I like Woody Allen when he’s nasty. Many fans and critics don’t, and when he squeezes out a sour pellet like Stardust Memories (or the later Deconstructing Harry), some critics stop being critics and start being armchair psychologists. They can’t separate Woody from the character he’s playing; it’s convenient for them to assume Woody means everything that he, in character, says and does. This comedy — yes, folks, it is a comedy — was viewed at the time as a “horrible betrayal” (Pauline Kael) of Allen’s fan base as well as a whiny case of the celebrity blues. It is a fairly brutal and stylized account of the miseries of a famous comedian/director, who is trying to do something different, but his grabby fans and uncomprehending studio bosses won’t let him.
Actually, I doubt how much of this movie — starring Allen as Sandy Bates, a director invited to a film-geek retreat for a retrospective of his work — is strictly autobiographical. Allen, at the time, had carte blanche at United Artists. They gave him the money to make Interiors; they did everything in their power to woo him away from moving to Orion (a move that turned out to be abandoning one soon-to-sink ship for another). I think this movie is Allen’s worst-case-scenario version of a director like him who faces challenges that Allen didn’t.
Seen in that light, the movie can be enjoyed for its funhouse-mirror take on dweeby fans (I understand that Allen exaggerates a little here, but not by much) and its depiction of the solipsistic Sandy Bates, who simply cannot be intended as a likable character like Alvy Singer, a schlumpy Everyman who made good. Viewed in context with the rest of Allen’s work, Sandy and his story make up just one portrait among many; viewed back in 1980, the film could be (and was) taken as Woody’s “fuck you” to anyone who ever watched, critiqued, or loved any of his movies. Perhaps Allen got singed by the heat of the critical reaction — it would be seven years before this formerly quite personal filmmaker made another remotely autobiographical movie.