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My Stardust Memories

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By William Zinsser

August 2, 2010


 

Every time a new Woody Allen movie comes along I can’t help thinking back to one of his earlier films, Stardust Memories. That’s the one that gave me my movie career.

The year was 1980, and I was sitting at my typewriter in New York, plying my writer’s trade. When the phone rang I had no great expectations; freelance writers answering the phone tend to be braced for negative news.

“Bill, honey?” said a young woman’s voice. “This is Sandra from Woody Allen’s office. Woody wondered if you’d like to be in his new movie.”

That was something new in phone calls. I had never done any acting or dreamed any theatrical dreams. But who didn’t want to be in a Woody Allen movie? I knew that he often cast ordinary people in small roles. What small plum did he have for me? I hesitated for a decently modest moment and then told Sandra I’d like to do it.

“Good,” she said. “Woody will be very pleased.” She said that someone else would be calling me with further details.

A half hour later the phone rang again. “Bill, honey,” a voice said, “this is Stephanie from Woody Allen’s office.” How wonderful, I thought, to be in a line of work where I was called “Bill, honey.” Stephanie said she was calling to get my measurements. Measurements! I caught a whiff of greasepaint over the telephone line. She needed my jacket size, my waist size, my trouser length, my inseam and my collar size, and I gave them to her gladly. I would have told her anything. I wanted to ask what role I was being measured for, but she was gone. I called my wife to tell her I was in show business.

The next day the phone rang again. “Bill, honey,” another voice said, “this is Jill from Woody’s office.” Jill explained that my scene was going to be shot on Friday morning at a film studio in uptown Manhattan. I should get there by nine o’clock and check with the wardrobe people about my costume. Meanwhile I should also report to the movie’s casting agent to have my picture taken and to fill out some forms.

The agent’s office was on Central Park West, and the next day I went to see her. She explained that she specialized in casting extras, and her walls were lined with photographs of extraneous-looking people. She was a woman who had seen a lot of faces, and as she stood me against a wall and peered into her Polaroid camera, I thought I heard a small sigh.

“Where did Woody find you?” she asked.

In the winter of 1963 I got a call from an editor at the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine wanted an article about a hot new comic who was playing at a club in Greenwich Village; everyone said he was going to be the next big talent. Sure, sure, I thought; great new comics come along every day and are never heard from again. I asked what the comic’s name was. His name was Woody Allen. That didn’t sound promising either. But I agreed to write the piece, and a few nights later my wife and I turned up at the Village Gate.

It was an enormous barn, depressingly dark and empty; not many people had come out to catch the hot new comic. But suddenly I became aware that an amazing jazz pianist was at work. Through the gloom I made out a pallid man in dark glasses, curled intently over the keyboard, caressing harmonies out of it that were highly cerebral but also highly emotional. “The comic’s not going to be any good,” I said to my wife, “but at least I’ve found a great piano player.” It was Bill Evans, who would become the most influential jazz pianist of his generation.

The comic, however, was no less an original artist. A frail and seemingly terrified young man, blinking out at the audience through black-framed glasses, Woody Allen at twenty-seven was already a veteran of writing sketches for Sid Caesar and other giants of television’s golden age of comedy. But as a performer of his own material he was still a novice; at his first gigs his manager had had to push him trembling onto the stage.

Allen’s monologue consisted of telling the story of his life. It was the life of a chronic loser, told in a rapid salvo of jokes: “As a boy I was ashamed to wear glasses. I memorized the eye chart and then on the test they asked essay questions.” “I won two weeks at an interfaith camp, where I was sadistically beaten by boys of all races.” The jokes, though simple, were unfailingly funny, and beneath the humor they were doing serious work as autobiography. This was a champion nebbish, one that every underdog in America could – and soon would – identify with. Allen had invented a perfect formula for an anxious new age: therapy made hilarious. A few days later I interviewed him to learn the details of the life I had heard refracted in the jokes – “my father and mother were called to school so often that my friends still recognize them in the street,” he told me – and my article was the first long piece to take note of his arrival as America’s resident neurotic.

In 1970 I moved to New Haven to teach writing at Yale. During those years Allen not only came of age as a movie writer and director, with Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, and Manhattan. He emerged in full bloom as an essayist, contributing to The New Yorker almost fifty pieces that raised literary humor to new altitudes. He was obviously the true descendant of his hero, S. J. Perelman, and I used his work in my teaching.

I knew from following Woody’s career that he had been a pioneer wearer of sneakers in fashion-proud Manhattan. At Yale I had also gone casual and was seldom out of sneakers myself. But I was prepared to kick the habit when I retuned to New York in the summer of 1979; I wasn’t going to disgrace my native city or myself with rube behavior. What I hadn’t known was that during my decade away from New York its sartorial codes would disintegrate. People now appeared to be walking around in little more than their underwear, and when the fall theater season opened I was surprised to see men attending Broadway plays in sweaters. I continued to wear a coat and tie, but sneakers were on my feet more often than my upbringing would have thought proper.

