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Woody Allen’s most controversial film was hated by fans upon its release for its narcissism and disregard towards his loyalists, but time has made Stardust Memories a much more entertaining film than it was considered in 1980. It blatantly references Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, in both plot (a respected filmmaker trying to clear his mind while dealing with fans and women) and its look (shot in beautiful black and white photography which, like Feliini, includes grotesque close-ups of all manner of odd looking people). Woody actually comes off as one of the beautiful people compared to the faces on the extras. Though Stardust Memories is funny, it’s also deeply depressing. Woody plays Sandy Bates, maybe his most confident character, and though always surrounded by admirers, he may also be his loneliest.
Like Allen himself, Sandy is a beloved maker of comedies who longs to get more philosophical and serious in his work. While attending a film retrospective weekend of his work, he is bombarded by sycophant fans; every couple of minutes someone seems to be asking for his autograph or his attention for their cause or script idea or just heaping praise on him. Time jumps back and forth from the beachfront festival to his New York apartment, while past and present relationships are examined. He’s haunted by memories of his ex, Dorrie (the icy Charlotte Rampling), an insecure and possibly insane actress, and his current French girlfriend, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault from Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s), who maybe he loves, but isn’t in love with. Meanwhile he strikes-up a friendship with an Annie Hall esque sincere violinist (Jessica Harper of Suspiria, who also appeared in Allen’s earlier Love And Death) but she’s already involved with someone. Sandy is just never satisfied with what he has, his fantasy world and film world collide to make him even more maladjusted.
For “Woodyphiles” historically Stardust Memories was Allen’s follow up to his two breakthrough masterpieces, Annie Hall and Manhattan (with his experiment in heaviness, Interiors, scrunched in between). Stardust Memories can be looked at as the bridge into his more experimental '80s work. It’s full of fantasy, magic and jazz music, and more than Annie Hall or Manhattan, its shifts from comedy to darkly serious shows the fluctuation in tone he would master some years later with his two best films in the '80s, Hannah And Her Sisters and Crime And Misdemeanors.
Stunningly shot by Gordon Willis (The Godfather, Manhattan), much of the film seems to be in shadowy silhouette - it’s no wonder he’s known in the business as “The Prince of Darkness.” Besides the inspired casting of the three actresses, with Harper being a real revelation - she should have had a bigger career - the film is full of interesting cameos and supporting actors including Tony Roberts (Rob in Annie Hall), Daniel Stern (Dusty in Hannah And Her Sisters), Bob Marloff (the second of the “You’re Alvy Singer, right?” teamsters on the street in Annie Hall and was one of De Niro’s cabbie cohorts in Taxi Driver), Laraine Newman (of the original cast of Saturday Night Live), and Louise Lasser (Woody’s real life second wife and his original leading lady, co-starring with him in Bananas and Take The Money and Run). Also, in her first role, Sharon Stone appears in the great opening scene (referencing 8 1/2), when Woody is stuck on the depressing sad train, while the train on the track next to him is lively; the beautiful Stone blows him a kiss, more proof that he’s never satisfied with his lot.
At just under 90 minutes, Stardust Memories would feel like one of Allen’s long short stories if it wasn’t so crammed with ideas. Sometimes it overreaches, it could have used the deft hand of Ralph Rosenblum, who famously fixed Annie Hall with his editing skills, turning a lot of random bits into an actual story (instead Susan E. Morse was the editor, she would continue to edit most of Woody’s films for the next two decades). The hate Stardust Memories receives from some may have been warranted. It really is startling to see the way Allen portrays his fans, but that’s not to say they don’t deserve it. With those previous films Allen had reached mega-icon status, winning Oscars, introducing a new brand of adult intellectual comedy and making himself a hero to a generation of film goers who couldn’t relate to the slapstick of Mel Brooks or the druggie comedy of Saturday Night Live. A lot of expectations were put on him and one can understand if it was too much for the intensely private Allen. For laughs, Stardust Memories delivers (though not at the high rate of Allen’s funniest films), but as a peak into the insecurities of a famous filmmaker and the self-torture Allen seems to have been feeling, it is still an utterly fascinating experience. Though not top-tier Woody Allen, Stardust Memories does fall into that next level, and second-tier Woody Allen is still about as good as it gets.