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Mariel Hemingway: From "Manhattan" to Playboy

Mariel Hemingway in "Star80."

In Life magazine this month she looks like a sleek blond goddess, her lips parted to nibble on a flower. At breakfast the other day, though, Mariel Hemingway looked more like a kid sister you were meeting at the Palm Court of the Plaza between trains.

She had on a blue jean Jacket, her hair was short and streaked instead of long and blond, she was wearing hardly any makeup, and the famous Hemingway eyebrows had not been plucked in months. She was drinking her coffee black.

"I can't say I've never thought about posing for cheesecake, or looking sexy, being attractive to men," she said. "But it's something you usually get out of the way in the shower, doing a wild dance in the mirror and then putting it out of your mind. You know, 'Whew! I'm glad nobody saw THAT!' I think every woman does have the desire to be sexy to men in that way . . ."

The amazing thing in "Star 80," Hemingway's new movie, is how completely she is able to transform herself into a sex symbol. This is the same young actress who played Woody Allen's awkward teenage girlfriend in "Manhattan," and who was all sweat and muscle in "Personal Best," the story of a woman athlete. If typecasting has any meaning at all, her next role should have been as a welder in "Flashdance."

Instead, here she is in Bob Fosse's "Star 80," playing a Playboy Playmate, glistening with promise, her eyes boldly connecting with the camera while she swings her blond hair through the air. This is the last role anyone would have imagined Mariel Hemingway playing. That's why she wanted so badly to play it. Even when she did pose nude for Playboy a year ago - in a sweaty layout promoting "Personal Best" - she looked fresh out of the locker room, not the bedroom.

"I became obsessed with playing somebody who was totally unlike me." she said. "Fosse wasn't exactly pro-Mariel. I really had to sell myself. I wrote him letters, I kept after him, and finally he gave me a screen test. The funny thing was, I didn't really know that much about Dorothy Stratten. But I knew she was different from me in a lot of ways that would seem obvious to a lot of people, and so that was a good reason to play her."

And now she is right on the brink of a media storm. "Star 80" is going to open Thursday, and it is probably going to create some kind of furor. It is Fosse's devastating, bleak version of the life of Dorothy Stratten, a naive young woman from Vancouver, BC, who became the 1979 Playmate of the Year and was making some headway in a movie career when she was murdered three years ago by a jealous boyfriend.

Mariel Hemingway plays Stratten with a power that is breathtaking. By that I am not referring to her sex appeal, but to the character as a whole. "Star 80" is not a sexy movie, and Hemingway doesn't have a single erotic scene in it. Even when she's posing for her Playboy centerfold, Fosse's subject is the posing, not the pose. But by the end of the film I was so much in sympathy with her that I did not know if I could continue to watch what was happening on the screen.

The movie begins with Stratten's murder. Eric Roberts plays her boyfriend, Paul, the insecure young man who met her behind the counter of a Dairy Queen and masterminded the campaign that made her a Playmate and, inevitably took her out of his reach. As the film opens, Stratten has just been killed. The rest is a flashback. We see the insecurities of this young woman who thinks her feet and her hands are too big, who is terrified to meet "Mr. Hefner," who confesses at one point, "I think I'm nothing."

Then we see her growing. She doesn't grow into a great actress, but she is intelligent and competent and she does learn to fit into the new world of the Playboy Mansion, movie sets, dating young directors, being seen around town. For Paul, however, there are no rewards, only the constant reinforcement of his own lousy self-image. "He has the personality of a pimp," Hefner tells Stratten, not unkindly. She thinks he is talking about Paul's wardrobe.

"I think Dorothy was a real mole," Hemingway said. "She holed up in her own life for a long time. Even though she led a kind of tough life, raised herself, worked from an early age and all that stuff, she had no knowledge of the world at all. She was a pushover for someone like Paul, who praised her and made plans for her."

And then she moved on, from Paul to men who were better connected, who understood how things work. In "Star 80," one of the men, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, is identified, and played by Cliff Robertson as a benevolent father figure. The other man, a young director, may be modeled on filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who was in love with Stratten at the time of her murder. But that character is given a fictional name.

