john cribbs

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Today marks the 30th anniversary of the murder, which was sort of a grisly combination of the crimes I've covered in this series so far. Like Dominique Dunne, Stratten was murdered by a jealous lover who, like Rebecca Schaeffer's killer, had turned into her stalker. It was a violent crime committed within intimate quarters by a family member (shades of Susan Cabot) and caused a stir in the Hollywood community almost the scale of the Helter Skelter assaults of an August weekend eleven years earlier, a crime in which the victim was also involved with a famous film director. The difference is that Stratten's killer, Paul Snider, turned the shotgun on himself, making him the only murderer of this seven part series not to survive to this day (of the others, three are in prison, two have since been released, one has been sentenced but is trying to worm his way out on account of being a celebrity). He also happened to be the man who started Stratten on her path to fame, plucking her from behind a Wendy's counter in Vancouver to pose as for nude photos. He sent the pictures to Playboy, they selected her as a centerfold and eventually Playmate of the Year, the couple moved to Los Angeles together where she started getting acting offers, appearing in five movies in her two short years at the top, two small appearances and three featured roles. In less than a year she had gone from "girl at the snack bar" in Skatetown USA - a disco epic directed by the auteur behind Blackenstein and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington featuring Scott Baio, Billy Barty, Marcia Brady, the Unknown Comic and Horshack - to headlining the tedious B-movie Galaxina.

Galaxina isn't really even worth talking about, but I should anyway since I actually sat through it. In the wake of Star Wars, a number of imitators appeared on television and the big screen that attempted to find that same middle ground of nostalgia for old space serials and sensibilities of the late 70's and early 80's. So we got Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Battlestar: Galactica, Starcrash, Megaforce, Ice some point each of these projects reached a point where it was clear that the attempt had conclusively failed, and the producers were forced to throw in some goofy self-awareness to convince audiences that they weren't actually being serious all along. Galaxina falls squarely in that category, except that when it was clear the film wasn't working as a serious sci fi adventure the filmmakers tried turning it into a flat-out comedy. It's hard to say which of the two genres the film most defiantly fails to capture: I guess it depends how funny you think the name "Cornelius Butt" is. There's a long progression as the ship passes in the opening Star Wars crawl, but it's not as funny as when Mel Brooks did it in fact, Spaceballs' version of the joke almost seems like a parody of this unsatisfying gag, taking it to the next level where it actually resembles a joke. A few more clunkers include a cannibal ordering a "skin and tonic," a spikey-eared alien named Mr. Spoct (sic) and a recurring bit repeated ad nauseum where somebody says a certain phrase which cues a dramatic blare of music that causes the characters to look around searching for the source of the non-diegetic disturbance. Hilarious!

Having previously appeared on Buck Rogers as "Miss Cosmos," Stratten must have seemed a natural choice to play the lead fembot, "among the heavenly bodies, the most heavenly body of all!" As in They All Laughed, she's most effective for the first half of the film where she's silent, tooling around the space ship wearing spandex, a wig and a blank expression as the men gawk at her plastic figure lasciviously. As the crew hibernate for several years she learns how to have emotions and falls in love with Thor, the ship's pilot. In this world it's forbidden for space police to fraternize with machines (and they apparently never saw the anti-robot dating propaganda film from "Futurama") but the two decide to hook up anyway, a decision that has no consequences and serves the plot in no way whatsoever. The only detail of Galaxina even worth mentioning is that Thor is played by Stephen Macht, who went on to become the dad in Monster Squad (and real-life dad of American Outlaws' Gabriel Macht) and give a spectacular camp performance in the underappreciated Graveyard Shift. Also the cinematography was by Dean Cundey, John Carpenter's cameraman. Then of course there was Stratten's death, which gave the film's underwhelming box office a slight boost before it petered out into merciful obscurity. 

