STAR 80, LOVELACE & Men Who Use Women's Bodies for Fame
There are men alive today who still tell stories of a time before the internet, when unsuspecting teen boys would stumble upon remnants of pornography in the forest, hidden perhaps by other teen boys not unlike themselves or maybe a man who was older but not necessarily wiser. These centerfolds and clippings showcasing a once-rare glimpse at the genitalia of the opposite sex, a titillating secret most likely left behind after being spent of its taboo value. In the end, for the parties who discovered the elicit images, it didn’t matter in any substantial way who was in the photos, just that they were there for the pleasure of peering, curious eyes. How did the forest porn get there? Even more curious, how did the woman in the photo get there? The story behind the pictures is rarely told.
In Star 80 (1983), a film by Bob Fosse which pretends to frame her life, Dorothy Stratten is one of those women whose body was used for the fame and pleasure of others, both in erotically physical and aesthetic capture. Star 80 tells a factual truth at the outset: Dorothy Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) was discovered at 18 in a Dairy Queen in Vancouver, British Columbia by Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), the man who would eventually murder her and defile her body.
Nine years Dorothy’s senior, Paul impressed Dorothy by taking her to fancy dinners, buying her jewelry, and becoming her own private photographer. The camera loved Dorothy and she loved it back with her young body and youthful gaze. She felt beautiful, loved, and maybe for the first time like she wouldn’t be spending her life twirling soft serve in a cone.
Paul was no stranger to pimping and grooming women for his own financial gain. In this case he saw the teenager as an opportunity to make a name for himself through pictures - specifically pictures intended for Playboy’s centerfold. Here, both in the film and presumably in Stratten’s real life, a woman surrenders her beauty to the image of itself, only to have that image repurposed to serve its audience and its photographer.
The dual possessiveness built from Paul taking the picture and repurposing the artifact to progress his own career goals is about more than a “finder’s fee” for Paul, who perhaps truly feels that Dorothy could be a star. Paul is obsessed with the idea of fame and, more importantly, respect. For much of the film, he spends his time ensuring that he’s not humiliated and that his personal interests are put first. We see him flexing his physique and his charm in the mirror several times before deflating into spite and a vow to be remembered. When Dorothy’s mother refuses to consent to her trip to Los Angeles to test for Playboy, Paul insists that “together [they] could be somebody” and “people would know our names, people would treat us that special way they treat stars.” It is never really about Dorothy, but always about what she can do for him, how her beauty can be of service to his ego.
With or without a willing signature, Dorothy makes her way to LA. Once noticed by Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson), she becomes an instant favourite, landing the distinction of August’s playmate of the month and quickly climbing the bunny ladder. Dorothy is more than just a pretty face, she has charm and acting chops and the ability to impress everyone she comes in contact with. She also takes her job extremely seriously. To her, the photographs are more art than erotica, and she works hard to ensure that she is represented properly. It isn’t long before she goes from posing for pictures to auditioning for film roles and raking in a substantial amount of cash.
Mariel Hemingway plays this role with precision and grace, her golden hair and innocent smile are embraced by the camera and she exudes a youthful charm that carries her throughout the film. Even her speaking voice is beautiful, and she poses for the camera like a professional. She seems as likeable as Dorothy is said to have been in tragically collected interviews, and not just for her beauty and down to earth nature. Hemingway’s natural fit into the role incidentally creates a second layer to this thematic subtext; in the story of life being robbed of a beautiful woman, starting with her agency robbed through image capture, we are given another beautiful woman whose beauty, as a film artifact, is employed in service to lustful male gazes as much as fans of earnest cinema and whose whose attractiveness, within the film, serves the shared exploitative narrative of a Hollywood informed murder story.
As Dorothy matures and develops into a starlet in Star 80, the film shows Paul begin to lose control. When work makes Dorothy inaccessible, Paul begins to fall apart. He is consistently overbearing with everyone he encounters, and he interrupts Dorothy at work to her detriment. He insists she is carrying on affairs even as he carries on his own. There are several memorable mirror meltdown scenes as he displays a lack of grip on reality and his situation. The first scene in which Paul lashes out is when Dorothy attempts to comfort him for being nervous at the Playboy Mansion. This show of sympathy reads to him as condescension and pity; Paul has a victim complex that insists everyone is out to get him. He becomes obsessed with the relationship between Dorothy and director Aram (Roger Rees), a friendship-turned-romance that is no more salacious than the ones that Paul entertains in his free time, but one which turns the right to film Dorothy into a possessive tug of war in which at least one contestant is agnostic toward her feelings.
In the final act, Dorothy meets with Paul to discuss their official separation. She returns to their apartment that Paul has turned into a kind of shrine, with all of her photographs plastered across the walls. She is willing to give him half of her savings for a clean break, but he refuses and becomes irate, violently shoving Dorothy and locking her in the home. In the end, Paul attempts to rape Dorothy and then shoots her in the face before taking his own life, the worst of all carnal acts played out on a theater decorated with the initial subtler removal of her humanity.
Lovelace, the 2013 film directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman tells a similar story from two peripheries, one an innocent tale of budding sexuality and coincidental fame, the other a tragic story of intimidation and fear. Linda Boreman was a young woman sequestered by her strict mother and previous sexual missteps. An accidental pregnancy and subsequent adoption made her think twice about sexual intimacy with her partners, and she treads carefully where sexuality is concerned. That is, until Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard) comes along.
In the movie, we see Amanda Seyfried as Linda, young and blushing. She’s shy and reserved and generally obedient to her parents, but at 20 she resents the restrictions placed on her life. After some goading by her friend Patsy (Juno Temple), Linda takes a stab at at the opportunity to become a go-go dancer at the local roller rink. It’s here she meets Chuck, leering across the rink at her perfect frame.
