|Cinematography||Kent L. Wakeford|
|Directed by||Martin Scorsese|
Despite admitting that she was scared of him in her never-ending quest to please him, thirty-five year old housewife and mother Alice Hyatt is devastated when her husband Donald is killed in an on the job traffic accident. With few job skills except that as a singer, Alice, along with her precocious eleven year old son Tommy, decides to move from their current home in Socorro, New Mexico to her home town of Monterrey, California, the only place she has ever felt happy. She plans on getting singing gigs along the way to earn money to get back to Monterrey by the end of the summer and the start of Tommy’s school year. Alice’s quest for a job at each stop leaves Tommy often to fend for himself, which may make Tommy even more precocious. His behavior is fostered by Alice, as their relationship is often more as trouble-making friends than mother and son. Alice’s plans often do not end up as she envisions, especially as she is forced to take a waitressing job at Mel and Ruby’s Diner.
Dirty Realism at its Best
Martin Scorsese’s reputation as the director of some of the best gangster movies of all time often obscures his enormous sensitivity to the nuances of every-day modern life. Despite being his first commercial success, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ is probably Scorsese’s most overlooked film, which is shameful, because it is arguably his best, and in any analysis, deserves acknowledgment as one of the most honest and, ultimately, uplifting portraits of working-class womanhood written and directed by men.
The scenario is familiar to anyone with a vague awareness of late 1970s American pop culture, as it was adapted into a successful TV sit-com, ‘Alice,’ starring Linda Lavin in the title role originated by the great Ellen Burstyn: a former lounge singer who traded a dicey future for the stability of blue-collar married life in suburban New Mexico, Alice Hyatt finds herself suddenly widowed, with little to no money, no career possibilities or job experience, and a precocious (and frequently obnoxious) twelve year-old son (Alfred Lutter, who went on to make ‘The Bad News Bears’ before growing up and disappearing) to provide for. With few other options on hand, Alice determines to restart her singing career back in Monterrey, California, the last place she remembered feeling truly happy and optimistic about the future. She packs her life and her son into the family station wagon and makes her way west, stopping off first in Phoenix (where the sit-com is set) and then in Tucson, trying to save enough cash to get to Monterrey.
En route, she suffers defeat, humiliation, and a continuation of her serial attraction to abusive men, until finally she finds herself reduced to a job as a waitress in a roadside café, the now-ubiquitous ‘Mel’s Diner,’ a dive dominated by the profane banter between saucy head waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) and cook/owner Mel (Vic Tayback). Alice finds herself living in an extended-stay fleabag motel, pinching pennies and praying for a bit of luck, which dubiously arrives in the form of David (Kris Kristofferson), a local rancher whom Alice feels herself falling for but is unable to trust, thanks to her history of abuse at the hands of formerly charming men.
Scorsese’s innovative, trademark camera work is on ample display here, along with his art-house director’s penchant for the unusual (the film opens with an homage to ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ in which Dorothy is replaced by the young but already brassy and foul-mouthed Alice). But this is a story about humanity, and Scorsese knows enough to step back and let his brilliant lead actress fill up the screen with her honesty and emotional range.
Ellen Burstyn won the 1976 Best Actress Oscar for this film, and it’s easy to see why. Scorsese clearly knew what he had on his hands: Burstyn’s Alice is both tough and vulnerable, desperate and determined. Burstyn lets the camera linger on her aging face (she was 42 when the film was released), which, strangely enough, is more beautiful and alluring than the polished appearances of most of today’s actresses. Alice faces countless hardships, and Burstyn makes them feel as true as any we face in our own lives. She tries to keep up a bright face for Tommy, her quirky, quizzical son, but has moments of naked, gut-wrenching despair as she tries to fathom how she’ll ever be able to support herself. Burstyn was herself a singer and a waitress before finding success as a film actress, and her vocal performances are powerfully affecting–pitch-perfect, but shaky enough to reveal her inner vulnerability.
