Pornography, erotica, fantasies of beautiful women are probably as old as excess energy and leisure time. It was Hugh Hefner’s inspiration to bring them, on a large scale and slickly packaged, into the middle-class living room. Well, perhaps the inspiration wasn’t purely his. Hefner’s working title for the magazine was Stag. It was his art-director partner who came up with Playboy, a word far-reaching in its promise that if a fellow resists the sinister forces pushing him to maturity, sticking instead to his toys—most particularly, to women—then he will never age or die. So the stag, with its intimations of the primordial and the hunt, was buried. Playboy entered the living room on two feet and wearing an occasional sharp interview or good story that didn’t conceal its merchandise and couldn’t do any harm.
The magazine has flourished in direct proportion to the fantasies it inspires in males, most particularly those of the adolescent persuasion. The very existence of Hefner and the Playboy mansion appears to enhance the readers’ fantasies, and no one has ever claimed with greater justice than Hefner that his very life should be tax deductible. Still, it is an open question whether sex can survive in worthwhile form a long-term involvement with issues of business and taxes.
After the 1980 murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratten by Paul Snider, her husband-promoter, two articles about the case appeared. “Death of a Playmate,” by Teresa Carpenter, was published in The Village Voice and has now served as the factual basis for Star 80, a movie by Bob Fosse. (When Stratten had her first success, Snider got STAR 80 license plates for the jazzier of their two cars, which he drove.) “Dorothy Stratten: Her Story” appeared in Playboy. It is a smarmy, pretentious, self-serving, and pious attempt to disprove a contention of Carpenter’s piece, that Paul Snider, a psychopath, went off the deep end of a continuum that Hefner also occupies. One might call this continuum The Sex Business.
If Teresa Carpenter provided Fosse with his story, Playboy has provided the movie’s point of view. Nowhere does Fosse bring to his portrayal of the complex and peculiar man named Hugh Hefner the insight or cruel clarity with which he etches Paul Snider. Cliff Robertson as Uncle Hef is as passively benign as many mansion visitors claim him to be. A prince and a civil libertarian, Hefner supports so many good causes, including feminist ones, that it is difficult for some to understand why the feeling persists in many otherwise reasonable women that he is the enemy.
The phrase “Another Marilyn” is always spoken as though it referred only to the early stages of Monroe’s success.
Hefner worships movie stars—don’t we all?—and it is said to be a major disappointment to him that he has not been able to create a star. Among those who see Hefner’s life as satisfactory or even enviable, it is also said that had she not been murdered, Dorothy Stratten would have been a star. Another Marilyn. Perhaps. But there have been many Another Marilyns, and stars have tended not to be another anyone, but to have some quality people see as unique. Further, the women stars of the seventies and eighties have not thus far been made in the essentially passive mold of the sex goddess. They appear to have interests of their own, internal contradictions, occasionally even a sense of humor. Mariel Hemingway, the tall, pretty, athletic-looking (I’m not sure if that’s a synonym for wholesome) girl who plays Stratten, doesn’t seem to be burdened by any excess of those other qualities, although she shows some signs of being a reasonably good movie actress.
Years ago, before Gloria Steinem’s appearance was familiar to the public, she decided to write about a Playboy Club from the inside. She reported how, under a false name, she applied for a Bunny job and was quickly hired. But when she tried to leave her elaborate, falsified personal history with the interviewer, she was told, “We don’t like our girls to have any background.” Background, of course, is just a collection of fragments from a particular person’s real life. Reality is the enemy in this world, for it sets up static in the fantasy waves that otherwise enfold and conceal the person within the Bunny object.
This is also a world where the remaining four senses are in utter bondage to the visual one, and it seems sadly appropriate that Mariel Hemingway should have had foreign material pumped into her breasts to make them larger for the camera. In Mariel’s own accounting system, who she is or how her breasts feel is not a fraction as important as how they look to the men who are photographing her.
If Mariel Hemingway, a successful actress, would do this, how can we imagine the degree of willingness of the unknown young girls who flock to Playboy to be photographed, to be screwed, to be chosen? Some of the photographers are seductive. (It is understood that this is the way to get the girls to look sexy.) Others are friendly or noncommittal. Some treat them as though they were meat and the photographers vegetarians. A man who worked for the Playboy organization once told me that when he began there most of the girls had looked beautiful to him, but soon they had no appeal. Some of the girls are deeply offended if the photographers fail to display sexual interest in them. Virtually all need perpetual affirmation from men that they are pretty, desirable, have a reason to exist. Dorothy Stratten didn’t think of herself as pretty and I would imagine that the same was true of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is said to have spent hours on her makeup before any engagement and this is to me a clearer sign of self-hatred than of pleasure in the self. As we follow the story of Dorothy Stratten it might be interesting to keep Marilyn in the back of our minds. Marilyn has been idolized since her death but during her life she was both idealized and ridiculed. Stratten and Marilyn were two different women at different stages in their lives when they died, but it’s hollow to pretend that they too were not on a sort of continuum. The phrase “Another Marilyn” is always spoken as though it referred only to the early stages of Monroe’s success.