One Saturday in the spring of 1980 I was walking down Madison Avenue. Suddenly my eyes fixed on a pair of sneakers walking toward me, and the wearer of those sneakers seemed to fix on mine. It was as if the sneakers recognized each other. We both stopped, and I saw that it was Woody Allen. We stood for a few minutes and talked about our work and about writers and writing. Then we went our separate ways and I didn’t give it any further thought. In Allen’s brain, however, one last neuron must have fired, for it was a week later that Sandra called to ask whether I would like to be in Woody’s new movie.

Promptly at nine on Friday morning, I showed up at the movie studio and was sent upstairs to a wardrobe room and given my costume. It was the habit of a Catholic priest. I thought of all my Protestant forebears; they would just have to understand that I was doing this for my art. The somber black robe fit me well, its white clerical collar snug around my neck, and I went back down feeling holy enough to administer a sacrament. Woody Allen was standing on the set, which was the interior of a shabby passenger train.

“Do I look spiritual enough for you?” I asked him.

“Those aren’t spiritual glasses,” he said. The director of the visually impeccable Interiors wasn’t going to have a Catholic priest caught wearing the horn-rimmed spectacles of an Ivy League WASP. He called for a prop woman, who came with a cardboard box full of glasses. Picking fastidiously among them, he fished out exactly the pair that would be worn by a blue-collar parish priest in Queens. They were made of chrome, they had wide side pieces, and they were ugly. I put them on and looked at myself in a mirror. There was no sign of the kindly face that normally gazed back at me. The man in the mirror was an unforgiving man of God.

What was being filmed was part of the opening sequence of Stardust Memories, which served as a prologue to the movie itself. It took the form of a surrealist fantasy. Two trains are proceeding on parallel tracks. One is full of beautiful people and one is full of ugly people. Woody Allen is trapped on the ugly people’s train, and he looks with longing at the people on the other train: handsome Edwardian men in white flannels and boaters with tennis racquets and croquet mallets, laughing women in long white dresses and Gibson-girl hats, twirling parasols.

Frantic to get off the losers’ train, Allen begins by pulling on the bell cord. In his hands it’s a comic prop fit for Harold Lloyd, and his efforts to stop the train lead only to entanglement. Next he appeals to the conductor, showing him his ticket and pointing to the adjacent train. The conductor studies the ticket impassively and hands it back. Desperate, Allen scans the rows of ugly passengers and sees one last hope of salvation: a Catholic priest. That was my moment.

The sequence took all morning to film. There was the usual quest for perfection: the fussing with lights and angles and sound, the reshooting of scenes that didn’t satisfy Allen or his cinematographer, Gordon Willis. Finally it was time for my scene, and Allen gave me my instructions. I was to show no emotion when he approached me as a supplicant. It was the best possible directing advice for someone who has no idea how to act and would ruin a scene by trying to. I’m a person who doesn’t photograph well; if a photographer asks me to smile I contort my cheeks in a weird simulacrum of mirth. But to show no emotion is easy; anyone can keep his face blank. It’s also the perfect response dramatically – the ultimate nightmare for any petitioner seeking help.

Without boasting, I can say that I gave Allen no glimmer of hope when he came pleading. No matter how many takes were required to solve Gordon Willis’s technical problems, some of which were related to a jouncing mechanism under the seat that made the train appear to be moving, my performance was steely in its discipline, and when it was over – all six seconds of it – I turned in my ecclesiastical garb and left. I had the rest of my life to look back on my movie career.

But it wasn’t over. Several months later the phone rang and a familiar voice said, “Bill, honey, this is Sandra at Woody Allen’s office. We need you for another scene.”

Sandra explained that the final destination of the ugly people’s train is a city dump, where everyone is discharged to wander over acres of garbage. The scene had been filmed the previous fall at a dump in New Jersey, but the weather was cold and everyone’s breath was showing. Allen wanted to shoot it again, this time at the main New York City dump next to Jamaica Bay, near Kennedy airport, the biggest dump in the world. As a new addition to the cast of train passengers, I was needed among the dump walkers. Sandra said the bus would leave from Vesey Street, in lower Manhattan, at 5:30 a.m. the following Tuesday. Could I be there?

“I’ll be there,” I said. “What about my costume?”

“Not to worry,” she said.

On Tuesday morning, earlier than I’ve reported for any task since basic training in World War II, I found a large bus parked in the pre-dawn darkness of Vesey Street. Most of the ugly people were already on it; extras are so dependent on their occasional day’s work, one of them told me, that they take no chance of being late. Their aspiration is to graduate to a “five-liner,” the next higher union job, which calls for five lines of dialogue. During our long day together, with its endless waiting around, also reminiscent of the army, I found them to be men and women of deep resignation and good cheer.

