“He’s Not Funny Anymore”: “Stardust Memories” at 40

Stardust Memories (United Artists)

Misinterpreted upon its release, Woody Allen’s 1980 comedy is a worthy riff on the likes of 8 1/2 and Sullivan’s Travels.

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AUTHOR’S NOTE: Yes, I am writing about Woody Allen within the context of his filmmaking, and no, this piece will not go into his alleged transgressions. If this is a problem, please feel free to bow out now. I promise not to hold it against you.

During the first half of the 1970s, Woody Allen made the transition from comedian to filmmaker with such critically and commercially successfully comedies as Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975). Wanting to expand his horizons from the unabashed silliness of those early endeavors, he then presented viewers with the more deeply felt romantic comedy Annie Hall (1977). It went on to become both an Oscar-winning hit and one of the most beloved films of that era.

Bolstered by that success and driven by his expanding artistic ambitions, he then came up with his first pure drama, Interiors (1978). And while it wasn’t a particularly big hit, it was a necessary step from him on his artistic journey, one that would pay off the next year with Manhattan (1979), a bittersweet work that combined his comedic leanings with his dramatic ambitions to became the biggest hit of his career to date.

Given all the goodwill that he had accumulated by this point in his filmmaking career, it’s a little astonishing to go back and discover the amount of venom that was unleashed on him upon the release of his ninth feature, Stardust Memories (1980). Even if he had made a truly awful movie (and Allen would certainly prove himself capable of making such things in due time), it wouldn’t have deserved the slating critics and audiences gave him. In fact, the film was his boldest artistic achievement to date, a funny, touching, and frighteningly prescient contemplation on life, love, and art. To these eyes, it’s second only to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) as the best film of his long career.

Allen plays Sandy Bates, a successful and celebrated filmmaker who now finds himself at a professional and personal crossroads. Having made a series of acclaimed comedies, he now yearns to make more serious-minded dramas about the human condition. This, of course, is much to the horror of studio executives and the public, who prefer he stick to the funny stuff. He agrees to attend a weekend-long retrospective of his films (inspired by the similar gatherings that film critic Judith Crist, who turns up in a cameo). It’s also where people bug him for an autograph, ask inane or obscure questions about his work, and/or sleep with him—almost invariably adding that they prefer his earlier, funnier films.

Stardust Memories

As the weekend goes on and the interactions grow surreal and claustrophobic, Sandy finds himself contemplating the state of his personal relationships. There’s Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), the brilliant and beautiful woman who’s presumably the great love of his life. However, he’s unable to come to terms with her mental instability. Then there’s the sweet and maternal Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) who deeply cares for him than he ever could her. Finally is Daisy (Jessica Harper), one of the festival attendees with whom he hits it off with nicely, though there’s the suggestion he only sees her as a substitute for Dorrie.

The chief reason why Stardust Memories received such a brutal reception sprung from how they’d previously identified his characters as extensions of the public persona as a wisecracking, neurotic New York Jewish intellectual he’d cultivated. If Alvy Singer and Issac Davis were, at least in their minds, thinly disguised versions of the real Allen, then it stood to reason that Sandy Bates was as well. As a result, a film that depicted him as a successful, admired artist who still wasn’t satisfied horrified them. More so, a film that depicted them as weird, leering intruding pests that he can barely stand to be around horrified them. He even had the effrontery to depict one fan as someone who asks him for an autograph one day and shoots him the next. How dare he?

What they failed to recognize is that Allen had written and was playing a character. He was playing a filmmaker who’s struggling to find meaning in both his work and life, whose current mood dictates how he sees the world around him. For example, this is why the decor in his apartment seems to change almost at random. This is why the people at the retreat come across as bizarre and grasping weirdoes. If you were in the mindset that your entire life’s work is meaningless nonsense, how else would you see the people telling you to keep doing the same old thing?

Had Stardust Memories been made a decade or two later, there’s an excellent chance viewers might have been better equipped to navigate the differences between real and reel life. They’d be more likely to accept the notion than an artist can critique the trappings and pitfalls and pressures of stardom without being immediately castigated as being self-absorbed, cynical, and contemptuous of their very audience. Considering how The Larry Sanders Show would tackle a number the same issues years later to great acclaim, one could argue that Allen was simply ahead of his time. (See also: someone who had just solicited John Lennon’s autograph murdered him later that day.)

Had Stardust Memories been made a decade or two later, there’s an excellent chance viewers might have been better equipped to navigate the differences between real and reel life.

In recent years, however, Stardust Memories has undergone considerable reappraisal. And while it’s unlikely to ever been as widely embraced as Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), or Midnight in Paris (2011), it’s now regarded as one of his boldest and most intriguing cinematic efforts. People today are less likely to talk about Allen’s alleged contempt for his fans. They’re more likely to look at it as a portrait of a filmmaker confused by his work in the tradition of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963) and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941), a tale where an artist realizes his work has real value to others.

They’re able to more fully appreciate Allen’s screenplay and direction, which effortlessly weaves reality and fantasy thanks largely in part to cinematographer Gordon Willis. (The ludicrous comments on his work from his fans will also strike a chord with anyone who has ever sat through a particularly awkward Q&A screening.) They can also better admire the performances, especially Rampling’s, who’s simply spectacular. She’s also the central focus of what remains one of the greatest scenes in the entire Allen oeuvre. It’s when Sandy reminisces about her sitting around one lazy Sunday morning with Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust” in the background that he realizes it’s in these small moments where perfection truly lies.

For the most part, Allen responded to the apathy surrounding Stardust Memories with little more than casual disinterest, moving on to the next of what would be a long string of projects. However, while he would refer to it as one of his personal favorites of his films alongside The Purple Rose of Cairo and Match Point (2005), one could argue that the confusion viewers felt over how much of him was in Sandy Bates did strike a nerve. For the next few years, the films that he made—A Midsummer’s Night Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), and The Purple Rose of Cairo—told stories far removed from any contemporary concerns.

When he did return to current-day material with Hannah and Her Sisters, it was in a more benign and audience-friendly form. He wouldn’t return to material so caustic until the thematically similar Deconstructing Harry (1997), a film that would inspire similar criticisms. However, time has been kind to Stardust Memories. Getting people to separate Allen the person from Allen the artist might be a tad difficult, but those willing to give it a shot will be amply rewarded by one of the most fascinating and original works from one of America’s most fascinating and original filmmakers.

Stardust Memories Trailer:

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