Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead


There’s something really special about transitional films in a director’s filmography, and it almost always drives critics insane when those movies first open. Case in point: Stardust Memories (1980), Woody Allen’s first film of the 1980s (or last of the 1970s if that’s how you prefer to count decades) and a challenging gauntlet thrown down by the director after two of his ambitious films, the austere drama Interiors (1978) and his most iconic ode to his favorite city, Manhattan (1979). There was a lot of chatter at the time about the “Serious Woody Allen” (the name of a little retrospective running right here, by the way), with admirers and detractors alike honing in on the increasing Ingmar Bergman influence that had been dotted through several of his films before leaping to the forefront in both Love and Death (1975) and Interiors. So what did Allen do? He pulled a Fellini instead, and for years, no one knew what to make of it. Of course, Allen was obviously braced for that reaction with the construction of the film itself, which riffs on 8 1/2 (1963) right from the beginning with its film-within-a-film sequence involving a panicked Allen trapped inside a passenger train, which provokes outraged responses from the powers that be who contemplate having him taken off the film. Allen’s suffocated response to being treated like a jester (“I don’t wanna make funny movies anymore. They can’t force me to. You know, I don’t feel funny. I look around the world and all I see is human suffering.”) led many to assume he didn’t want to make “silly” fare anymore in real life, though Allen himself (in addition to praising this film as one of his best) notes that he wasn’t playing himself at all but a character in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The real joke here of course for people taking this film as autobiography is that Allen’s films always had a lot more on their mind than just making people laugh; Annie Hall (1977) is almost as sad as it is hilarious, Love and Death functioned perfectly as a dissection of Russian literature as well as a pastiche of it and Manhattan, usually classified as a comedy, is just as much a serious art film whose most famous images and moments have nothing to do with humor whatsoever.

On top of that, Stardust Memories (which also slips a few Bergman nods in here among the Felliniana) is actually pretty funny in its own right. You still get plenty of Allen one-liners throughout, and any film that features Allen tackling a defective fire extinguisher, doing a Frankenstein parody scored by “Night on Bald Mountain,” or being confronted by aliens who want him to go back to making lighter comedies (with a response comparing them to a rabbi) is a far cry from downbeat territory. The little secret about Allen films that’s become clearer and clearer over the years is that, as with other examples like Pedro Almodóvar or Wes Anderson, they can’t be fully appreciated without the other movies made around them. People seem to love sorting Allen films between the “good” ones and the “bad” ones, but in fact, they all have worthwhile elements and feed into each other in fascinating ways both large and small. Manhattan informs this film with its continuation of Allen’s recent infatuation with black-and-white photography (though abandoning that film’s switch to wide Panavision lensing) and that gorgeous inky black Gordon Willis cinematographic touch throughout, not to mention its stunning array of magnetic female performers. This time we get rich turns by Charlotte Rampling (whose virtues can be further explored in this piece Kimberly wrote a few years ago), Jessica Harper (who had a brief but memorable bit in Love and Death), Eric Rohmer muse Marie-Christine Barrault, an uncredited cameo early on by Saturday Night Live alumnus Laraine Newman and even a quick but luminous appearance by a young Sharon Stone.


Allen was really starting to explore the odd vagaries of romance, something he’d touched on with his potentially volatile fling with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan and carried over here into an on-set relationship with Rampling that feels like an elegy now for his relationship with Diane Keaton, a core element of many of his 1970s films. They wouldn’t reunite on a project together until Radio Days (1987) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), by which point they were good friends with their romantic days long past. That means that this film is a fulcrum of sorts between the Keaton era and the decade-plus Mia Farrow stretch (he and Farrow started dating during this film) that would begin with Allen’s next film, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (1982). (Curiously, the interim of 1981 would be a rare case of a year that passed without a single Woody Allen film.)

There are a lot of special little moments studded throughout this film, though one of my favorites comes around the 49-minute mark when Allen reunites with Tony Roberts (who carries his own associations with the filmmaker) at dusk in the plaza outside the seaside Hotel Stardust (one of the many sources for the film’s title) as they are surrounded by dancing guests. Their reminiscence is one of the most beautifully lit Allen/Willis moments, which segues into a rapid-fire montage of moments between Allen and Rampling as related by him. It’s a throwaway little scene that doesn’t advance the story, but it’s the kind of nice little mood moment that makes the film linger in your memory just a bit longer.