Also her senior, Chuck is charming and has cash to spend, and he impresses Linda with his rich background in the marines and travelling the world. He ingratiates himself to the family, helps her leave her overbearing home, and catapults her into fame first with his charm and directness, and then through fear and intimidation.
At first, Chuck makes Linda feel beautiful. He embraces the scars on her body and makes her feel sexy and wanted. Chuck makes sure to teach Linda how to perform sexual acts she’s never even heard of, let alone could imagine herself. Early in their relationship he insists that the only reason Linda doesn’t enjoy fellatio is because she isn’t any good at it. These subtle manipulative tricks point to a sinister type of man early on. Later, while at a party, Chuck displays his disregard for Linda by coming onto her friend Patsy, and shows his home porn movies to the crowd, revealing the same methodology to dehumanize through cinematic form that was showcased by Paul in Star 80.
Still, it isn’t long before Chuck and Linda are married, and not long after that, Linda gets a call to come get Chuck out of jail. When she asks what happens, Chuck shows his first sign of violent anger. “Never ask about my work” he growls, before admitting some of the waitresses at his titty bar were turning tricks out back. But, no worries, he declares. Wives can’t testify against husbands. And as his wife, his problems become her problems.
In the second half of the film we begin to see the real life Linda shared with Chuck. Their sex is rough and not always consensual. When money begins to dwindle, Chuck forces Linda into prostitution at gunpoint and, according to her memoir Ordeal, heinous acts that take an extreme physical and emotional toll. As time goes on, and Linda begins to push back against their lifestyle, Chuck’s beatings only worsen and increase in frequency.
It always seems to come down to money and never the worth of the feminine object of attraction. After prostitution, Chuck forces Linda to participate in pornographic movies, most notably Deep Throat, which went on to earn over $30,000 in revenue in its first week at the box office (on a single screen—a record for porn films to this day). We see our first glimpse of abuse when, getting her ready for her role the makeup artist has to cover bruises on Linda’s legs. “I’m so clumsy” she trills. The makeup artist reveals her own cynical knowledge of what’s really happening, but does nothing to to help: “I know sweetie, we all are”.
When Linda stands up to Chuck and says she doesn’t want to do the movie anymore, he holds a gun to her head. “I worked too hard to get you this part. This movie is gonna make us, you and me.” This is about Chuck’s money, Chuck’s fame. Linda is just the vehicle to get him where he wants to go. For the rest of filming, Chuck becomes a menacing figure standing off to the side with glaring hatred in his eyes in order to maintain control.
Deep Throat was one of the first pornographic films to include a - loose - story and script. This novelty along with Linda’s ability to take an entire phallus into her throat made her an instant star, though she saw only $1250 for her role in what would eventually reportedly make the filmmakers over $600 million dollars. Deep Throat also marked the moment in time that Linda became Linda Lovelace, though of course Chuck expressed concern over the name change that would essentially make his name disappear.
As fame overwhelms Linda, her humanity is stripped by small acts of reductively capturing her likeness: she’s interviewed and photographed. Sex dolls and dildos are made in her name (and Chuck’s name as he demands to be recognized for discovering her). As it intensifies, it becomes clear that Linda is repulsed by the work that she is forced to do, and refuses to repeat it. When Linda tells Chuck she won’t be doing anymore porn, he punishes her by forcing her to be gang raped for cash.
Finally after countless incidents of abuse, humiliation, and force, Linda escapes her unwilling participation in the sex industry. After confronting the director, she is placed in a hotel safe from Chuck’s reach escaping her captors, her abusers, and her photographers.
Again, we see another story of a woman’s onscreen talent is reduced two-fold to how it might affect a man’s needs and legacy. In this case, Linda’s place in history is inextricably linked to how her cinematic performance serviced the needs of thousands - if not millions - of anonymous men, each of whom subconsciously required her to be less human and more photogenic.
Linda lived to tell her story, Dorothy did not, but they walked similar paths on their way to fame, cameras fixed on them in their most intimate moments. Posing did give these women a new lease on life in a way; in one way, the more people that surrounded them the freer they became. When all eyes are on her, where her eyes land becomes even more important. Once that freedom that permitted personal agency transferred from their partners to themselves, they were labelled by their photographic keepers as “out of control” and violence and force replaced that earlier form of ownership with them.
The evil in these stories does not come from the fact that these women celebrated their bodies by putting them on display. While there are insidious aspects of the pornography industry, women who actively choose to showcase themselves for the pleasure of others are not wrong, corrupted, or evil. But when they are used as pawns by the men who are supposed to love them, when women’s bodies are used as a canvas for men’s dreams, who they are is smothered and devalued by cheap and dishonest intention. Personhood is completely erased and replaced by an evaluation of physical form and its usefulness.
Hugh Hefner appears in both of these stories, and today stands as perhaps the best example of a man who used women’s bodies, their images, and their lives for his own fame and fortune, Hefner’s estimated worth at his death was $45 million dollars, and he had a hand in both of these women’s experiences and countless others.
Neither of these men, Chuck Traynor and Paul Snider, can be referred to as men. Both were obsessed with themselves, money, and fame, and they were so small that the only way they could obtain their goals was through vicious abuse and exploitation.
Both of these women, Dorothy Stratten and Linda Boreman, were gorgeous examples of feminine beauty, and we can admire their photographs and their lives. That they came in contact with these men is a tragedy that only one of them lived to tell us about. Both women were used as a vehicle by men who stole their beauty to serve fragile egos, and we have the photographs to prove it.