On Aug 14, 1980, Paul Snider shot and killed 20-year-old Dorothy Stratten. He then turned the shotgun on himself.
The murder-suicide did not go unnoticed; Stratten was Playboy’s Playmate of the Year for 1980, after all.
Two movies were spun from the tragedy—a TV-movie starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and Star 80 (in 1983).
As part of my ’80s movies retrospective, Star 80 was a logical next step following The Pope of Greenwich Village (watched earlier this week, but which I haven’t had a chance to blog about). Both feature star-making performances by Eric Roberts (brother of Julia).
In Star 80, he stars as Paul Snider opposite Mariel Hemingway as Stratten. It’s another great performance as Roberts gets under the skin of the oily Snider, but also finds the thin wire of humanity that still exists in his grasping frame.
Hemingway too is wonderful, but in a Mariel Hemingway-esque way—she brings the same vulnerability to the role as she did to her character in Woody Allen‘s Manhattan.
In fact, Hemingway is brilliantly cast as the Vancouver-born-and-raised beauty. Her Dorothy is a lot more sympathetic than the Stratten who appears in this clip from The Tonight Show:
One of the things that I really enjoyed about Star 80 was the Vancouver references. When I first saw it on its release 30 years ago, the city meant nothing to me—I was 18 years old and living in Winnipeg. Now that I live in Vancouver, though, it came alive for me in a whole new way, from the title card reading “Vancouver, B.C.” that introduces the first part of the story, to scenes shot in Vancouver, including a shot of Snider being dangled outside a top-floor window of the Blue Horizon Hotel on Robson and Snider and Stratten’s sister visiting the PNE.
There’s also a line in the movie: “You know what, you’re not that girl from Vancouver anymore.” As my girlfriend pointed out, this took place pre-Expo 86, when the city was still a town, or regarded as such.
The movie was partly based on “Death of a Playmate”, a story that ran in the Village Voice in Nov 1980. Written by Teresa Carpenter, the story is the worst kind of yellow journalism, using conjecture (no sources are cited) to fill in the gaps between facts and taking on a self-serving, judgmental tone.
Even worse, Carpenter gets facts wrong. It’s obvious she never came to Vancouver to research the story. Here’s this farcical statement: “Snider grew up in Vancouver’s East End, a tough area steeped in machismo.” Well, for starters, it’s the “East Side”, and unless he grew up around Main and Hastings, lady, you’re just talking out of your ass.
Carpenter also quotes an unnamed source who is apparently one of a gang called the “Rounder Crowd”: “‘He never touched [the drug trade],’ said one Rounder who knew him then.” Give me a break.
Unbelievably, Carpenter wasn’t bounced out of the publishing industry after this piece of shit writing. In fact, she won a Pulitzer Prize. Check out her Wiki page if you don’t believe me.
However, Star 80 is an excellent, affecting film. For his last movie, writer/director Bob Fosse (All That Jazz, Cabaret) managed to turn a sensational story into a sympathetic portrait of both Stratten and even of Snider, without ever letting the latter off the hook. In Star 80, Snider has no back-story; with Roberts in the role, he doesn’t need one.
The story doesn’t end there, not quite.
Director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon; also an actor, a psychologist in The Sopranos, among other roles) cast Stratten in his movie They All Laughed (1981). During filming he hooked up with her, and after her death even wrote a book, The Killing of the Unicorn (“a bizarre, unclassifiable book,” according to one goodreads.com reviewer). He went on to marry Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise Stratten. A sometime-actress, Louise’s most recent role was as a saloon girl in Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained.
While researching this story, I also dug up some interesting info on one of the photographers whose pics of Stratten attracted Hugh Hefner‘s attention. Vancouver photog Alex Waterhouse-Hayward wrote this blog post about Ken Honey, who was basically the Vancouver stringer for Playboy and helped discover Pamela Anderson and future Mrs. Hefner, Kimberley Conrad. In this blog post about Honey, you can see a photo of Stratten with Vancouver music potentate Bruce Allen (Bryan Adams‘ manager).