VIDEO ARCHIVES NOTES: This movie was discussed on the November 8, 2022 and November 15, 2022 episodes of the Video Archives podcast and can be found on their site here.
Paddy Chayefsky, who died two years before this movie was released and also who it is dedicated to, recommended an article to director Bob Fosse in The Village Voice. “Death of a Playmate” by Teresa Carpenter told the story of Dorothy Stratton, the Playboy Playmate of the Month for August 1979 and Playmate of the Year in 1980 who was dead by August 14, 1980.
Despite her short career — five movies* (Americathon, Skatetown, U.S.A., They All Laughed, Autumn Born and Galaxina) and four TV appearances (Playboy’s Roller-Disco & Pajama Party, The Tonight Show, Fantasy Island and showing up as Miss Cosmos on an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) — Stratton went from working in a Dairy Queen to the start of a successful life as a model and actress.
Or so it seemed. She had married the man who got her nude photos to Playboy in the first place, Paul Snider. She’d gone from his manipulations into the world of the Playboy Mansion, where women were prizes for Hollywood stars in Hugh Hefner’s good graces. Meanwhile, her husband acted as her driver, manager and acting coach. You know, a suitcase pimp. He never left her alone and this often meant daily fights and constant criticism.
She alternately was trying to escape the marriage by moving in with Peter Bogdonovich — the director of her last film, They All Laughed — and also telling Snider that they should give this all up and move back home to Canada. He was insanely jealous, despite his own affairs, and was using her for money, even selling the Jaguar she’d been awarded for Playmate of the Year.
Left alone and increasingly unhinged, Snider told friends he was taking up hunting along with having a strange conversation with them about the tragic death of Claudia Jennings, an actress and former Playmate of the Year who had been killed in a car accident. The loss of Jennings, the star of Unholy Rollers and Moonshine County Express, made problems for the editors, as they had to remove her photos — or so Snider remarked — after her death.
Days later, both he and Stratten were dead.
There had already been one movie made about this story — Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story which starred Jamie Lee Curtis as Stratton and Bruce Weitz as Snider — but Fosse wanted to make this into a theatrical movie.
Mariel Hemingway believed she was perfect for the part of Stratton and didn’t just send letters to Fosse. She called and visited his home and did four readings. And she also had breast surgery, though she claimed that she did it for her and not just the movie.
Eric Roberts was harder to convince, but he came on board as Snider. Cliff Robertson would be Hefner and Carroll Baker would make this her first Hollywood movie since her 1967 return from Europe, playing Dorothy’s mother.
The movie was a fight in public. Bogdanovich, Stratten’s boyfriend at the time of her death, said that Fosse “didn’t know the true story.” That was true. But Fosse claimed his movie was about Snider. That meant that Bogdanovich refused to allow his name to be used in the film — the character played by Roger Rees who is supposed to be him is named Aram Nicholas — and threatened a lawsuit.
Real Playmates are in the mansion scenes, but Hefner refused to allow the movie to be shot in his home.
What emerged was a movie that was challenging. And Roberts was amazing in it. Roger Ebert explained that Star 80 syndrome is when Hollywood will not nominate an actor for portraying a creep, no matter how good the performance is.
While Hefner said that Roberts was perfect, William Sachs — who directed her in Galaxina — said that Snider never spoke to anyone but Stratton and would just have a death stare.
This is a rough watch, as you know throughout that Stratton — who you barely get to know, she’s a gorgeous and naive blank slate — is going to die at the hands of the manipulative man who thinks he’s made her. It’s maybe even rougher knowing that her death scene was shot where she really died.
In the aftermath of her death, Bogdonovich would go through his own tragedies. He buried her with a tombstone that featured a line from Ernest Hemingway’s — the grandfather of this movie’ star — A Farewell to Arms. “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, of course it kills them…” He also wrote The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten (1960-1980), a rebuttal to the story this movie is based on, one that claimed that Bogdonovich and Hefner were just as bad as Snider. Bogdonovich doesn’t pull any punches on Hefner in his book. It doesn’t just attack him, it goes after his mansion, his magazine and the Playboy way of life. He also claimed that Hefner assaulted Stratton; he originally used the word raped before lawyers made him change it to seduced.
Hefner fought back by accusing Bogdanovich of seducing Stratten’s younger sister — thirteen at the time of her sister’s death — Louise. He denied this, but then again, the two married in 1988 when he was 49 and she was 20.
A year after the tragic murder-suicide of Stratton and Snider, They All Laughed came out. It wasn’t in theaters all that long, playing a few dates regionally. Wanting his dead lover’s last screen performance to have a chance to be seen by a broader audience, Bogdanovich bought the theatrical rights to the picture and bankrupted himself.
You know who else was hurt by her death? Bryan Adams. The Canadian rocker didn’t just write one song about her — “The Best Was Yet to Come,” the last track on Cuts Like a Knife — but also the song “Cover Girl” with the band Prism. Statton didn’t grow up all that far from where the singer and his co-writer for “The Best Was Yet to Come,” Jim Vallance, grew up. When Bogdonovich died last year, Adams wrote on Twitter: “RIP Peter Bogdanovich. When Jim Vallance and I wrote “Best Was Yet To Come” for Dorothy Stratten after she had been murdered, he sent us a note of appreciation for the song.”
With all his direct to streaming movie, it’s easy to forget what a shark a young Eric Roberts was. This movie was a revelation for me, yet ultimately one that still upsets me. I think all great art should, on some level, do that.
*The movies are renamed in Star 80: Autumn Born is called Wednesday’s Child, Skatetown, U.S.A. is Ball Bearings, Galaxina is just “a sci-fi film, she plays a robot,” They All Laughed is Tinsel Time. There are also some characters in the film who are real people. Playmate Bobo Weller is Terri Welles, Peggy Johnson is Colleen Camp, Billy Joe Batten is Fred Dryer and Vince Roberts is Robert Blake.