When I saw “Stardust Memories” for the first time back in 1980 (Baronet Theater in Manhattan) I was completely lost as to what Woody Allen was doing. Filled with Fellini like imagery, bizarre inhabitants straight out of Diane Arbus and seemingly resentful, bitter attacks on his fans. I found the film, to say the least, hard to swallow. I wasn’t and am not one of those folks who keep wishing Woody would trek back to his ‘funny’ early films. I actually relished his celluloid journey, his growth from dubbing a cheesy Japanese spy flick with completely new dialogue turning it into “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?’ through his early visually clumsy, but oh so funny, films like “Take The Money and Run” and ‘Bananas” to his classic “Annie Hall” and on to the Bergman like “Interiors” and the homage to his home town in “Manhattan.” Woody always seemed to be expanding his artistic horizons. At the time of its original release, I chalked up “Stardust Memories” as a failure, hell everyone is entitled to a failure now and then, right?
Now, let me just say here, I watch many of Woody’s film all the time, over and over, true some more than others, I have lost count on how many times I have seen “Manhattan,” “Bananas,” “Sleeper,” “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” “Annie Hall, “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Broadway Danny Rose” and so on. His films are like old friends with whom you gladly sit, have a drink, and reminisce about those days gone by. The one film I never went back to was “Stardust Memories.” Frankly, until I watched it for the first time in years, just a few months ago, I remembered little about it except for the feeling of confusion I had and a why bother attitude about taking a second look. One day I found a copy at a local library and for no particular reason decided to give it another shot. All I can say is hallelujah brother! I have been seen the light and have been converted!
To say that “Stardust Memories” met with dreadful reviews when first released would be an understatement. Most critics were offended, some were vicious (Pauline Kael), and others even became personal with comments having little or nothing to do with the film itself (John Simon). It was called self indulgent, pretentious, disjointed, nasty and to some extent all of these do apply. Vincent Canby of The New York Times was one of the few who praised it, saying “Stardust Memories” is his most provocative film thus far and perhaps his most revealing. Certainly it is the one that will inspire the most heated debate, though the film makes fun of those who take all these things too seriously.”
Most of the movie going public did not get it either, and as I said, that included myself at the time. Subsequently, bad word of mouth killed the film off within a month in most areas of the country. It did last a bit longer in New York but ticket sales were underwhelming to say the least. That all said, “Stardust Memories” may be Woody’s most personal film.
Woody is Sandy Bates, a writer/director/comedian who reluctantly agrees to attend a weekend film seminar modeled after what critic Judith Crist was doing in the early 1970’s in Tarrytown, New York. Here Sandy is plagued by movie fans who keep asking him when is he going to make a funny movie again. From Sandy’s point of view the fans are straight out Diane Arbus photographs filled with misfits, fanatics and weirdo’s. For Sandy, the weekend is a hellish nightmare; he sees the world as one big ball of suffering anxiety and wonders how can anyone want to be funny in this world.
However, if the viewer is patient enough to wade through the film’s arty “8 1/2” influences, one will notice, that underneath this film is not much different from most of Woody’s other works. Like many of Woody’s characters Sandy Bates has his share of phobias, fears, self doubts and a love life filled with failure with the opposite sex.
And yes the film is filled with funny lines….
“You can’t control life. It doesn’t wind up perfectly. Only art you can control, art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”
“It’s crazy. The town is jammed. I don’t know, is the Pope in town, or some other show business figure?”
I mentioned earlier the film is arguably Woody’s most personal though he denies it and always denies any of his films are autobiographical in any way. Yet, here is the real life Woody coming off one of his greatest triumphs, “Manhattan,” another film he denied was autobiographical, and a decade of filmmaking where we have seen him grow into one of America’s top film artists just like reel life character Sandy Bates. No matter what he says, it is hard to believe many of his films don’t have at least some autobiographical strokes. As a rule one should believe the art and not the artist.
“Stardust Memories” is gorgeously filmed in black and white by Gordon Willis. The film is also dreamlike, angry, funny, touching, arty and much too overlooked in the Woody Allen hierarchy.
This article originally appeared as part of the Wonders in the Dark Comedy Countdown, where Stardust Memories ranked #63. Check out the countdown, which continues through the end of December.