- Stardust Memories (1980) movie review: Lambasted by some critics upon its release, this still-underappreciated, contemplative Woody Allen comedy – like Bob Fosse’s 1979 musical All That Jazz, inspired by Federico Fellini’s 8½ – is a masterful work of art.
- Woody Allen’s first film after the end of his professional relationship with Diane Keaton, Stardust Memories costars Charlotte Rampling, Marie-Christine Barrault, and Jessica Harper (previously seen in Allen’s Love and Death).
Stardust Memories movie review: Woody Allen’s self-reflective 1980 comedy one of the ‘greatest films ever made’
One of the interesting things about a great work of art is how, upon re-experience a) it holds up and/or b) deepens into something even better. From the first time I saw Woody Allen’s 88-minute black-and-white 1980 effort Stardust Memories on a VHS tape, I knew I was watching one of the greatest films ever made.
In the following years – after 12–15 rewatchings (progressing to DVD) – nothing has changed my mind in that regard. Not even the red herring of linking Stardust Memories to Federico Fellini’s 1963 opus 8½.
Having just rewatched Stardust Memories, I can state not only that it’s one of the greatest films ever made, but – for its humor, concision, and lack of pretension – it’s definitely a better film than Fellini’s and arguably Allen’s greatest effort. (Though fans of Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanors may have a case.)
Fear of failure
The reason for the greatness of Stardust Memories can be summed up in one phrase: Fear of failure. That is what holds the outer film (and its reality in the world) together, whereas the fear of success is an integral part of the film’s inner world.
Let me explain: The fear of failure is one of the most important things any artist, especially the great ones, can have.
Because it kills the ego, thus spurring the artist to innovate and try new techniques to keep their art ahead of the curve. Without such a fear, artists grow fat and sassy and lose the demiurge to create, or at least to challenge themselves and their audiences.
Just think of the vast majority of aging artists, but most especially those who were once great. How many aging musicians and rock groups have never been able to equal their greatest early hits? How many writers have penned bloated egotistical tomes that are pallid reflections of an earlier work? How many visual artists have bled dry the one nugget they made their name on?
And one need only look at the dozen or more films that Woody Allen himself has made since his Golden Era (1977–1992) ended – mostly lesser reworks of themes his greater films tackled better. Like many before him, Allen has settled into the Old Artist Syndrome, just coasting on his laurels, considerable though they may be.
It is the fear of failure that gets into the great artist and makes him experiment and risk failure.
Stardust Memories is one of the most experimental films of all time – in its screenplay, its visuals, its humor, its use of time and reality, as well as its ability to question the very notion of the artist and the self. Most great works of art are lucky to tackle a single one of these aspects in a new manner.
Yet while the fear of failure dominates the essence of the film in the real world, it’s also the very core of the film within. The lead characters are all obsessed with failing.
Some try to grow and are slapped down by the powers that be. Some give in to their own fears. Some are so timid they do nothing at all, and some try to change, only to make asses of themselves. And it’s this fact – this inner examination of the fear of failure – that provoked such a hostile reaction from almost every critic upon the release of Stardust Memories nearly three decades ago.
Life of an artist
Let me now examine the narrative of Stardust Memories.
In the film, Woody Allen plays comedian-turned-movie director Sandy Bates, whose life is on parade for him when he is invited to a film festival at the Stardust Hotel in Atlantic City.
The initial segments depict Bates’ dealing with annoying fans (who seem as living grotesques from a medieval woodcut), studio executives who want to bastardize his latest feature (to dumb it down like his “early, funnier” ones), as well as his constant memory of a former psychotic actress girlfriend named Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling).
As Stardust Memories progresses we learn that Dorrie is now married and living in Hawaii, but had suffered from many ills, including sexual abuse, mental problems, and anorexia. (Rampling is far thinner in this role than elsewhere.)
There is an especially brilliant and devastating scene of Dorrie greeting (presumably) Bates when he visits her at an asylum. Allen jump-cuts her greetings (twitchy and laden with tics), seductions (“There’s a doctor here who thinks I’m beautiful”), spurnings (“You look thin”), and speeches in several-second interviews, thus showing the fragmentation of her mind.
Wall of the heart
In a similarly bravura way, the interior of Bates’ mind is represented by the images that appear on his Manhattan apartment’s walls. They constantly change to suit the tenor of his mood and the subject of the moment.
One time, when in political angst, we see a reprint of Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo showing a South Vietnamese military officer blowing out the brains of a captured Vietcong thug. When Bates is happy, there is a photo of Groucho Marx on the wall, and when Dorrie angrily accuses Bates of flirting with her pretty 14-year-old cousin, newspaper headlines about incest cover the wall.
Once at the resort, Bates deals with hangers-on and sycophantic fans, but finds himself attracted to Daisy (Jessica Harper), a young bisexual cellist with a history of drugs. Soon after, his current girlfriend – an ex-radical from France, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) – arrives by train. Her two young children come not much later. Isobel has left her husband, and Sandy has mixed feelings about it.