Our bus took us across the East River and through the lightening streets to a senior citizens’ center in outer Queens, near Far Rockaway, where, in a recreation room, our costumes were neatly hanging on coatracks. Seeing my priest’s habit and my chrome glasses waiting for me, I understood that in film production, as in baseball, it’s not over till it’s over; costumes stay rented for the duration. I changed into my holy attire and several of the extras called me “Father” and asked for a blessing. The sun finally came up.

Back on the bus, we proceeded to the dump, a vast range of hills made entirely of garbage. Sanitation trucks kept arriving with garbage from all over the city and seagulls came screaming down to meet them. It was an ideal landscape for a surrealistic movie: a place at the end of the world, alien and desolate. We were told that Woody Allen had visited the dump the previous day to decide where he wanted to shoot our walk. He chose a spot where the garbage was piled in a configuration that pleased his artistic eye, and that’s where our bus now arrived to meet him and the crew. But Allen had forgotten that garbage doesn’t hold still. Monday’s picturesque formations had been compacted under new truckloads of trash, and the panorama that greeted him on Monday wouldn’t do. Shooting would be delayed until he got the garbage rearranged.

The Sanitation Department had evidently been told to cooperate with the filmmakers, for soon we saw trucks with new garbage making their way up the mountain. Galvanized by their approach, Allen turned into Toscanini, conducting each driver to where he wanted the load dumped, until at last a high wall of garbage had risen not far from where we were standing. The air was scented with the refuse and unfinished meals of seven million New Yorkers, and new gulls descended in noisy armadas. Woody was satisfied.

Our assignment as outcasts from the ugly people’s train was to trudge aimlessly across the garbage, looking dazed and forlorn. It wasn’t hard to feel like a lost soul; we were in a land of lunar strangeness. Underfoot, the terrain was damp and fetid, grabbing at our shoes. Allen placed his camera so that we would be framed against his wall of garbage. It loomed behind us like a mountaineer’s cliff, sealing us off.

So began what would stretch into hours of walking on the dump. On one level it was one of the most interesting days I ever spent, wholly outside the normal experience of a lifetime. Cinematically, however, it was tedious work. The skies were gray, and the sporadic sun reflected off the garbage unevenly. Allen and Willis wanted to make sure that whatever sequences they shot would match one another in quality of light and density of seagull. They shot us from a distance, straggling across the tundra, and they shot us in close-up when we came near, our faces etched with loathing at our fate. But perfection eluded them, and at midday we were sent off for a break.

When we returned after lunch the unthinkable had happened: our seagulls were gone. Fleets of sanitation trucks were dumping new loads about one hundred yards away, and our gulls had flown over to get a fresher meal. We needed new gulls so that the afternoon scenes would match the morning scenes. Word went out, trucks arrived with new garbage to top off our old garbage, and the gulls came screaming back. Shooting resumed, and in midafternoon, on a peak in Queens, my movie career really did come to an end.

Stardust Memories opened in September, and a few days before the premiere my phone rang. “Bill, honey,” a voice said, “this is Beverly at Woody Allen’s office. There’s going to be a screening tomorrow night at the Coronet Theater for everyone connected with the picture. You’re welcome to come and bring any guests.” I called my wife and children, and the next night we all went to the Coronet to see Daddy in the movies.

Around me I recognized quite a few of my fellow uglies from the train and the dump. But they weren’t the only freaks in the theater. Uglies were everywhere! It was as if we had all been sprinkled with some mutational dust coming through the lobby. To my relief, the lights went down and the movie began. I was nervous – would my debut be a success? – but soon the worst was over. My face, enormous on the screen, was cold enough to scare even a venial sinner, and when it later reappeared in a close-up at the dump I was proud to see that it was still unleavened by the quality of mercy. I could relax and enjoy the rest of the film.

Actually it was a querulous movie, not all that enjoyable. Allen plays a celebrity comedy writer who yearns to be allowed to make a serious picture and to be taken seriously as an artist. Instead he is hounded by his adoring fans at a film festival in the Catskills and at other public appearances, the resentful prisoner of his fame. Like its prologue, the movie took an owlish view of humanity. All those fans swarming over Allen—the Hieronymus Bosch school of filmmaking – were as ugly as the passengers on the train and at the dump. Now I understood who all the men and women around me in the theater were; the casting agent had done her job well. When the movie ended and the audience spilled out onto the sidewalk, passersby strolling up Third Avenue stopped in wonderment at so much genetic disarray.

After the film was released, I heard from some of my former students at Yale. As master of one of Yale’s large residential colleges, I had known many undergraduates. But when I handed them their diplomas they had every right to expect that I would no longer keep popping into their lives as an authority figure. It was their bad luck, however, to be Woody Allen’s natural constituency, and as soon as Stardust Memories opened, they flocked to see it. When my stern clerical visage jumped out of the giant screen, I was told, startled cries went up from various parts of the theater. It was the sound of Mother Yale’s sons and daughters regressing to the womb. They hadn’t graduated after all.

I was sorry to have caused them such a traumatizing moment. But as I look back on my movie career I have a larger regret. I never got called “Bill, honey” again.


William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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