The central operational notion of Woody Allen’s Starust Memories is the same as Federico Fellini’s 8½: the problems of the successful and the artistically accomplished can still be a source of genuine pain and frustation. This is the main idea that you have to buy into if you are going to get much out of either work’s worldview. Allen’s film is all about a man who is struggling with his past successes and the almost obsessive love that the entire world seems to have for his public persona. It asks the viewers to treat these problems, relatively weightless as they might seem when compared to those that confront less fortunate individuals, as a genuine cause for concern. It’s easy to roll your eyes at the film’s treatment of these ideas, writing them off as whiny or egotistical. Then you arrive at the scene when a deranged fan shoots the film’s protagonist in a sudden burst of unexplained violence. It takes only an additional second to register that the film was released just seven weeks prior to John Lennon’s murder, a killing carried out in almost identical fashion to Allen’s fictional shooting. Perhaps the film does have something to say about the dangers of fame that’s worth paying attention to.
This is the odd space that Stardust Memories occupies: when approached on its own terms, and with a grain of patience and empathy, it is a terrifically smart film, as eloquent about the issues of celebrity, public appearances, and artistic creation as Fellini’s much lauded surrealist masterpiece. The problem is that it has to be engaged with that mentality to be rewarding, and it’s all too easy to see a different side to this film. Since it’s release, Stardust Memories has been one of Allen’s most divisive films. Many saw it as amounting to little more than impertinent whining. At its worst it was seen as mockery of the director’s fans. To make things worse, it was released in September of 1980, at the height of Allen-mania. The director had just released his critical superstar hits Annie Hall and Manhattan, with his first foray into serious drama, Interiors, sandwiched in the middle of the two. Everybody wanted to see the next big Woody Allen film; nobody was ready for something as tricky and as obtuse as what he gave the world. Nobody wanted Stardust Memories.
The story of the film follows film director Sandy Bates (played by Allen) as he goes through various troubling episodes. After making his name in lighthearted comedies, he is now in the middle of a protracted battle with the studio executives that want to change the dour ending of his new drama film. He is forced to attend a festival holding a retrospective on his films, which he no longer holds much affection for, and interact with his sycophantic fans, whom he no longer has much patience for. He is in love with beautiful Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) but unable to cope with her turbulent mood swings. He is the object of steady, dependable Isobel’s (Marie-Christine Barrault) love, and knows that he should be in love with her without ever genuinely feeling that way. The film moves through these in a non-chronological fashion, alternating between snippets of each plot and quick glimpses of Sandy’s films as they play at the festival.
At the time of its release, Stardust Memories was as much of a commercial and critical disaster as Allen’s previous three films had been successes. It disappointed many of the director’s fans and failed to make much of an impact in the box office. Reviews of the film were scathing, with many critics calling it out for the odd feat of feeling both meandering and mean-spirited. Roger Ebert concluded his review, one of the more positive of the bunch, by saying, “Stardust Memories is a disappointment. It needs some larger idea, some sort of organizing force, to pull together all these scenes of bitching and moaning, and make them lead somewhere.” The much colder review from the Chicago Reader goes with, “A drab, crowded, ugly film by Woody Allen. Meant to be a confessional in the style of 8½, this 1980 feature is more or less a steady stream of bile.” Yikes.
Let’s work our way up with this one. What is it about Stardust Memories that so many people found objectionable?
For the most part it comes down to the main issue of most Woody Allen films: how much is the film’s central character supposed to be an avatar for Allen the writer/director? It’s no secret that Woody Allen’s characters, especially those that he plays onscreen, are very much of a type: equal parts neuroticism, intelligentsia, jitters, and acidic wit. The problem is that for many people it’s too easy to mentally slip from Allen playing “a Woody Allen type” to Allen just playing Allen.
This might be vaguely troublesome in something like Annie Hall, but it doesn’t get to the point of derailing the film. With Stardust Memories, however, the material cuts a lot closer to the specific reality of Woody Allen the director and public figure. Sandy Bates is dealing with romantic problems that are comparable to what Alvy Singer went through with Annie Hall, but he’s also dealing with unwanted attention from obsessive fans and a growing sense of contempt towards his earlier films. Imagine watching that as an Allen fan in 1980, with Allen up on the screen to give the entire thing a veneer of specificity. It’s not hard to see how the proceedings might feel like an attack on the films the audience loved… or on the audience themselves.
