron to duplicate his own blue print.

With that major detractor out of the way, we can talk about how this movie is also ripping off Close Encounters of the Third King. It’s bizarre to see the director of the Terminator add such a family friendly spin to these aquatic extraterrestrials. That being said this is in no way a family film. There are some unsettling deaths involving hypothermia and drowning which are more haunting than any cinematic shark attack. The otherworldly side plot was actually the least interesting as I found myself more invested in exploring the vessel ruins and the psychosis Lt. Coffey undergoes as he succumbs to high-pressure nervous syndrome. The human relationships were more engaging than the infrequent interactions with the robotic glowing bodies. For as much as I was enjoying this movie, when my streaming platform paused to buffer following the gruesome death of Coffey, I nearly broke the remote in frustration when I noticed there was still 50 minutes to go. I was upset because I knew those 50 minutes were going to be alien shit that I didn’t want. I would have been pleased with an early wrap-up but we had to save the aliens or something. The film gets too preachy with these kumbaya beings that want everyone especially humans to get along in a tone that none of his other films will harbor till Avatar. It’s not that I want all aliens to be xenomorphs (though that would be dope) but there’s no character to what’s in The Abyss. The single time they’re intriguing is when they manifest as a water tentacle that looks identical to the liquid metal of the T-1000. They’re more of a spectacle for the people in the movie than the viewers on the other side.

This is the blank check movie for Cameron, though most of his career feels like a series of successful blank checks, this is the one you can only make after two massive successes. It’s a movie of a guy who couldn’t wait to share his love of the sea. It also becomes the most personal film of his filmography because you see a different love falling apart. He and producer/collaborator Gale Anne Hurd were going through a divorce and you can feel that anger with every piece of bickering dialogue between Bud and Lindsey. Their arc is realizing how much they mean to each other but the film relentlessly has characters refer to Lindsey as a “bitch”, a title that is a bit too harsh for a woman just doing her job. The extratextual material blending with perfected formulas proven by Cameron garner an odd place in his filmography. It’s at least more exciting than an oceanic doc. I wouldn’t oppose more midnight screenings of Abyss because sometimes we need a break from the classics. Not a lot of exciting cosplay involved but it would make it kosher to take your pet rat to the theater.

Barf Me To Hell: Top 5 Eating Disorder Movies

Mental health is a hard subject to broach in a cinema. Unless you’re a schizophrenic math genius or an attractive guy with manic mood swings, mental illnesses are internal and not very constructive for a visual medium. The subject of an eating disorder is even more marginalized because it’s firstly a women’s issue and secondly it sounds so overdramatic thanks to its rise of awareness in the 70’s after school special era. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder since the age of 14 (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS) if you want to be technical) I completely understand that perception. It feels like the most first world of problems where either you have food available and refuse to eat it or see all that food and can’t stop consuming it. You’re ashamed that you can’t manage the most basic of human needs. The stigmas makes it even more guilt-ridden which is why I’ve gravitated to the few films willing to talk about it. These aren’t revolutionary movies that changed the perceptions of these disorders but smart enough to weave it into their stories in humor or solidarity which is what makes them remarkable for me.

5. Drag Me to Hell (2009)

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I’ve never quite warmed to this cult classic as I’m not much of a Raimi fan (or a Dead Head, is that the term?) with its projectile vomit and eye ball popping but I do respect it. Originally it was purely because of its bleak ending that lived up to the title. Since then thanks to the incredibly well researched academic horror podcast, The Faculty of Horror, who shed light on the theory that this movie about young banker, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) who is being haunted not by a curse but a rather nasty eating disorder. There’s an oral fixation theme as flies and cats exit characters’ mouths and an old gypsy woman tries to sink her teeth into our heroine. Most telling is Christine’s overweight childhood flashbacks and her tendency to stare longingly into a pastry shop. I’m impressed with Raimi sneaking such a heavy message into a gross out horror comedy. As this is a subject matter that often pertains more to women it actually feels less of a male gaze “final girl” scenario and back to the roots of horror being an allegory for real issues.

4. Heathers (1988)

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Bulimia is the least of students’ worries at Westerburg High when teens start dropping like flies with Draino overdoses and homoerotic murder/suicides. Being a Heather is all about rising to the top of the popularity chain and sometimes you have to off a few people to get there. Part of maintaining that status is looking the part and Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty) who becomes crowned Queen Bee is not so secretively a bulimic. In one of the many memorable quips of this movie Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) remarks into the bathroom mirror “Bulimia is so ’87.” It’s made even more clear of Duke’s fear as she denies having any connection with her former best friend, now overweight high schooler Martha “Dumptruck” (Carrie Lynn). This doesn’t help you sympathize with Duke’s plight but expands upon her character who rather be skinny and idolized than fat and happy with one true friend. As a dark comedy, this is probably the kindest way Heathers could address this 80’s “fad”.

3. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)

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Dolls are scary. Dolls dying of malnutrition is even scarier. There’s an undercurrent of unease throughout this rarely seen short partially because blank faced Barbies expounding about the price of fame is rightfully unsettling but also because you know the fate that awaits the molded plastic singer. Hearing the inanimate object say “I like the way I look” still gives me the chills. It may sound melodramatic and silly but Todd Haynes’ mix media film which includes archival 1970’s footage and title cards, gives it substantial artistic gravity. Plus as we all know now, Haynes loves the melodrama and because he’s such an aficionado of the genre there’s immense passion in the filmmaking. It’s obviously a startling watch with its truthfulness being delivered by innocent toys and yet the most inventive way to present a bio pic as well as a “scared straight” video.

