Woody Allen is a conundrum. Not only is he one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, he is also a prolific filmmaker that really does not fit with the standard his contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg set. Allen has made a film almost every year since 1969 (if my film knowledge serves me correctly, Allen only missed making films in 1970, 1974, 1976 and 1981 – all of which included Allen being involved in other projects) – and to make a film every year can be extraordinarily difficult. Of course, Allen has had his fair share of failures as he has had successes, and I doubt there is anyone that will complain that every one of Allen’s few dozen films is an absolutely masterpiece. He’s had his fair share of misfires, but when he really hits his mark and stride, he absolutely soars. Everyone has their own choice for their favorite Woody Allen film, and what they consider his best. I find myself drawn to Allen’s opinion, whereas I consider Stardust Memories his finest film (or at least in the top tier of his films), and while it is very easy to see Annie Hall or Manhattan as his crowning achievements, I find myself respecting those more than I loved those. It was Stardust Memories that really captivated me, and the fact that it seems like a lesser chapter in the filmography of Woody Allen is a huge shame in my eyes.
From the opening titles, Stardust Memories captivates you. The main titles, in the same recognizable white font set against the minimalist black background, with upbeat and classy jazz, officially catapults the audience into the world of Woody Allen. This particular film is centered around Sandy Bates (played by Allen), a filmmaker known for his comedy films, who has slowly grown disillusioned with the world of comedy and has been attempting to make something serious and personal – to the chagrin of audiences, critics and studio executives. Over one weekend, Sandy attends a retrospective on his career, where he is hailed as a god – and constantly given unreasonable requests and constantly being bothered by fans and admirers, all looking for an autograph, a favor or a casual romantic encounter (one fan going so far as to even break into his hotel room in the hopes of “making it” with him). During this time, Sandy has to deal with the fact that there are three women that capture his heart, and knowing he can only choose one of them, has to make the difficult decision – and is ultimately not able to. The first is Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), who is beautiful, exciting and also absolutely insane and is sent to a psychiatric institute. The second is Isobel, the mature and intelligent French divorcee that grounds Sandy and gives his life meaning, and the third is Daisy, who Sandy meets at the retrospective. A conflicted and mystical woman who doesn’t quite seem all there, but her magical quality only serves to make her irresistible to Sandy.
There are many that see this film as autobiographical – which is not a far-fetched assumption at all. However, Allen has refuted the claims that this film is based on himself (but consider how Allen, in about a decade, went from making films like Bananas and Take the Money and Run – the very definition of broad comedies – to making intense dramas such as Interiors and existential comedies such as Annie Hall and Manhattan, and you’ll see a bit of reasoning towards this film being somewhat based on Allen himself). However, there is clearly a much larger influence than Allen’s career here – rather, the incredible 8½ by Federico Fellini, which was an influence on Woody Allen (and honestly, pretty much every other filmmaker since Fellini made that masterpiece). Much like 8½, Stardust Memories explores the life of a filmmaker who is adored, but finds himself stuck in his own creative and emotional hell, and only the allure of various women, from his past and present, all hoping to be part of his future, causes him considerable emotional angst, but he needs to continue the allure that he is still a cinematic genius. In fact, Stardust Memories is so similar to 8½, it borders on being a parody (both films feature aliens – I am just saying), or perhaps the more artistically correct statement would be homage. Of course, Stardust Memories is so brilliant that it easy to see this film as something on its own rather than it being only a homage or parody of 8½.
Allen has never been the most convincing actor (his performance in Annie Hall was still splendid though) – but he was wonderful here. His performance as Sandy was simply just another variation on his neurotic schmuck character that he has played for his entire career, yet there was something there, hidden under his familiar performance. Something far more vulnerable and heartbreaking – he brought something else to this character, and he plays Sandy as less of a wise-cracking and philosophical outsider, and rather as a man that has tried so hard to be normal, but can’t find the answer on how to be a normal and respected man, and to be as equal a human as he is a filmmaker. Allen is marvelous here, and it could be a performance that rivals his in Annie Hall. He directs himself wonderfully here, which is not something many filmmakers can say.
However, like in all of his films, Allen is overshadowed by his co-stars. In Stardust Memories, he has a trio of performers that weren’t Mia Farrow or Diane Keaton (a major coup for an Allen film) – rather he utilized three very talented ladies. Charlotte Rampling (who I still assert is one of the most talented actresses of all time) plays Dorrie, who is so beautifully intricate and carefully constructed. This was Rampling’s first and only collaboration with Allen, which is an absolute shame, as Allen brought out the very best in Rampling. Marie-Christine Barrault plays Isobel, and much like Rampling, this is her first and only collaboration with Allen, and while I found her acting slightly lacking at times, I thought she was fantastic as well. Jessica Harper is the only one of the three that had worked with Allen prior to this film (she had a small role in Love and Death), and she was extraordinary as Daisy, the most complex and intriguing of the characters. Harper seemed like such a false-start as an actress – she had such great roles, but her career unfortunately didn’t go anywhere, which is absolutely heartbreaking. I hope she can get some better roles in the future. Rampling, Barrault and Harper are all wonderful, and are perfect in their respective roles.
Stardust Memories is such a fantastic film – Woody Allen created a wonderful and engrossing experience, and wrote a love-letter to the idea of being famous, but wanting more than fame, and rather desiring happiness. It is a wonderful contrast to the Hollywood dream of fame and fortune – Sandy just wants happiness. It is a superbly made film, and fans of Woody Allen that haven’t seen this film should definitely check it out. It is just a great little comedy that explores the conceptions of fame, and will make you chuckle. It is just a brilliant little film, and if Allen wants to make another film like this, he is more than welcome to do so – and I urge him to give this kind of small-scale, simple film a try again.