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Judith Crist: Thanks for the Stardust Memories

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Judith Crist, who just died, was an influential movie reviewer for many years. I remember her not just because of her intelligent and cogent take on films, but because of something really special to me: a connection to Woody Allen and to his movie, Stardust Memories.

It was the 1970s, and I was a young reporter assigned to cover a movie festival in Tarrytown, New York, 40 minutes north of Manhattan. Judith Crist was film critic for New York magazine at the time, and coordinated and hosted the event at a sprawling former estate on the Hudson River. And the guest film director at the weekend was Woody Allen.

I excitedly arrived: pen, notebook and tape recorder at the ready, prep work and questions galore. Not only would I get to meet and interview Judith Crist, I'd be spending two days with Woody Allen!

Before we got to meet him, the weekend attendees decided to play a practical joke on Woody. We discussed buying several hundred tiny orders of cole slaw like he had ordered for his band of rebels in Bananas. Instead we decided to wear the Groucho Marx glasses/eyebrows/nose that he had used to great comic effect in his first film, Take the Money and Run.

An eager volunteer had been dispatched to find dozens of them, and we passed them out at breakfast the next morning. When Woody first greeted us at the podium, we all bent down and donned the bushy paraphernalia, and he looked more frightened than amused at the sight. Who wouldn't have been, seeing 50 faux Grouchos? Actually, he maintained the same look of fear, combined with a shy, courteous demeanor throughout the weekend.

At this early stage of his movie career Woody Allen had made a few comedies, and they were hilarious. The one he would be previewing that weekend was Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask.

The film was a series of vignettes linked to a sexual theme, and our surreal discussion dealt with the problem of costuming actors who played sperm, and the difficulty of finding a sheep pretty enough to wear a nightgown.

He showed a segment he never eventually used, of his then-wife, Louise Lasser, as a black-widow spider catching a fly (Woody) in her web just before eating him for dinner. The attendees wisely agreed it would be better to leave that segment out (and he did).

I spent most of the time that weekend taking notes and sticking as close to Woody Allen as I could. He noticed me after a while, and seemed relieved when I told him I was writing for a magazine and wasn't just a groupie. I even made him chuckle a few times as I walked beside him.

Whenever I spied him walking alone I would run up and ask as many questions as I could before others would crowd him. He told me he most admired the moody Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and wanted to do serious films, which at the time seemed odd to me. He said he didn't like most cities, except for New York and Paris.

As the weekend progressed he became wary and wanted to be left alone -- but not if I could help it. I was a pest, I guess, but after all, I was a young reporter and couldn't stop querying him whenever possible. At least that was my excuse.

***

I wrote about the weekend, and the experience faded into a pleasant memory. That is, until I saw his movie, Stardust Memories, now often remembered for Sharon Stone's movie debut in a tiny role with no dialogue.

The dark comedy was about a put-upon film director at a movie weekend near New York City, and Woody played the lead. The theme questioned how much a filmaker owed his demanding fans, who wanted him to keep making comedies rather than explore his darker side.

Hmm.

And look, in a minor role was the host of our movie weekend, Judith Crist. More hmm.

And oh my, there was another character in that movie, a young woman in her twenties who hounds the Allen character with questions throughout the weekend! And even when he opens the door to his room, there she is, asking questions in his bed!

Now I'm not saying for sure that I was an inspiration for that young women, and I certainly didn't wind up in his bed.

But I can't help thinking that when I was following him around asking endless questions and taking notes, that he was taking mental notes too. And he didn't have to exaggerate much to see we were a bunch of goofy, overbearing fans, offering all the absurdity a director could ever want.

So thank you Judith Crist. I have memories of the enjoyment and enlightenment of reading your reviews. And I have Stardust Memories.