I suppose it could have been Lenny, just as easily. Disregarding the superstar American directors of the 70′s, did anybody have a better run than Bob Rafelson, Mike Nichols, and Bob Fosse?

Rafelson: Five Easy Pieces, The King Of Marvin Gardens, Stay Hungry
Nichols: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Catch 22, Carnal Knowledge
Fosse: Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz, Star 80

The funny thing about Star 80 is that it veers so near to after-school-special territory. This kind of material seems ripe but it rarely is. When I first heard the story of Dorothy Stratten a tingle went up my neck. When I then found out that Mariel Hemingway played her, I thought… “that mousy chick from Manhattan??? Sheesh”. Wrong wrong wrong. Fosse knew exactly what he was doing, and she went all out. They didn’t make her sad or stupid or lousy or even too flighty. Who wouldn’t be excited that someone is going to pay you a year’s worth of salary to take a few pictures? The crazy thing is that Hemingway played Dorothy more innocent than she did her Tracy character in the Woody Allen picture. Innocent is not the right word, I suppose. I guess what I mean to say is that, looked at from a gut level, a Dairy Queen waitress who falls for Eric Roberts’ Paul Snider is more romantic than an upper crust high school lolita who dates Allen.

And Roberts… wow. Not much anyone can say will prepare you for this kind of performance. I am not a big one for actors giving themselves little crutches like prosthetic noses, fake ugliness, or limps. Always seems like a great actor (or one with real presence) can pull off extra business and make it look like it matters (not some BS that gives a window to their soul but just because they have the meat-and-potatoes of what that character does/is in the Ray Carney surface sense). Roberts gets the nasally pucker-mouth PLUS a hint of Canadian West Coast accent… “Paul Schhhh-n-EYE-der”. The little moustache, the pimpy suits. Actually the whole time I kept thinking ‘Why didn’t Paul Schrader do this movie?’.

Roberts is a force in this picture. His agony is truly agonizing, his sleaze makes you want to vomit, his mania is palpable and terrifying. In a lot of movies the circular flashback/flashforward structure and doc-style interviews would have seemed tacked-on or lazy, but it gives a perfect sense that this was all inevitable, even if the story itself makes you (or me, at least) going why why why why why.

A lot of the writing on this picture covers what is now the fairly standard One Of Them Actually Pulled The Trigger But Three Of Them Killed Her go around. Maybe so in real life. The movie, however, lives and dies (literally) with Paul and Dorothy, and you’d have to go a long way to find a more balanced or fair scene of high drama like the one at the 3/4 mark with Mariel in the tub as Eric berates her from the doorway. Again, a cliched scene that’s been played a billion times, even to the beat. But this one was perfect. I don’t know exactly why. Probably the tone of the actors, and especially Hemingway’s sad eyes when she says “you’re not being fair”. In a heated argument, when — instead of pushing back — someone sighs from the bottom of their heart and, too weary to be angry anymore, clearly lets you know you’ve gone too far… well, let’s just say it is the mournful reproach of respect and love. It doesn’t solve the argument but it makes things sober and even sadder. Then Roberts allows himself to swing from one end of the pendulum to another, and Hemingway realizes there is probably no way out. “Let’s move back to Vancouver” is pure make believe.

Will there be a critical reappraisal of Fosse soon? Do people know that his 70′s work stands just as tall and glamorous as Coppola at his Godfather best? Or that this dance-master could cut on the same level as Nic Roeg (possibly the strongest montagist in all English-speaking cinema)?

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