She is a brilliant vehicle for this portrait of the life of a hard-luck woman with no one to trust. The film is full of fine, heartbreakingly memorable moments–Alice weeps in bed next to her husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) after another silent, loveless dinner, and the two clutch each other, unable to speak, Alice’s disappointment outweighed only by her desperate need; after a long day of rejections, Alice breaks down into tears before a gentle bar manager, who ultimately caves in allows her to audition for him, whereupon she performs a heartbreaking medley of standards for a stunned crowd of average joes in a dingy piano bar; Alice gets a rare moment of joy, drunkenly sitting up from the kitchen table to show David her first dance routine after making love for the first time. These moments feel so real and honest that you almost forget you’re watching a movie.
The supporting performances are all easily above par, especially Diane Ladd as Flo, a role made famous for the sanitized ‘Kiss my grits’ line immortalized by Ladd’s TV counterpart, Polly Holliday (interestingly, Ladd briefly succeeded Holliday on the TV ‘Alice’ in the role of ‘Belle’ after Flo got her own short-lived spin-off). Alice and Flo initially clash, but eventually form a sisterly bond, revealing that in many ways they are opposite sides of the same coin (curiously, Diane Ladd and Ellen Burstyn were born within a month of each other, Burstyn in Detroit and Ladd in Mississippi). Alfred Lutter’s Tommy is perfectly exasperating but also lovable. Kris Kristofferson’s David manages to be ‘too good to be true’ without being unbelievable as the first good man in Alice’s life. Harvey Keitel (as a rakish suitor), Jodie Foster (as a spunky ne’er-do-well who befriends Tommy), and, of course, Vic Tayback, are all perfect in their smaller, supporting roles.
‘Alice . . .’ deserves to be revisited again and again. It’s so close to the experience of single mothers in the 1970s that it could be considered a documentary. It’s also frequently very funny, capturing the small bits of laughter and silliness in normal life with pitch-perfect accuracy. I doubt that there has ever been another film that has made fictional characters feel so real and true. Alice is a true heroine–a survivor–and sharing her travails and triumphs, you feel the empathy and involvement that only appear in transcendent art.
Burstyn Is One of the Greats
Author: evanston_dad from United States
30 September 2005
Ellen Burstyn could play a tree stump and make it interesting. She’s one of the unsung heroes of post-studio cinema. At a time when meaty women’s roles were becoming more and more scarce, Burstyn was fighting for and winning one great part after another. She’s probably never been better than she is here, though she showed tremendous range in “Same Time, Next Year” and gave one of the most heartbreakingly harrowing performances I’ve ever seen as recently as 2000, in “Requiem for a Dream.” Women’s picture and Martin Scorsese are not two phrases that would seem to be tailor made for each other, but a terrific women’s picture is exactly what Scorsese gives us with “Alice…”
Though I hate using the term women’s picture, as if men can’t enjoy stories about women, or as if women’s pictures are isolated from the rest of “real” movies. Actually and ironically, maybe it was Scorsese’s penchant for the tough-guy milieu that made him so right for this film, because “Alice” doesn’t suffer from the burn-your-bra self-righteousness of other women’s lib movies of its era, like “Un Unmarried Woman.” These other films ultimately feel phony, because they were created for the most part by men, who, however noble their intentions, simply didn’t have an understanding for the material. But Scorsese gets the character of Alice, and Burstyn knows exactly what she’s doing. So the conflict isn’t between Alice and the male world, but between the Alice who doesn’t have the confidence to be anything other than a doormat and the Alice who wants to make a life for herself on her own terms.
There are some hilarious scenes between Alice and her son in this film, most particularly the scenes of them driving to California (like when Alice calls him Hellen Keller because he keeps asking “what?” to everything she says). Also, a subplot about the evolving friendship between Alice and Flo (played by Diane Ladd) becomes one of the film’s highlights, not in the least because both actresses handle it expertly.
This is a winner, and must be seen by anyone who thinks Scorses is out of his element anywhere but the mean streets of NYC.
Landmark from the 70’s
18 July 2000
I loved this movie when I saw it in its initial release – after “The Exorcist”, I thought Ellen Burstyn ruled the world.