2. God Help The Girl (2014)

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Completely unfamiliar with the titular album or Belle & Sebastian’s body of work, I was blown away by the mod musical which put visuals to the conceptual songs. It’s catchy as hell and beautifully captures Glasgow while making homage to the Beatles films of the 60’s. In its tranquil, twee fashion main character, young runaway Eve (Emily Browning), is a girl escaping to the big city during her hospitalization for anorexia. Director and band mate Stuart Murdoch perfectly encapsulates the emotions of a teenage girl lusting after boys and freedom paired with the persistent nature of the disorder. Eve tries to evade her illness that finds its way into song lyrics like “Musician, Please Take Heed” or impedes her normal abilities of having energy to go and have fun. Amongst the themes of friendship and self worth, Eve must come to terms with the need to get better and returns to the hospital to complete her recovery. It’s a genuine portrayal of what it’s like to carry on your day to day with the lingering anxieties of food and weight while still trying to have a good time.

1. Girl, Interrupted (1999)

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There was a period of time in middle school where I would sight this Oscar bait drama set in a mental hospital as my favorite film. Years later I would realize the bizarre similarities between the film’s narrative and my own life. First, Interrupted was filmed in my home town of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania primarily at the State Hospital. While the source material is Susanna Kaysen’s memoir of her stint in a Massachusetts’ psychiatric ward the movie never states its location but director James Mangold’s shots of the capital building and Market Street Bridge is all the proof I need. Secondly, I spent time in a hospital for my eating disorder when I was a freshman in high school. My story differs in the details as it was not a mental facility but for the more health complications of my disorder and I didn’t get to be the cool protagonist played by Winona Ryder but rather the binge and purge type that is Daisy (Brittany Murphy) sans her darker secrets. When I first saw this film and in subsequent rewatches, I didn’t understand Daisy’s odd behavior of hiding food and refusing to eat in front of others till I exhibited these mannerisms myself. These coincidences are what continue my deeper connection to this movie and also makes it harder to watch. It’s still fascinating as an account of how women’s health was viewed in the 60’s when anorexics and bulimics were thrown in with the insane. It’s also an accurate encapsulation of what the surreal environment of a prolonged hospital stay is like. Maybe if I had known the path my life was going to take, 12 year old me would have taken better notes.

The Vintage Revisits: Purple Rain

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Purple Rain is an amazing concert film that has a bunch of unnecessary plot thrown into it. I’ve never been too familiar with Prince or his music but I always knew this movie as iconic and just from the opening you can feel it. He’s a fascinating performer from his general flamboyant look to his oversexed demeanor, he’s all you want in a star. This opening as well as the best parts of the film are the music video moments whether that be him fronting his band The Revolution intercut with decked out 80’s fans or abstract montages underscored with a hit song. The rough patches are the acting from nearly everyone, the mellow dramatic story and the objectifying of women.

I was very confused by the basic dynamics of this movie which I think broken down is about the rocky romance of The Kid (Prince) and Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) and his rivalry between headlining singer Morris Day (playing himself). Both these plots have very unclear trajectories and unsatisfying resolutions. Morris Day and the Time are supposed to be the big band and The Revolution are the underdogs but as we’ve seen from the musical prologue everyone seems to love them, we only have Morris and the club’s manager Billy (Billy Sparks) telling us that they’re not pulling a crowd. Also Prince looks like Prince so you assume he’s famous because he dresses so gaudy and has a killer ride. It’s not until he drives home that we find out he lives in an abusive environment with a violent father. The Kid and Apollonia’s relationship is very clunky mostly because neither of them can sell a line of dialogue. They become an item so quickly and equally so fall apart because her goal is to become famous and that chance comes with alining with Morris. The solution to both of these conflicts comes after the attempted suicide of The Kid’s father inspiring him to write the heart wrenching song “Purple Rain” which is so perfect, everything is fixed.

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This movie is enjoyable in its badness though because it’s so sincere. It’s played straight faced like the MTV music videos of the day that made up weak narratives to fit a song. The 80’s aesthetic is entrancing with the big hair and even bigger outfits. I couldn’t tell who was supposed to be well dressed because everyone looked ridiculous. The film jumps back and forth between being serious and comedic that you can never tell what to expect. It’s directing style leans towards drama but the over the top performance by Day and right hand man Jerome (Jerome Benton) are pure comic relief and the extremely sensual sex scenes elicited giggles from me. I did find myself uncomfortable with the treatment of women. Not that any character is well written but Apollonia spends most of the movie naked or in lingerie and gets hit more than once. I realize the film is trying to convey the message “maybe it’s not ok to abuse women” but Day does put a woman in a dumpster that is meant for a laugh and The Kid tricks Apollonia into taking her clothes off to pass his “initiation”. These moments reflect women more as objects than people. Apollonia is rough to root for has she has little agency of her own and does what the men tell her. There’s a bad ass lesbian duo in The Revolution, Wendy and Lisa, that stand up to The Kid’s bullshit and even write their own music (did they write “Purple Rain”?) but in one on stage performance guitarist Wendy, who is supposed to be angry with The Kid, mimics a blow job on his guitar. It seems out of character and not something I wanted to see.

This film made me really understand why Prince was so adored. He is a musical genius as every song in this film deserves to be a hit and he’s electric on stage. I don’t find him sexy but the other women in the theater were fawning over his hip thrusting moves. I appreciate him more as a unique human expression. He’s a weird looking short dude with long curly locks and an obsession with flowy shirts and the color purple. I’m glad he elevated this glam R&B of the 80’s and that there’s this strange film to pair with it. I may not love this movie because I lack the nostalgic connection or infatuation with his music but it’s an encapsulation of the time, all the good and bad that entails. We’ll never see something like this made today and that’s kind of special.

RIP Prince but Jerome, you can get it.

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