Stratten was a tall, beautiful, eighteen-year-old blond working at a Vancouver Dairy Queen when she was discovered by Paul Snider, and it was a discovery in the classic Hollywood tradition. Dorothy would never have put herself forward. She not only failed to know that she was beautiful but there was a family tradition of strong repression and greater than normal concealment of the body. Snider was, by all accounts, a small, loud, incredibly obnoxious man whose clothing was flashy to the point of being ludicrous. He made his living on cars and off women—as hustler, pimp, marginal gangster, and promoter.
Dorothy was impressed by Paul’s slick line and his Playboy-type pad as she had been impressed by her previous boyfriend’s sleek Camaro. Paul had a violent temper. Dorothy’s previous boyfriend had crushed with pliers a ring she’d given him. Dorothy’s previous boyfriend had never seen her naked although they’d spent a lot of time together in bed. Paul praised Dorothy’s body and got her to pose naked for a Vancouver photographer who’d done some work for Playboy. The photographer found her pliant and eager to please, willing to have her breasts and other moving parts arranged by him to please the camera. And she did please the camera. The photos were sent to Playboy and in a short time Dorothy was asked to come after them.
In August 1979, Dorothy was Playmate of the Month. She was also Mrs. Paul Snider and her husband was with her in Los Angeles, hustling his own deals (wet-underwear contests and a nightclub with male strippers) and frantically trying to hold on to the lovely young creature he had ridden to Hollywood, who was showing signs of becoming a runaway horse.
Through Playboy, Dorothy had acquired an agent; through the agent she was landing some bit parts and auditioning for larger ones. She had been chosen. She reveled in the praise and attention she was receiving. She had no conflicts at all about her success. She didn’t have to. Her husband had them for her. To read “Death of a Playmate,” or “Dorothy Stratten: Her Story” is to know that there wasn’t one chance in a million that the raging small-time hustler who brought Stratten to Hollywood was going to let the calmer big-time hustlers who were now guiding her pack him up and mail him back to Vancouver with a fraction of her still small income in his pocket. If Paul Snider hadn’t been in love with the pretty blond waitress in Vancouver, he was certainly infatuated with, and driven to frenzy by, the rejecting sex-goddess-movie-star he had created with a little help from her friends. Paul Snider worshiped movie stars—don’t we all? He didn’t kill his wife-creation and try to escape; he shot her in the head and then shot himself in the same way. Merging with her in death must have been as strong a motive as revenge.
If Star 80 pulls its punches in its portrayal of the man who imagined the Playboy scene into existence, it feels accurate in its depiction of the scene itself.
Dorothy had completed work in a Canadian film called Autumn Born. Carpenter points out that with all the attempts to convince people that Stratten would have been a star, very little is said about Autumn Born, in which she had the starring female role. This is because the movie is about a seventeen-year-old who is kidnapped and abused by her uncle, and the beatings administered by the uncle apparently constitute the events of the movie. If violence is not intrinsic to sexual life, it is an axis of the sex business.
Dorothy had also played a major role in a Peter Bogdanovich movie called They All Laughed, about which the less said the better, except that in the course of making the movie the director and the directed “fell in love.” Dorothy’s deeper allegiance shifted from Snider to Bogdanovich. In a nice moment in Star 80, Dorothy is telling Snider that she’s not the same girl as the one he brought to Los Angeles, and Snider says, “You sure ain’t. Sounds like you’ve got a writer now.” If the real Snider was less articulate, he was clearly correct in his intuition that Dorothy’s moves away from him were not toward independence but only toward a nicer director. In any event, to see They All Laughed, and to remember that it was made by someone with the same name and face as the director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, is to understand what early success in this country can do even to people who have real ability and no Paul Snider waiting at home to destroy them.
Star 80, on the other hand, seemed to me to be a more than decent movie. Fast-paced and beautifully photographed (by Sven Nykvist), it has a stunning performance by Eric Roberts as Snider and good ones by Mariel Hemingway and the rest of the cast. If Roberts gives the only extraordinary performance, it is doubtless because his talent is greater than Hemingway’s. But it’s also important to remember that however sick and repellent Snider is, he is granted the luxury of being a complex human being, while Mariel’s role is of a sweet young thing with tits.
