(Click here for information on the 2018 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature. As all of the four selected titles have filmed adaptations, we will be looking at the movie versions as we go along. This week, the July selection, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Killing of the Unicorn: Dorothy Stratten 1960 – 1980.)
Everything having to do with the life and death of Dorothy Stratten, Playboy Playmate and actress who was horrifically murdered by her estranged husband at the age of 20, has the queasy air of exploitation. That includes one Pulitzer Prize-winning article, two feature films, True Crime TV specials of varying quality, and Playboy magazine tributes of questionable taste.
Film Historian-turned-New Hollywood-wunderkind Peter Bogdanovich was Stratten’s boyfriend and director during the last months of her life, and his memoir has been described as “a grief diary and anti-porn manifesto”, and puts this critic in the awkward position of pointing out that it is also a attempt to rehabilitate his own image and publicly beef with writer Teresa Carpenter, director Bob Fosse, and the Playboy empire’s head honcho, Hugh Hefner.
As all of the above sources have enumerated, Dorothy Hoogstraten was a high school senior when she met small time hustler and would-be pimp Paul Snider at the Dairy Queen where she worked in Vancouver, BC. He convinced her to submit her photo to Playboy’s 25th anniversary contest and within a year is selected Playmate of the Month, Playmate of the Year, made several movies, and seemed poised to crossover into mainstream stardom. Within a year of her first appearance in the magazine she is dead. By all accounts she was universally beloved by everyone she met, but none of the numerous works on her life give a real sense of why that is or who she was: Dorothy Stratten remains almost completely a cypher, an empty vessel upon which to project all manner of ideas and anxieties about sex and the sexual revolution, institutionalized misogyny and sudden and bewildering tragedy.
Bogdanovich places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Hugh Hefner, and his “philosophy” that he claims promotes the objectification and domination of women by men, which set up Snider as a powder keg ready to blow when his wife left him. But it feels like the same kind of exploitation when Bogdanovich tells us exactly what his girlfriend-of-mere-months is thinking and feeling in situations where he is thousands of miles away or years before they met. While Bogdanovich depicts Stratten was a pure soul duped by Snider and Heffner, every other woman associated with Playboy is at best a willing party to the machinery of exploitation, if not actually a party to the events that led to Stratten’s murder. Bogdanovich repeatedly phrases his conspiracy theories as rhetorical questions: “Could it be that…?”
Bogdanovich presents himself as a friend of feminism, would-be savior and such a nice guy… at least until he criticizes portrayals of Stratten by making gross comments about the anatomical inadequacies of Jamie Lee Curtis and Mariel Hemmingway, at which point you may feel like yelling DUDE YOU ARE PART OF THE PROBLEM!!!!
Curtis played Stratten in the made-for-TV movie Death of a Centerfold, broadcast about a year after Stratten’s death, and she is both the project’s biggest asset and liability. While her performance is quite good, even in 1981 Jamie Lee Curtis is Jamie Lee Curtis: the narrative requires us to believe that Stratten got involved with Snider because she was so gullible and naïve, but Curtis projects too much street smarts to make it believable. It didnt help that she has just dispatched the literal Boogie Man onscreen. Twice. Additionally, 26-year-old Snider is played by actor Bruce Weitz, who was pushing 40… and we’re supposed to buy Stratten getting swept off her feet by 50-year-old Robert Reed (Pop Brady himself!) as Bogdanovich’s surrogate. And the movie looks cheap: sets, costumes and music cues all seem like cast-offs from “Dynasty”.
Slicker, sleazier, and eminently more terrifying is Bob Fosse’s theatrical feature Star 80, which appeared two years later. Roberts-family black sheep Eric is cast as an age-appropriate Snider and the film focuses on him, which makes Stratten into even more of an enigma, and the film slides sideways into the horror genre. Snider is a monster, but a pathetic one, which makes him even more dangerous, especially when played for dark comedy. He’s the constantly the butt of the joke: when he tries to ingratiate himself to Dorothy’s teenaged brother, who just rolls his eyes at him; when Hefner comments that he looks like a cheap pimp and he gets an elaborate makeover-montage that results in… him still looking like a cheap pimp.
This is the version Bogdanovich vents most of his wrath at. But Star 80 hardly glamorizes the Playboy “lifestyle” or endorses its “philosophy”. Roberts-as-Snider tells us everything we need to know about the character and how he views women in a scene when he finally gains entrance to the Playboy mansion and is introduced to a former Playmate and immediately starts casually handling her, as if he had been handed a centerfold poster (or a blow-up doll). Heffner doesn’t really come off any better: the film ends with his looking over the photos of a new model that Snider had tried to promote to him, agreeing to hire her. More grist for the mill.
In later years, Bogdanovich’s indignation became complicated by the fact of his romantic involvement with Stratten’s teenage sister, Louise, who is clearly and accurately depicted as a little girl in both films.
In 2018, an awful lot of Playboy’s unpleasant secrets are out: disgruntled ex-girlfriends have published memoirs of their own, and while Hef is no longer with us, he lived long enough to see his glamorous reputation become one of a creepy old man with mold in his grotto.
The Killing of the Unicorn is out of print, but available used through Amazon, etc.
Death of a Centerfold is available on DVD through Warner Archive
Star 80 is available on DVD and streaming through Amazon