Perhaps it’s ironic that Manhattan, a movie which I called “the first example of what we would now call a Woody Allen Movie,” is sandwiched in between two movies deliberately made in the style of other directors. 1978’s Interiors is universally labeled as Bergmanesque — a bleak psychodrama about familial relationships. And now comes Stardust Memories, a movie that just about remakes Federico Fellini’s 8½ with a different protagonist.
8½ is about an Italian director (played by Marcello Mastroianni) struggling to complete his 9th film while fending off pestering from producers and fans as an assortment of beautiful women drift through his life. Stardust Memories has a nearly identical plot — except this time, the director is Sandy Bates (played by Woody Allen), and he’s struggling to adapt to making more serious films following a string of hit comedies and a successful career as a comedian.
If, for some reason, the mirroring plot lines aren’t enough to convince you of this movie’s 8½ connection, take a quick look at the opening scenes of both films. The beautiful opening of 8½ features an unseen character suffocating in a locked car stuck in traffic, and all sound other than his increasingly desperate breathing and a ticking clock is cut off. Soon, he’s free — too free — and floating high above the surface of the earth, needing to get pulled down (this eventually reveals itself as a dream from the director’s blocked mind). In Stardust Memories (which is also shot in black & white), Allen uses the same visual and audio techniques, deliberately creating an homage. Making it more Allenesque, however, is the fact that he’s not suffocating, he just wants to be in the train-car with the cute girl.
In addition to the plot, Stardust Memories also borrows 8½’s tone — it’s a dream-like fantasy that only briefly sets foot in the real world. Sandy has interactions with aliens and monsters, and the landscapes and faces are often surreal. Allen imposes a deliberate uncertainty of “realness” of any given moment. Sometimes, we’ll be watching a scene and only part way through is it revealed that we’re actually watching “actors” film part of Sandy’s films. At one point, Sandy is shot and killed by a fan but his death seems to be temporary.
The plot, to get a bit more specific, finds Sandy attending a retrospective of his films at the Stardust hotel while struggling to convince studio heads to help him get his latest venture off the ground. We don’t really find out much about his new movie, except that, like Mastroianni’s film in 8½, it’s very ambitious. Meanwhile, he wades unsurely in and out of relationships with three different women. One of those women is the sweet, young Daisy who he’s just met at the Stardust. The other is Isobel, a nurturing French woman with two children. The two had been together before, but Isobel announces that she has left her husband and is looking to live with Sandy for good. Finally, and most significantly, Sandy dates the fiery, bi-polar Dorrie, played by the great Charlotte Rampling and her ferocious cheek-bones.
Dorrie is a classic Allen leading lady — beautiful, intellectual, simultaneously strong-willed and aimless, and keeper of dark secrets. For Dorrie, one of those secrets is a romantic relationship with her father. Another is a deep self-loathing that causes her to abuse diet pills and antidepressants. IMDb claims this character is based on Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser, although I don’t know what their source on that is. One thing I hope is not autobiographical, if only for Louise’s sake, is the way Sandy seems to keep Dorrie around more out of a sense of intellectual curiosity (and sexual exoticism) than any actual affection.
Something I’ve discussed over and over on this blog is the ambiguous similarity between Woody Allen and the characters he plays. Not to sound like a broken record, but in a movie in which he plays a comedian-turned-serious-film-director, the conversation is inevitable. In no film in Allen’s career would the divide be more ambiguous or more important than it is here. Allen’s long-time producers Charles H. Joffe and Jack Rollins play movie producers, and Allen regular Tony Roberts plays an actor named Tony who appears in many of Sandy’s films. Like Allen, Sandy has had an arduous history of studios interfering artistically in his films, and now guards over the final cut militantly. Bearing these similarities in mind, consider, also, the following: Sandy is a pretentious, self-serious, boorish, egotistical, self-centered tool. Worst of all: Sandy has a searing contempt for his fans and critics alike.
Woody Allen insists that, apart from a few details, Sandy is not actually that much like him. The more you learn about Woody Allen, the easier it is to believe this. For one thing, Sandy wants to stop directing “funny” movies because he is no longer able, in good conscience, make them with so much sadness in the world, whereas Woody Allen’s dramatic endeavors are the result of personal interest and artistic ambition. Furthermore, unlike Sandy, Allen takes neither himself nor his movies seriously at all. And, most importantly, Allen has no contempt for his fans — he always writes movies under the assumption that the people watching are at least as smart as him (his movies have been accused of many things, but never of being deliberately dumbed-down).
Regardless, critics and audiences took the film to be the cinematic equivalent of Woody Allen waving a middle finger in their face. All of Sandy’s fans are portrayed as pathetic, sycophantic simpletons incapable of absorbing true art, or they’re just leeches, latching onto him because he just happens to be famous. Most insultingly, the fans are largely portrayed as physically hideous.
Given the parallels Allen draws between himself and Sandy, combined with the lukewarm reception of his first serious venture (Interiors), and the over-the-top venom with which he portrays Sandy’s “fans,” it’s pretty easy to understand why people felt they were being personally insulted. I, for one, felt a little lump in the throat when “Sandy” takes a pot-shot at one particular fan who has the gall to pointlessly overanalyze his movies.
Allen has said that, artistically, the film turned out fairly well, but he deeply regretted making it after he saw (after somehow failing to have seen before) how easily it could be interpreted as an unpleasant affront to the audience. I agree with that sentiment — Stardust Memories is a good movie, but I’m only able to say that after time and research has given me the ability to see Sandy as a fictional creation and not Woody Allen’s mouthpiece.