Some people I know have been offended by what they see as a too sympathetic portrayal of Snider, but Snider isn’t appealing, he’s just understandable. I suppose it can be scary to understand a murderer too well, particularly in an era when understanding has been misused to replace morality and common sense. The trick, perhaps, is to let ourselves understand how a crime like this can happen without exonerating Snider—or even letting off too easily those people who never saw Stratten as a real person and never bothered to determine that the danger to her was also real. Hefner checked out Snider for a criminal record but, failing to find one, did not concern himself with what her life might be like when she wasn’t at the mansion. It’s also likely that he sees so much of Paul Snider’s type of behavior in less extreme forms that it didn’t occur to him that it was symptomatic of a kind of insanity that could end in murder.
In any event, if Star 80 pulls its punches in its portrayal of the man who imagined the Playboy scene into existence, it feels accurate in its depiction of the scene itself. During the entire movie there are about two minutes when anyone seems to be having a good time, and that’s on a roller-skating rink. The scenes of “grown-up” parties at the mansion show women waiting for something they need to get but don’t exactly want, and men bored by the availability of women who by definition can’t have minds of their own because then they’d be dangerous; a grim and glitzy world where the women belong to the men but the men don’t belong to themselves. Most of the men dress better than Paul Snider and behave better, as well, but why would they need to be in that no-risk environment if somewhere inside they weren’t as frightened and angry as he was?
Then again, the Playboy male is so visibly disturbed in his sense of himself and so hostile to the female in all forms, if least so to the female as pretty young thing, that it is easy to overlook the question of what Hefner’s female fodder is doing when it throws itself into the Playboy maw. It is a form of wishful thinking (not to say condescension) to see these girls as simple, unwilling victims. Once upon a time, before it was deemed unwise for reasons of public and Internal Revenue Service relations, Bunnies were charged rent to live in the Hefner hutch. That it was asked is only half as interesting as that it was ever paid.
In an uninteresting if not uncompelling movie called Looking for Mr. Goodbar, the murder of the heroine is a freaky accident to a sexy, happy-go-lucky kid who couldn’t have children and of course had to seek out sex in—where else?—singles bars. Bob Fosse does somewhat better by Dorothy Stratten. There is a point during the murder scene when Paul is distraught and preoccupied and it is clear that she can run out of the house. He has already threatened her with the gun. She hesitates at the door, then goes back—to comfort him! The act feels right even if the motive is too simple. Bob Fosse made a better movie than he would have made if he hadn’t allowed himself to identify with Paul Snider. I suspect it would have been even more interesting if he had also allowed himself to know what it was like to be Dorothy Stratten.
Perhaps he would have discovered that the daughters of puritans who make them conceal their bodies as children internalize their parents’ values and need to be punished when they violate the old taboos. Perhaps for the average Playmate the routine humiliations of life at the mansion constitute adequate punishment. They flock there to be selected as worthy objects, pose for money, often move on with some man who has a higher income than the kid they would have married back home.
But what of Hefner, the dreamy son of pious Methodist schoolteachers, mired forever in his own adolescent fantasies? Men who invest all in their penises, like women who invest all in their looks, must find the rewards diminishing with age. Then, too, Hefner has no simple license for perpetual pleasure; he is under a mandate, a man forced forever to attend his own dull parties so his readers and the IRS will know that he was there. He can never avail himself of the simple (if only relative) comforts of monogamy, even in one of its flexible forms. There is the specter of the Playboy fantasy’s collapse if it were known that the greatest fantasizer of them all was bored.
An acquaintance of mine who spent a lot of time at the mansion during the seventies claims that it’s a club run by women for women with very little interest in sex, particularly with men. He says that most of the visible sex at the mansion is among the women while the men, considerably older, play badminton and soak in the Jacuzzis. No wonder Hefner needs to divert himself with fantasies of creating a star. As his mansion is the focus of millions of boys’ fantasies, so the studio of the major-movie mogul is the object of his. The problem is, the entertainment business isn’t identical to the sex business, though they overlap in many places. The problem is, movie moguls live in more complex cloisters than Hefner can tolerate, have more aggression at their command, and can tell the difference between tits and talent.
In my experience, the men who are most obsessed with tits and ass are the ones who most keenly desire to have them, and if this is so the rewards of creating a sex goddess must be complicated indeed. First there is the pleasure of domination, then of having one’s mastery envied by other men. Then there is the material yield, eventually accompanied, perhaps, by some decline in pleasure; human nature is fickle, requiring new sources for old pleasures, and the eyes tire more readily than many other organs. Then, in the declining years of the sex goddess, is it possible that there is an element of revenge not only for the Svengali but also for both men and women who watched enviously from the outside? Is it possible that the sex-goddess cycle controlled by the sex-business entrepreneur must end with the destruction of the woman inside the goddess? Is it conceivable that some of those women would have been, in their maturity, less miserable as housewives in Des Moines? How could anyone be driving those women toward a miserable end? We all love movie stars, don’t we?