"Everybody wants to be responsible for somebody." Hemingway said. "Especially somebody naive and immature and beautiful. They want to be able to say, I had my hand in, I'm part of the reason she's a success.' But you know what I think? I think that by the end, Dorothy wanted to be free from everybody. She had started out knowing nothing, and by the time she learned enough to see what was happening, she just wanted to get away from all the ties. Hefner and . . . the director . . . were doing exactly what Paul was doing, just in a more controlled way."

Did you ever have any meditations in the middle of the night, I asked her, about the different paths that you and Dorothy took? There might have been a night, a few years ago, when Dorothy was sitting in the Playboy Mansion looking at you in "Manhattan" and thinking, "Why can't I get in a Woody Allen movie? I'm prettier than Mariel Hemingway . . . " And then the irony is that there finally was a movie all about Dorothy Stratten, but she had to be murdered to inspire it.

"I didn't think of her a lot. I tried to look at this role as a totally fictional character, which had been written, and which I was going to play. I looked at some videos of her, and I looked at 'They All Laughed,' the movie she made, but mostly I tried not to think about the fact that I was playing somebody who had been alive."

She rotated her finger around the top of her coffee cup.

"Sometimes that was tough. The day we were filming in the house where she was murdered, for example, was very weird. We shot inside the very same house. And I was thinking, 'She was alive. She was killed in this room.' I felt some tremendous guilt. Am I portraying her in the right way? Then I got chicken and superstitious. I never wanted to really get any closer than that, because it might have driven me crazy."

Did you study her gestures, the way she held herself?

"Not too much. I never looked at pictures of her and thought about things like how she moved her mouth, things like that. I wanted to get more into the spirit of her personality than into the physical details. One thing I believe is that she didn't want to be disliked, ever, at any moment. She fought that. She went out of her way to please people. I think that's why she went back to Paul's apartment, the day she was killed. She could have just stayed totally away from him. But she wasn't that kind of person. She really did love him. She really was grateful. And so she went back, which, in a way, she should have done - except, of course, that Paul was a psycho and he killed her."

Was it hard to do the death scenes?

"The fighting scenes were all right. I'm pretty physical and I threw myself into them. The hard scenes were the ones after she's dead and he's dragging her around. I couldn't fight anymore. It felt terrible to just be drug around the room. There was no way I could prepare for the days we shot those scenes. You know it's there. You know it's gonna happen. There was a funny thing: The crew had trouble looking at me after the character was dead. I wanted to say, 'Hey, guys, it's me. I'm still alive.'"

Did you meet a lot of Playmates while you were preparing to play one of them?

"Dozens of them. They were mostly terribly nice girls. But some of them pose for the magazine and that's it. They have no other plans. They think they've arrived at the end of the world. Then they sort of dwindle away, or, I heard it said, they eat themselves out of the Mansion. One Playmate I met was interesting, a real go-getter, doing it for a reason, because it was her ticket to get someplace else. I liked her aggression and passion. For most of the others, I think it's sad that they don't aim higher."

How high, I asked, did you aim? After you costarred with your sister in "Lipstick," and got a lot of good reviews, didn't you go back to Idaho and drop right back out of acting?

"Yes, but then I didn't want to be an actress. I wanted to be a marine biologist, an architect, a doctor. And first I wanted to be a normal kid. Then I got an offer to do this TV movie named 'I Want To Keep My Baby,' and I thought, 'Wow, babies, I love babies.' So I made it, liked it a lot, got 'Manhattan,' and said, that's it. I love acting.

"Now what I'm trying to do is age gracefully into roles for 24-year-olds. That's why I wanted this role in 'Star 80' so badly, to show that I could play something other than an 18-year-old girl. There's not a lot of interesting stuff in that age group. Mostly you get to play second banana to 18-year-old boys."

When was the first time you ever saw Playboy?

"Under my dad's bed. I remember he heard me moving around and shouted upstairs that I should get out of there."

What did you think about the first time you looked at a centerfold?

"First, how could girls pose like this? And second, being a kid, I didn't realize until that moment that women were shaped like that. They looked so glossy and glamorous."

What did you really learn from that experience?

"In that instant, I learned that men look at women in that way."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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