The rest of Allen’s career has inadvertently been very kind to Stardust Memories and made its virtues far more accessible. The contemplation on the relationship between a filmmaker and his critics and fans was explored further in such films as Deconstructing Harry (1997) and Celebrity (1998), while audiences caught up to the tricky balance between humor and intense drama by the time Allen moved on to The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), a “comedy” that’s also perhaps the most heartbreaking film he ever made, and the sublime Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). We can now set aside any autobiographical expectations and enjoy this as a pivotal Allen film, showing a director maturing before our eyes as he continues to riff on the meaning of life sought by the characters in all of his film. And like those later efforts, it all boils down to two simple, precious thoughts: enjoy yourself, and life’s just a movie we make one day at a time.

Nathaniel Thompson


6 Responses Stardust Memories (1980): Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Posted By Doug : January 4, 2017 11:11 am

Nate, I just set as my ringtone “Night On Bald Mountain” by Mussorgsky. Thanks for reminding me of it with the mention in passing here.
Rarity raises value-do you think that Allen might possibly have been TOO prolific?
Imdb has his directing catalog at 53(mostly)film projects.
I’m reminded of the old adage: “Work is a form of nervousness.”
Did Allen dilute the effectiveness of his art by stating, restating and overstating what he had to say?
If there had been 15 fewer films…might his work be more powerful?
I’m not a fan and yet I’m not NOT a fan. Meaning I appreciate some of his work, but not enough to have seen all of his films.

Posted By PinkysMom : January 4, 2017 6:55 pm

Doug, I was intrigued by your remarks. I don’t think I’m answering the question you are truly asking, nor was the question directed to me, but I have the following thoughts in association with it. I propose that Woody Allen’s large and assorted body of work has the virtue of being approached by a variety of people in a variety of conditions in life, and by no means do you need to see all or even most of his works to appreciate the unique, embracing weirdness of his viewpoint on the human condition. If you have been touched by just a few or even one important movie that told you something about yourself that you didn’t otherwise know, then he made enough movies for you…and not too many. At least for me, those many other movies didn’t dilute what he was able to do. I’m not obsessive about his work. I haven’t seen more than about half of his films over the last 35 years, and many of his other movies simply don’t possess subject matter that I am necessarily attracted to, but the ones that zinged me, well, that “zing” really stuck. I think he has the ability to attract a variety of viewers by giving them many choices of interesting food on lively looking plates over time. He invites your curiosity by one means or another. So his lengthy approach, his stealthy obsessions, his repetitions, don’t harm his work in my opinion…just gives it more of a chance to resonate with a few as-yet unconverted, who may just venture in to see his movie…

Posted By EricJ : January 4, 2017 7:11 pm

Since we weren’t yet into the 80′s stage of Allen fan-plagiarizing Fellini and Bergman, the public automatically assumed it was straight autobiography, and never forgave Woody for looking like “he” was picking on his “weird” fans, just because he wanted to play 8-1/2′s Guido on the run, forced to make movies he didn’t want to.
In fact, Woody said that in interviews that the whole Fellini-esque movie until the end is supposed to be a fantasy taking place in Woody’s head, from the minute he’s shocked to see the cook serve the rabbit.

(Although the scene where we see clips of Woody’s character in a clownish song-and-dance number, the film experts overanalyze it, and Woody explains “I was just trying to be funny”, bears a very, very, VERY striking resemblance to one real Fred Astaire parody Woody did on a TV variety show back in his nebbish-standup comic days.
If you’ve seen the two-part Woody Allen documentary, the kind of TV acts Woody’s agent booked him for in the late 60′s clearly inspired “Broadway Danny Rose”.)

Posted By AL : January 5, 2017 1:38 am

Sharon Stone.

Posted By George : January 5, 2017 2:55 pm

STARDUST MEMORIES left me cold when I first saw it — I wasn’t sure what to think of it — but it has gradually become one of my favorite Allen films. Maybe my all-time favorite.

I remember that it was very polarizing in 1980. Pauline Kael’s pan was so harsh, it ended her friendship with Allen.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : January 8, 2017 12:54 pm

I’m a huge Woody Allen fan, but I’ve never cared for Stardust Memories. I’ve never been able to put my finger on why that is. I’ve seen it several times, including three times in the past year. It’s far from his worst film, but other than a few stray laughs and the gorgeous cinematography it leaves me cold. I myself wouldn’t classify it as transitional film. Annie Hall was far more of a transition than this, from the outright absurdity of his previous films, to the “dramedy” of the later ones. Even his post-Annie Hall farces are nothing like the early films. I’ll probably see Stardust Memories again, but I probably won’t ever really like it, and I probably won’t ever be able to put my finger on why that is.

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