1980’s audiences and critics didn’t have that luxury, however, and Stardust Memories was a box-office bomb and the target of not just negative, but scathing reviews. As I mentioned in its review, Manhattan was a big hit, but it was also his last hit (financially speaking). Allen said in an interview that he thinks this was it for a lot of people — they never saw another Woody Allen movie after Stardust Memories, and that’s why none of his movies have made much money since. I don’t think that’s quite accurate, but there’s certainly a large contingent of fans who got the message (even if it wasn’t intended) that any hope for another “funny” Woody Allen movie should be discarded.
It’s too bad that so many people got caught up in the implications because, underneath, it is a very funny movie — funnier, even, than many of the early films people ostensibly want him to return to making. Stardust Memories is pretty to look at, and it does contain insight into the struggles of an artist in crisis, but in these regards it’s doomed to be compared unfavorably to its Fellini inspiration (one of the best and most beloved films in the world). The humor, though, like the upcoming Zelig, captures Woody Allen at the point of intersection between slapstick scamp and cerebral auteur, and as a result, is an exhilarating mix of ribald and intellectual.
Sandy’s fans (the “leeches” and “pathetic, sycophantic simpletons” I mentioned earlier) are hilarious, hyperbolic examples of the kinds of deranged and pushy idiots that, I’m sure, celebrities have to deal with all the time. Even though he did not intend for it to come across as confrontational, the dark, subversive tone is deliberate and effective.
Fans are constantly chasing him and trying to sell him on their stupid screenplay ideas (“It’s a comedy based on that whole Guyana mass suicide”) or giving unwanted treatises on the “meaning” of his films (“the comedian as a symbol of homosexuality”). People who have never heard of him, but recognize him from TV, demand autographs, and actors shove headshots into his hand. Sandy might be in the middle of a serious conversation with a girlfriend, or trying to talk to his mother on the phone, but it doesn’t stop fans from asking him to endorse their cousin’s restaurant or pose for a photo.
Also, of all the film world’s many portrayals of pushy groupies, I don’t think anyone tops this girl, who sneaks into Sandy’s room while her supportive boyfriend waits in the car outside. Just try to get this image out of your head:
But, amidst all the mindless fame-seekers, patronizing detractors are equally abundant. “I liked your early, funny films” is something he is constantly hearing (usually condescendingly). And not just from members of Earth, either, as aliens descend from space to tell him that they, too, liked his early, funny films. And also that dating Dorrie is a bad idea.
I also don’t remember the last time I laughed as hard, at anything, as I did at the point in Stardust Memories when Sandy’s “anger” manifests itself into a growling, furry, bear-like monster and goes on a killing spree — starting with his ex-wife and alimony lawyer before seeking out his mother. Not to ruin surprises, but the monster makes a few more opportune appearances throughout the film.
Ultimately, Stardust Memories has endured as probably Woody Allen’s most divisive film — it’s one of his few movies than can justly be both loved and despised. I think, perhaps, how you feel about it depends on how you feel about Allen’s early, funny films. If Bananas and Sleeper are all you want from a Woody Allen movie, this is where things end for you. Even if he didn’t intend to do it so rudely, Stardust Memories makes it clear Woody Allen is interested in taking you to much darker places.
- “You can’t control life. Only art you can control. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.”
- “I’m an excellent kisser. It was my major in college.”
- “What’s with this traffic... is the pope in town? Or some other show business figure?”
- “To you, I’m an atheist; to God, I’m the loyal opposition.”
- “Mr. Bates, I’ve seen all your films. You really feel threatened by intellectuals.”
“Threatened? You’re kidding me. I’ve always said they’re like the mafia. They only kill their own.”
- “I understand you studied philosophy at school.”
“Uh, no, that’s not true. I did take one course in existential philosophy at New York University, and on the final, they gave me ten questions. I couldn’t answer any of them, and, uh, I left ‘em all blank. I got a hundred.”
- “Is that an unregistered fire-arm in your car?”
“Yes, but don’t worry officer, it’s just for Nazis”
- “Suicide was just not a middle-class alternative, you know? My mother was too busy running the boiled chicken through the deflavorizing machine to think about shooting herself or anything”
- “Some people have claimed that your films are narcissistic.”
“Yes, many people have said that about me over the years, but I don’t think it’s true. If I were to say which Greek God I take after, I would definitely not say Narcissus.”
“Who would you say?”
- “For years I thought the Golberg Variations were something Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg tried on their wedding night.”
- “That aftershave. It just made my whole childhood come back with a sudden Proustian rush.”
“Yeah? That’s ‘cause I’m wearing Proustian Rush by Chanel.”
- Woody Allen’s mother is portrayed by the same actress as in Annie Hall.
- The title is a reference to the Stardust hotel, where part of the film takes place, but also to the song “Stardust Memories” by Louie Armstrong, which is played a couple of times in the film.
- This was Woody Allen’s last film with United Artists — he left because all the people he had worked with throughout his career also left, and moved over to Orion Pictures.
- The casting agent and several of the films’ producers spent weeks handing out invitations to audition to every strange-looking person they saw, in order the cast the film’s many bizarre faces.
- Sharon Stone (see above), Brent Spiner (Commander Data on Star Trek) and Daniel Stern (Home Alone’s wet bandit) all have small roles as pesterers of Sandy Bates.
- If you only count films he had both written and directed, Woody Allen had made nine films prior to this (one more than Federico Fellini as he embarked upon 8½).
- The working title for this movie was “Woody Allen No. 4” — to suggest that Allen is not-quite half the director that Fellini is.
- In Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, I said it marked the last appearance of Allen’s ex-wife Louise Lasser... but, actually, she has a small role in this movie as Sandy’s secretary.