And that attack can get very caustic. The portrayal of Sandy’s fans is especially dark. The film has to work to make the various scenes of the director being adored by the masses anything but than appealing, achieved by recruiting a legion of non-actors with unattractive features or asymmetrical faces to play Sandy’s fans and shooting them with wide angle lenses that accentuated these qualities. At various times in the film we get long shots from Sandy’s point-of-view as dozens of clamoring fans rush up to the foreground, offering up terrifically inane observations of the director’s work or alarmingly obsessive declarations of love. In a particularly memorable scene, Sandy steps into his hotel room to find a groupie waiting in his bed. His initial annoyance quickly turns into horror when he discovers that the girl’s husband, also a big fan of his work, is not only aware of what she’s doing but actually drove her to the hotel and is now sleeping in their van. The film works tirelessly to make the director’s interactions with his fans feel claustrophobic, so mission accomplished, but if it’s taken as a commentary on Allen and his real-world fans, it can come across as a little… harsh.
Was Sandy meant to be taken as an avatar of Woody Allen? Allen himself has always been very adamantly against this reading of the film. When asked about the reaction of the public to Stardust Memories in his book-long interview with Stig Bjorkman, Allen stated:
They thought that the lead character was me! Not a fictional character, but me, and that I was expressing hostility toward my audience. And, of course, that was in no way the point of the film. It was about a character who is obviously having a sort of nervous breakdown and in spite of success has come to a point in his life where he is having a bad time. (…) I guess, if I’d let Dustin Hoffman or some other actor play the lead, then it would have been much less criticized.
Fair enough, but if the film isn’t a direct reflection of the relationship between Allen and his film-going public, what is it about? I keep mentioning 8½ throughout this article, and the two films feel very close in their ambitions. The opening of Stardust Memories is actually direct visual reference to the Fellini film, with Allen’s character desperately struggling to get out of a stifling train compartment instead of a car. There is, however, a bit of a nuanced distinction between the two films. Fellini’s film dealt with its protagonist’s director’s block, the inability of a veteran artist to engage with what he’s making in a meaningful way. Stardust Memories deals not with an artist who can’t create, but with one who is struggling to see the point of his creations. The question at the heart of Sandy’s breakdown is not, “How can you make art?” but instead, “How can art, especially something as trivial as comedy, possibly count as meaningful work in a world as messed up as this one? Shouldn’t I be doing something more helpful to the human race?”
Once you approach Stardust Memories through this lens, the film suddenly comes into sharp focus. The various sections with the fans, the dysfunctional relationship that Sandy has with both women, his struggles with the studio that’s producing his new film, and all of the so-called “whining” finally register as what they really are: external representations of the protagonist’s crippling insecurities and inadequacies. The ugliness of the film around Sandy is not meant to be reflexive of Woody Allen’s life, but of the main character’s interior world. The film’s disapproval lies not with the elements around Sandy, but with the man himself. The overarching problem that the film seeks to solve, and the larger organizing principle that Roger Ebert desperately wanted the film to have, is all within the central character’s psychology. This is a man who is caught between who he is and his ideas of who he should be, both professionally and in terms of his romantic relationships, and the film plots the journey he undergoes to come to peaceful terms with these matters.
It also makes the film’s unusual formal design make much more sense. It’s easy for the first few minutes of Stardust Memories to feel like a confusing mess. The film doesn’t signal its chronological jumps too clearly, and various plot threads are opened and then left unresolved and unaddressed until much later in the film. I’ve seen the film multiple times, and even now I can’t really tell you the exact order in which everything happens. (did Sandy break up with Dorrie and then date Isobel? Or did he cheat on Dorrie with Isobel? Or vice versa? Or…) What is abundantly clear by the end of the film is Sandy’s intellectual journey and the psychological evolution of his character.
And where does that evolution end up? Stardust Memories is ultimately a journey of self-acceptance. It would have been easy for Allen to resolve the film’s plot by having Sandy making some transcendental piece of art, something that was finally meaningful in the way he was searching for. Instead, the film opts for something much quieter and harder: it ends with Sandy finding that meaning in his old films, the comedies that he had written off, and the uplifting effect they have on the people who watch them. It’s a similar journey to the one that Joel McCrea undergoes in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, but watching a version of it that has been infused with the verve and wit of someone like Allen is what makes the film so enjoyable.
Late in Stardust Memories and at the height of his nervous breakdown, Sandy believes that he has a conversation with a higher power. He asks, practically begs, for some guidance. Why is he even bothering to make movies? “We like your movies,” the higher power replies with a bit of a shrug. But shouldn’t he do something more meaningful with his life? Like helping the blind or working as a missionary or something? “Look,” comes the now slightly annoyed reply, “You’re not the missionary type. You’d never last. And, incidentally, you’re not Superman. You’re a comedian. You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes!” It’s about as eloquent and funny of a defense for the value of artists and comedians as we’re likely going to get, and if you can navigate Stardust Memories’s thornier sides, it’s really worth going through the film to seek it out.