Stratten's murder had the exact opposite effect on They All Laughed. Studios wouldn't touch the film, convinced that the crime would have a negative impact on the movie's box office, so Bogdanovich bought the negative and distributed it himself only to lose millions of dollars and file for backrupcy when it opened to tepid numbers. It's interesting to come upon a film viewed for this series that actually suffered from the tragic murder of its actress: Stratten's death really did result in the death of the film as well. Whether or not it was the movie's association with the crime that caused the public to stay away or simply one of the usual reasons (poor marketing, lack of an A-list star etc) is up for debate, but its reception was certainly dismal: for one thing, it wasn't included in the 150 movies Pauline Kael reviewed for the New Yorker between 1980 and 1982 (although it was #11 on Andrew Sarris' best movie list of 1981). Bogdanovich's career was more or less subsequently ruined, and arguably his artistic ability would never reach the same heights. His next movie was the excreable Mask four years later, followed by an unsuccessful attempt to recapture They All Laughed's smitten Ritter-Stratten romance story with Illegally Yours (where he miscast Colleen Camp as the dreamgirl) and a critically-panned sequel to Last Picture Show; furthermore his TV adaptation of Michael Frayn's Noises Off failed to tap into the manic joy of They All Laughed, with Christopher Reeve's* flailing about not on par with Ritter's charming physical comedy. The country music-themed stinker The Thing Called Love signaled a hiatus that ended with 2001's made for TV movie The Cat's Meow, which temporarily brought its director some of his former glory. It's easy to dislike if not outright hate Bogdanovich** for his past arrogance, his treatment of Polly Platt, his neckerchief...but at the same time the critic-turned-classic movie referencing filmmaker is arguably the American director whose early career most resembles the French New Wave autuers. And he made some good movies. Saint Jack is the masterpiece (although I'll cop to having never seen all of Last Picture Show and - understandably - none of Daisy Miller or At Long Last Love), but They All Laughed is possibly even more underrated. Like Cimino's Heaven's Gate, Coppola's One from the Heart and Friedkin's Cruising, it's one of those perceived "death of the New Hollywood" disasters that's much better than its initial reputation - like Cruising, it's a genuinely great movie, by far the best I watched for this series and a great find in general (it's also recently been given cred from folks like Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson).

The sincerity of the film comes from the director's relationship with Stratten, a twist of fate that would regrettably incense Snider's maniacal jealousy and indirectly lead to her death. It's hard to watch the muted scenes of domestic trouble between Stratten and her character's husband in the movie without feeling a little quesy at the real-life parallels. The movie is dedicated to her (in an unfortunate coincidence the dedication appears over a shot of the looming World Trade Center; a prophetic connection between personal tragedy and city-wide disaster that makes the film even more bittersweet to sit through) and clearly benefits from her youthful enthusiasm and liveliness. It's a shame that the harmless stalking that takes place in the picture would prove so deadly in reality. Her death inspired a self-indulgent book by Bogdanovich called The Killing of the Unicorn, a TV movie with Jamie Lee Curtis, not one but two songs by Bryan Adams and Bob Fosse’s feature film Star 80, starring Mariel Hemingway as Stratten and Eric Roberts as Paul Snider, the third part in the director's loose trilogy about art and death.

Star 80 manages to avoid sentimentalism by charging it head-on. If a sudden cut from the bloody scene of a crime to the bright, smiling image of the dead girl at the apex of her life can serve only trite bathos, Fosse's going to make sure he does it three dozen times in one scene. He blatantly assaults the audience with flashes of Stratten's Playboy pictorials, examining them luridly while daring the viewer to do the same: to find eroticism in the magnificent body that we know will be destroyed. It's not an attempt to lay guilt on the viewer, but to try and get the audience in the same morbid mindset as the director, for whom in his last three films every act of creation or beauty was a gateway to self-destruction. In Lenny, a radical mind slowly deteriorates from the comedian's battles against censorship which lead to the drug habit that will ultimately destroy him totally; in All That Jazz it's the same kind of "artistic sacrifice," with Roy Scheider's choreographer/director/Fosse counterpart Joe Gideon pushing himself to the brink of a fatal heart attack with pills and alcohol consumed to fuel his intense work ethic (an annihilative indulgence in sex is also worked into both films). Fosse makes the same connection with Stratten - her beauty is her art and she dies for it, a sacrifice that recalls the passage from A Farewell to Arms etched into Stratten's grave: "If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them. So of course it kills them."

It’s a weird coincidence that 22-year-old Mariel Hemingway, whose grandfather’s words adorn Stratten’s tombstone, was the one chosen to play Stratten. If there was a "Most Flattering Cinematography" Oscar that year it would have gone to Sven Nykvist - the man who'd given such luminous tone to the suffering skin of Bergman's heroines employed his pattened close-ups to bring Stratten's soft beauty out in Hemingway (she had appeared in her own Playboy spread in 1982 following Personal Best, and underwent breast enlargement surgery for the role in Fosse's film). She does a serviceable job in the movie, which is to say she offers no performance beyond imitating Stratten's soft speech but absolutely nails the actress/model's radiant stillness; Nykvist films her with the glow of a ghost haunting her own life leading up to her final torturous moments. Pre-knowledge of her murder makes every smile ironic, like that real-life Johnny Carson interview with Stratten where, after she recounts the way Snider discovered her at a Dairy Queen, Carson notes "Like something you’d see in a movie!" (the meeting is reenacted in Fosse’s film). The murder scene is weird and uncomfortable in an elusive way I can't quite access: Hemingway's Stratten seems to anticipate her death and marches toward it more out of sadness than apprehension or concern for her own safety. Like Fosse, she seems to pity Snider and appears almost to offer herself up as a sacrificial lamb to his wallowing self-hatred.

