In life and death alike, Dorothy Stratten fascinated people: Paul Snider, the hustler and soon-to-be husband who spied her in a Vancouver Dairy Queen at age 19 and brought her to the attention of Playboy; millions of readers of the magazine who saw her body displayed to the world in August 1979; chief Playboy Hugh Hefner, who named her Playmate of the Year in April 1980; director Peter Bogdanovich who reportedly had an affair with her and gave her a role in his not-yet-released film "They All Laughed"; Snider, soon her estranged husband, who ended both their lives with two shotgun blasts on Aug. 14, 1980; and Teresa Carpenter, whose posthumous portrait of Stratten for the Village Voice helped earn its author the Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing this spring.
Certainly this is the stuff of drama: enough for Bob Fosse to have bought the film rights to Carpenter's piece for a movie he hopes to begin shooting next spring. But as often happens in the crazy world of Hollywood, where Dorothy Stratten lived a fairy-tale existence for almost a year, TV has already beaten out the cinema with "Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story," which airs at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 4.
As television movies go, this one seems accurate, with a few noticeable exceptions: Stratten's mother has been changed into an aunt and it's never quite clear whether Stratten's having an affair with a director who, in the film, is called David Palmer. But Hefner is called Hefner (Mitch Ryan looks eerily like the man he portrays) and the scenes set in Vancouver and Los Angeles ring true, especially when producers lounging around a pool intone immortal lines like, "Hey, you got that laid-back thing." The only glaring problem is the one scene where Stratten looks at a copy of Playboy, which seems more like some mutant Japanese fan magazine.
But if the surface has the grit of reality, the underlying drama seems intensely shallow. That Playboy continues to sell so well is ample testament to the vision of Hefner and the nature of people of the male persuasion. The core of the Playboy mystique is expediently glossed over, as is the even more fascinating dynamic of Dorothy Stratten's attraction to a man like Paul Snider: "I say pose, you pose; I say stand on your head, you stand on your head," his character says at one point in Donald Stewart's script. And later the Stratten character explains the appeal of a man: "You gave me confidence, made me feel like a woman, told me I could be more than just some kid with a body, touched me."
All well enough, but certainly not enough on its own, hardly delving into the psychological universality of the story Carpenter captured so well in her piece: If Hefner conceived of his playmates as the idealized girls next door, then the death of Dorothy Stratten was more than a quirky statistic -- a point director Gabrielle Beaumont never manages to make in this film.
It's peculiarly disappointing in this case, because Jamie Lee Curtis seems very capable of giving a performance that could go beyond the limitations of this script and the characters she's previously portrayed in schlocky horror films like "Halloween." While she doesn't seem as superficially gorgeous as Stratten did in the two dimensions of Playboy, there's a vital understanding of the character's conflicts simmering under Curtis' acting. The portrayal is hauntingly good, and one can only wonder what might have resulted if the script and direction had been up to the caliber of her work here.