Woody Allen’s career has been the dream of any American filmmaker, he has been able to make a film pretty every single year since 1969 his proper debut film Take the Money and Run. He may have made some total duds especially in more recent years but when he is on form he is unstoppable. Stardust Memories at the time was considered one of the “duds” but over the years its stature has grown and I prefer it over the vastly overrated and slightly pervy Manhattan which came out the year before. Woody Allen also been open about his dislike of Manhattan over the years and even offered to buy the film so it wouldn’t come out.
Throughout his career Allen has stolen quite openly stolen from his favourite filmmakers most notably Allen’s beloved Ingmar Bergman. Stardust Memories however isn’t an homage to Bergman but to another European filmmaker Federico Fellini and specifically his masterpiece 8½. Fellini and Allen were both at crossroads in their careers when they made their respective films so they made films that are deeply autobiographical (Allen claims it isn’t but that’s obviously bull) and they both deal with the women of their lives, the creative process and the unhappiness that celebrity can bring. Allen toyed with the title “Woody Allen No. 4” because he wasn’t half the filmmaker Fellini is.
Allen plays a version himself as he always does in his films this time he is called Sandy Bates. He is attending a retrospective of his films and often plagued by fans who prefer his “earlier, funnier movies” which he has gotten ever since his Bergman rip-off Interiors. In a similar way to 8½; Stardust Memories interweaves dreams and the memories of his ex-girlfriend Dorrie who is played by Charlotte Rampling but also his childhood etc. This is counter balanced by his increasing attraction to both Daisy (Jessica Harper) and Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) after he meets both at the retrospective. Typical with Allen’s work it’s full of his musing on God, existentialism, psychology and so on and it’s also slightly more political than his normal films. Extraterrestrials even show up in one of the film’s highlights which keeps with the surrealism that film has which is down to the 8½ influence.
The response on the film’s initial release was hostile to say the least. Both audiences and critics were angered by the bitterness of the picture and Allen saying basically with the film “you should appreciate my art and not just box me into being a funny man”. This is precisely why the film works as well as it does and why it may have failed during its initial run. It came out in 1980 which was the same year of Heaven’s Gate (another neglected film till recently) and the downbeat filmmaking of the ’70s was out and films with a more optimistic message like Star Wars were in.
According to legend the film was somewhat a rebuttal to a piece Joan Didion wrote about Allen which was hostile hence the negative view of critics in the film. Allen was also getting increasingly frustrated by the success of his comedies over his arty chamber piece Interiors which is what interested him more than just doing comedies, he would follow in that tradition in the ’80s with September and Another Women. Stardust Memories was also a rare time that a Woody Allen film only broke even, he has been able to get away with making so many films because his films are always on the cheaper side.
The best post ’70s Woody Allen films are either his lovely magic realist exercises or deeply bitter films and Stardust Memories is a mixture of both. Woody has never been this angry before or since even with Deconstructing Harry which itself is a quasi-remake of Stardust Memories. The dreamy black and white photography by Gordon Willis (who Allen learned everything he knows about filmmaking form) is more inventive than the more classical approach they took in Manhattan. The production design especially the wall paper of photographs in Bates’ apartment adds to the surrealism.
Overall Stardust Memories is probably the most unsung film of Woody Allen’s career you will either love it or hate it. It might not have the sheer perfection of Annie Hall but it has cinematic daring and anger to it which gives that film a run for its money. The supporting cast is great especially Rampling and the always wonderful Jessica Harper who pretty much left the industry to write kids books. It even has Sharon Stone is her debut role as the girl who blows Woody a kiss on a train in the opening. In keeping with Woody Allen’s track record of home video releases the release only contains the theatrical trailer and no other special features. The boxset however has a hardback book which has writing on the film, the boxset consists of the Woody Allen films from Manhattan to The Purple Rose of Cairo.