Master of cinema
What follows are several scenes at and away from the festival, among them Sandy watching Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist Italian classic Bicycle Thieves, meeting extraterrestrials who question his sexual choices and tell him if he wants to help the world to “tell funnier jokes” (one of the sagest bits of advice ever filmed), visiting his sister and her health-challenged husband, watching his chauffeur arrested for mail fraud, and sitting through a recut Hollywood ending of his film in which his characters go to Jazz Heaven.
Such touches, until the final scene, separate Stardust Memories from lesser films, even those by masters of cinema that Woody Allen is always being accused of ripping off. Allen’s work holds up under rewatch because it’s brimming with artistic and pop cultural touches that are easily missed upon first watch.
Among those are some cameos by actors who later gained fame, the most well known being Sharon Stone – first seen within the Sandy Bates film that opens the movie, as a young woman on the happy train on a different rail than the train Allen/Bates is on. She blows a kiss and leaves a lipstick print on the railroad car window. Later, she reappears, presumably as a different character, and, while sitting in an old car, blows another kiss to Bates at the UFO landing site.
The very use of the same actress in different scenes, in different ways, shows that Bates, within the film, is thinking of multiple levels of reality, even as Allen – the real filmmaker – adds a final level when he has Bates or himself close the exterior film as revealing the whole prior film was just a “film within a film.”
Also, with all the constant references to Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, little noticed is a throwaway reference to Roman Polanski’s 1965 horror drama Repulsion, wherein Bates’ personal cook ruins a rabbit dinner and we’re shown the dead animal on a plate – signaling the possible deterioration of his mind like that of the lead character in Polanski’s film.
Bravura cinematography & editing
Over the years, Woody Allen has done several black-and-white films, with Manhattan getting the lion’s share of praise. But in Stardust Memories, the cinematography by the great Gordon Willis is more daring and memorable, as is Susan E. Morse’s risky editing job.
For instance, when Isobel first arrives, one great long single shot shows her walking down a long street toward Bates, following her till they meet. Then the camera backs up to reveal their conversation and eternal interruption by fans. It’s a sequence worthy of being placed in the pantheon of all-time great single takes, not merely for its technical skill but because it embodies the film’s tying together of the personal and the impersonal; it’s trivial and deep in a way that recapitulates the dialogue while also expanding upon it.
In another brief vignette, Bates sees a younger version of himself while with his mother on the beach. He’s dressed in a superhero outfit made of pajamas when, out of nowhere, he takes off into flight like Superman. On the surface, the scene seems a throwaway, but in the context of the moment it occurs – Bates is stressed out – it makes perfect sense.
Deadly accurate skewering
That the Superman bit is only one of a couple dozen such moments shows how great Stardust Memories is. And all of this is marshaled together by Allen’s own great screenplay, which ebbs in and out of the past like the greatest films of Fellini or Theo Angelopoulos, mirroring the way characters walk in and out of shots.
Add to that the fact that Stardust Memories skewers with deadly accuracy itself, its creator, celebrity culture, and human relationships on all levels. Indeed, one sequence featuring Bates’ near-murder by an obsessed fan eerily presaged the killing of John Lennon a short while later.
As a plus, Stardust Memories also has one of the best soundtracks ever – not just in terms of song choices but in the actual placement of each song.
Resilient great art
Great art perdures whereas culture is a whimsical thing. Something lauded one year becomes déclassé the next, and vice versa.
But the elements that constitute a great work of art remain: Excellence of craft, a deeper revelation of reality (especially if it refers to something the audience presumes to already know, in this case, Allen’s own personae and politics), and a broad appeal to the intellectual as well as the emotional sides of a viewer.
Too often, poor art strives to hit just one of those aspects. If it gets too intellectual, it often becomes pretentious and didactic. If it shoots merely for the emotional, it becomes maudlin and predictable.
Stardust Memories succeeds on maintaining a balance: It’s one of the most intellectually challenging films ever made and it’s also one of the most humorously entertaining. It deals with the nonsense that other human beings can recognize while asking deep questions.
For instance, when Sandy Bates is approached by an old (and envious) pal with whom he used to play stickball, Bates says that their fortunes were largely determined by luck – a fearful thing for it means an utter lack of control in life. Yet Bates delivers this bit of knowledge so thoughtfully and empathetically that his old pal seems relieved, even happy, despite the fact that Bates and we, the audience, know that that character is doomed to a meaningless existence.
It’s such moments, delivered so matter of factly, that are often missing in lesser films.
Watch Stardust Memories a few times, and it’s like watching a different film each time – in the best sense of the notion.
Stardust Memories (1980)
Direction & Screenplay: Woody Allen.
Cast: Woody Allen. Charlotte Rampling. Marie-Christine Barrault. Jessica Harper. Tony Roberts. Daniel Stern. Amy Wright.
“Stardust Memories (1980) Movie Review: Greatest Woody Allen Classic?” review text © Dan Schneider; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Stardust Memories (1980) Movie Review: Greatest Woody Allen Classic?” is a condensed/revised version of Dan Schneider’s text currently found in its original form here.
“Stardust Memories (1980) Movie Review” endnotes
Sharon Stone, Marie-Christine Barrault, Woody Allen, and Charlotte Rampling Stardust Memories movie images: United Artists.
“Stardust Memories (1980) Movie Review: Greatest Woody Allen Classic?” last updated in August 2022.