This movie is still good today, has many interesting and funny characters. There are touches that suggest director Martin Scorsese was still getting familiar with actors and camera movement – when Alice cries at an audition in a bar, and goes to another bar because they have a piano..its Marty all the way. Harvey Keitel & Jodie Foster are in the movie in small parts; maybe they were having their own audition – for “Taxi Driver”. Diane Ladd is very funny as filthy-mouthed Flo, but Ellen Burstyn is fantastic in the part that won her an Oscar against some pretty stiff competition – Faye Dunaway in “Chinatown” among them – and she holds the movie together.
Flo, Vera and Mel
Author: johnson3000 from orange county
22 August 2003
When I was younger, my sister and I would spend countless hours each day watching television. One of the programs we found ourselves glued to was Alice. For those who may not remember the show too clearly, one phrase may help jog your memory… “Kiss my grits!” If that didn’t help, you probably have never seen the show (or as some folks may say… “it was before my time.”)
Anyway… last night I saw a film titled Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Upon starting the movie, all I knew about it was that it was directed by the great Martin Scorsese, and that it was about a widowed wife and her son who drive across the country. To my great surprise, the character Alice is the same character from the TV sitcom. I didn’t put two and two together until halfway through the film when it showed the diner with Mel and the other two waitresses. It was fun to see the other characters like Flo, Vera and Mel (the movie’s Mel was the same actor as the TV show’s Mel). Many of the elements were similar between television and movie; the only noticeable difference was the tone. On television, the show was a sitcom comedy made to get a good laugh every few minutes.
The film, however, was a bit more serious because of various real life situations (relationships, child upbringing, death).
This coincidence made things much more interesting as the film continued. Don’t get me wrong, the movie was pretty damn good already; I just seemed to enjoy it a bit more when I started putting the pieces together. Scorsese, once again, showed his incredible directing skills. He was able to bring the viewer into the extreme pain and desperation of the main character, while at the same time, show the positive things in Alice’s life through his use of color and cinematography.
Overall, the film was enjoyable because it was quite heart warming (in contrast to the more famous gangster type films by Scorsese). It made me wish that either the television show were still on syndication, or that I get to chance to see this film sometime again.
Ellen Burstyn was still in the midst of filming The Exorcist when Warner Bros. executives expressed interest in working with her on another project. Burstyn later recalled, “It was early in the woman’s movement, and we were all just waking up and having a look at the pattern of our lives and wanting it to be different… I wanted to make a different kind of film. A film from a woman’s point of view, but a woman that I recognized, that I knew. And not just myself, but my friends, what we were all going through at the time. So my agent found Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore… When I read it I liked it a lot. I sent it to Warner Brothers and they agreed to do it. Then they asked who I wanted to direct it. I said that I didn’t know, but I wanted somebody new and young and exciting. I called Francis Coppola and asked who was young and exciting and he said ‘Go look at a movie called Mean Streets and see what you think.’ It hadn’t been released yet, so I booked a screening to look at it and I felt that it was exactly what…Alice needed, because [it] was a wonderful script and well written, but for my taste it was a little slick. You know – in a good way, in a kind of Doris Day–Rock Hudson kind of way. I wanted something a bit more gritty.”
Burstyn described her collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, making his first Hollywood studio production, as “one of the best experiences I’ve ever had”. The director agreed with his star that the film should have a message. “It’s a picture about emotions and feelings and relationships and people in chaos,” he said. “We felt like charting all that and showing the differences and showing people making terrible mistakes ruining their lives and then realizing it and trying to push back when everything is crumbling – without getting into soap opera. We opened ourselves up to a lot of experimentation.”
Scorsese’s casting director auditioned 300 boys for the role of Tommy before they discovered Alfred Lutter. “I met the kid in my hotel room and he was kind of quiet and shy,” Scorsese said. But when he paired him with Burstyn and suggested she deviate from the script, he held his own. “Usually, when we were improvising with the kids, they would either freeze and look down or go right back to the script. But this kid, you couldn’t shut him up.”