"Pity" might not be the right word, but one thing's for sure: Fosse wasn’t so much interested in making a movie about Stratten as he was making one about Paul Snider. The director even confided in Eric Roberts that he looked at Snider as what he could have potentially become if he had failed to make it in show business. At the beginning of the movie Stratten is vanquished on the floor but Snider continues to move about the room, monologuing frantically at his victim's corpse and himself in the mirror like a sweaty shirtless Travis Bickle. His level of narcissism and delusion has reached such a level that he's still trying to sell himself and justify his crime to an empty room, a passionate closing statement more honest than the detached, anonymous talking heads that appear throughout the movie. While he in no way paints Snider as a likable character, Fosse sympathizes with his indignity and the humiliation he suffers at being snubbed by industry types as his role in Stratten's career becomes increasingly marginalized. If she can get by on her looks, why can't he get by on her looks? If he's all flair and personality and she's a cold fish, why does he fail to gain the same level of attention? He took the pictures, he sent them into the magazine - all she did was strip when he asked her to. Favoring the intense and emotional Snider over a comparatively dull, inarticulate Stratten might seem like Fosse flirting with misogyny, but since it's Snider's movie you have to assume all the perceptions are through his envious eyes (his bisexuality, a real life charateristic of Snider's, is as veiled in the film as Gideon/Fosse's was in All That Jazz). That it's so easy for Snider to crush something he insists he created makes it a true murder-suicide" and, more than being a story about an unassuming girl next door who rises to the top only to be shattered, the film makes Snider the true self-destructive force who mutilates his "work of art" before destroying himself.

Fosse's movie is as despairing and hopeless as They All Laughed is vibrant and charming. There's something about it that's onerously vile beyond its staging of Snider's reprehensible act. Edited by Alan Heim (who also cut All That Jazz), it assaults us with images of the crime scene, close-ups of brain matter, bloodstained shots of a smiling Stratten, a fatal blast of the shotgun that may be one of the most celestially violent images ever in a movie. Part of it feels like a cynical ploy on Fosse's part to punish viewers' fascination with the sensationalistic aspect of the case - "oh you're only interested in the murder? well here ya go!" - but more likely it all comes from Fosse's own obsession with death. He focuses on the seedy nature of the crime, introducing a work bench that's been converted into a sexual apparatus by Snider at a barbeque with friends who are appalled by the redesigned piece of furniture; the bench that will play an indescribably vile role in the murder. Fosse becomes like Jim Garrison, going over the Zapruder film over and over anticipating the moment where the head explodes with a mix of horror and enthrallment. To add to the eeriness factor, Fosse shot the murder scene in the same bedroom as the actual crime (my guess is that no actors were asking for motivation that day). Yet there's something humanistic in the macabre details: when the film ends it feels like something's been lost, that Fosse pulled the audience so far into the pit so they could understand what it is to miss the light of day.

Hugh Hefner sued over his portrayal in the film but unlike the Pulitzer-winning Village Voice article it's based on I don't think Fosse's movie makes any suggestion that Hefner or Bogdanovich exploited Stratten the same way Snider did. I don't know why Hefner would be offended at being portrayed as a smug millionaire who unabashedly surrounds himself with busty half-dressed women - that's how he portrays himself both in real life and when he does movie cameos. Most distracting is the film's handling of Bogdanovich, who becomes "Aram Nicholas" sitting in an opulent mansion like he's the Wizard of Oz. I hate thinly-veiled representations of real people and events in movies, especially when the rest of the cast are playing the actual people using the actual names. Was Bob Fosse really concerned over getting sued by Bogdanovich? As I pointed out, the man was bankrupt after 1981. What would he have had to put up for collateral on his legal fees, his neckerchief collection? What Star 80 doesn't show is that the director gave Stratten the best role of her career, and not just because her career up to that point consisted of a soft core Canadian cheapie, a roller derby flick and one hugely shitty sci fi-comedy. She was forced by Snider to play the role of a victim, but in They All Laughed she was a queen in Manhattan: independent, carefree and desired. It's a shame she couldn't find the same happiness outside the movies.

John Cribbs 8/14/10


* Jesus, I hate to bring this up but just look at the Curse of Bogdanovich: directed the final screen appearances of Dorothy Stratten (murdered), Delholm Elliott (died of AIDs) and River Phoenix (drug overdose), other actors from his casts included the untimely deceased Barry Brown, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve and Madeline Kahn. It's not quite the John Landis curse, as he's had no actors die on set, but still. 

** He also ended up marrying Stratten's 19-year-old sister, which is off-putting and Vertigo-esque.

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