An examination of Sandy Bates in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

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The following is my entry is the “White Swan/Black Swan Blogathon,” being held through Apr. 30 by the movie blog Cinematic Corner. Click on the banner above, and read bloggers’ takes on movie and TV characters with seemingly dual personalities!

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For this blogathon, I chose Sandy Bates for two reasons:

  1. Woody Allen is the first to tell anyone who will listen that his films are not autobiographical. Then he leaves overt autobiographical clues in his films that are just begging viewers to find them. Stardust Memories is the most obvious example.
  2. This movie was so polarizing that the White Swan/Black Swan motif might be the only fitting way to examine it and its main character.

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Stardust Memories is modeled after Italian director Federico Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½ (1963), in which a Fellini-like, successful film director reconsidered his life and lovers. In Woody Allen’s version, Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker who wants to put his serious take of life on film, a stand that is dismissed by his movie-executive bosses as well as most of his fans, who make a point of preferring his “earlier, funnier” comedies. The movie’s two main plot points are:

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1)  Bates is being honored at a weekend film retrospective similar to those that were once held by film critic Judith Crist (who does a brief cameo in the movie). We see, variously, clips from Bates’ (i.e., Allen’s) “earlier, funner movies,” and Bates being heckled and tormented by a variety of strange fans. (One fan asks for an autograph and says, “Would you please sign it, ‘To Phyllis Weinstein, you ungrateful, lying bitch’?”)

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2) In his mind, Bates is juggling past, present, and potential relationships with three women. Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) is a French-speaking women who has taken her two children and left her husband to be with Bates. Bates meets Daisy (Jessica Harper) at the retrospective, regards her as an oasis of sanity in the craziness of the retro weekend, and flirts with her throughout the movie. The woman with whom Bates is primarily obsessed is Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), Bates’ beautiful but highly neurotic ex-lover, who has since been committed to a mental institution.

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The entire movie is, rather claustrophically, told from Bates’ point of view. The fans who helped to make Bates’ career are shown visually as large-nosed and ugly, and mentally as either ignorant or pretentious. Bates’ movie-executive bosses are shown as ignoramuses who don’t appreciate Bates’ move into serious dramas.

(Allen has spoken little publicly about the commercial and critical drubbing of his first foray into drama, Interiors [1978]. Allen’s depiction here of the unfeeling movie execs would seem to be Allen’s most obvious answer to Interiors’ critics.)

No matter what the setting, the deck is always stacked in favor of Bates. At the retrospective, he is unfailingly patient to an ever-escalating scale of crazy fans who want something from him (an autograph, a charity appearance, and in one scene in the movie, a one-night stand).

When clips from Bates’ comedies are shown at the retrospective, we hear laughter that doesn’t sound pleasurable, more like hyenas’ howlings. It’s as if Woody Allen is saying, “I’ve moved on from my comedies, well-done though they are. Why do these Philistines continue to laugh at them?”

One scene shows Allen visiting his sister (Anne DeSalvo) in New Jersey. When the sister opens her front door, Bates is greeted by another gathering of smudgy-faced people — in this case, some women who have gathered for his sister’s exercise class. One woman’s face is beaten, and the sister tells how this woman was repeatedly raped. Yet the rape victim, a heavy-set woman, is inexplicably wearing a T-shirt labeled “Sexy.” Allen seems to be eerily suggesting that this self-obsessed woman got what she deserved.

All of this culminates in a scene where Bates loudly and whinily tries to escape from the shrieking harpies at the retrospective, only to be confronted by a fan who says, “Mister Bates? You know, I’m your biggest fan,” before shooting Bates. There follows a long scene where Bates is transported to the afterlife (only to be harassed by more people who dislike his serious movies) before we find out that the shooting incident was merely a fantasy Bates was having before he collapsed from nervous tension.

The movie’s finale seems to make an attempt at a happy ending: Daisy is never heard from again after the shooting “incident,” and Bates has purged Dorrie from his mind and is content to settle for domestic bliss with Isobel and her bratty kids. Yet Allen has one more (dirty) trick up his sleeve. It turns out that the previous 90 minutes was actually Sandy Bates’ newest movie, about which the “real” movie’s stars and fans make still more derisive comments at movie’s end.

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Not surprisingly, critics and moviegoers alike reacted harshly to Allen’s depiction of them as uneducated savages, and Stardust Memories barely earned back its $10 million budget at the box office. Allen’s major fan base seems to have parted ways with him at this point, and he spent the 1980’s making quirky movies that did their major business overseas, before he again hit box-office gold with Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Since 1980, Allen has repeatedly stated that Stardust Memories was never intended as a poison-pen letter to his fans, and that even if he really disliked his fans that much, he would never explicitly say so in a movie. Yet the evidence against this benign viewpoint is Stardust Memories in its entirety.

Critic John Simon might have been onto something when he quoted Sandy Bates’ one-liner from the movie: “You can’t control life, you can only control art. Art and masturbation. Two areas in which I am an absolute expert.” Simon riposted, “I quite agree. It’s just that, in Stardust Memories, Allen has trouble telling which is which.”

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One response to “An examination of Sandy Bates in Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES (1980)

  1. Thank you so much for participating! This is an amazing entry and I do adore Stardust Memories, love your analysis of the criticism targeting the audience here. I really feel this is the most personal and deepest movie Woody has ever done

    Liked by 1 person

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