Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

USA  (112 mi)  1974  d:  Martin Scorsese

A change of pace for Scorsese, his first Hollywood studio production while making one of the few women’s pictures in his career, along with Boxcar Bertha (1972), New York, New York (1977), and THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993), where Ellen Burstyn won an Academy Award as Best Actress for her role.  Burstyn had creative control of the movie from the start, as Warner Brothers was so impressed with her work in THE EXORCIST (1973) that they kept sending her scripts and gave her complete control over her next film.  According to Burstyn, “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.”  The opening sequence is one of the most remarkable in Scorsese’s entire career, spending two and a half times more money just for the opening set ($85,000) than he did for his entire first film, where after spending weeks building it, on the day of the shoot he was told by a child welfare worker that the child actress (Mia Bendixsen) was not allowed to speak any profanity, which is the kicker line in the opening sequence.  Fortunately Scorsese already recorded an earlier screen test shot, which is the one used in the film.  Opening in a WIZARD OF OZ (1939) dream world with a William Cameron Menzies style tinted red sky that accompanies a young girl’s dreams of becoming a star, that quickly cuts from this highly stylized, artificially illuminated fantasy childhood into a spectacular outdoor crane shot that purposefully jolts the audience ahead 27 years, adding some raucous energy from Mott the Hoople that much of the rest of the film lacks, where the would-be star finds herself sitting at a sewing machine, already consumed by the boring reality of day to day existence Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore -- (Movie Clip ... YouTube (4:00).  What’s immediately apparent is the film is not written by Scorsese, so it lacks much of the personal insight and fresh spontaneity of Mean Streets (1973), feeling like a more generic story that attempts to play upon populist themes.  Being a Scorsese film, however, there are highly inventive musical choices, well developed characters, and some stunning visual composition, again shot by Kent Wakeford in his last film working with the director.   

While some may find this film refreshingly honest, it’s also a film that pushes all the buttons it intended to push, as it feels at times like a movie with a feminist social agenda, much like Jill Clayburgh in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978), while at other times it’s much more risky in the way it freely allows characters to evolve naturally, where they don’t hide the growing pains of attempting to deal with the chaos in their lives.  At times it feels overwrought, where the weight of the world always falls upon Burstyn’s shoulders, where her performance often feels too showy, which is highly unusual for her, as after a long career in television, she made quite an impact with her brilliantly understated performances in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) and THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972), where she tends to exhibit wise-beyond-her-years, rock steady characteristics even as her world is falling apart.  Here, there are plenty of scenes where she just lets it go.  Trapped in a dysfunctional marriage with an emotionally stunted husband (Billy Green Bush), the man is just impossible to please, despite Alice’s most determined efforts, where apparently fighting is part of their family life, each with one another.  When her husband dies in a traffic fatality, it’s as if a part of her world had been sucked away, as she was used to relying upon her husband to pay the bills, sacrificing her earlier dreams of being a singer, as her husband didn’t want his wife to work.  One of the more memorable early sequences is seeing Burstyn with Lelia Goldoni as Bea, from Cassavetes’ SHADOWS (1959), onscreen together as neighbors and best friends, as Goldoni happened to be one of Burstyn’s real-life best friends at the time, so their affectionate camaraderie feels authentic.  Nonetheless, Alice and her 11-year old son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) hop in a car and hit the road, with recollections that her happiest times were in her home town of Monterey, California, thinking she could revive her singing career.  But California is quite a distance, and that costs money, where most of the film was actually shot on location in Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona, so she doesn’t get very far when she has to get up her nerve and look for a job, culminating in this breathy but intoxicatingly feminine audition which lands her a job Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974, Martin Scorsese) Pian  YouTube (3:37).

Fresh from Scorsese’s last few films, Harvey Keitel makes another memorable appearance here as Ben, a regular customer who takes a shine to Alice, devoting plenty of time and attention that she initially deflects, but she eventually warms up to the guy, even as she knows little about him.  No one could possibly anticipate just how far Keitel takes this film over the edge, as it’s a brilliantly explosive scenario that comes to a quick end as they hightail it out of town, landing in Phoenix where Alice reluctantly gets a job as a waitress in Mel & Ruby’s Café, aka: Mel’s Diner (since Ruby’s long gone), a real-life diner located at 1747 NW Grand Avenue that is still in operation in Phoenix, the greasy spoon diner which was the setting for the spin-off TV series called Alice (1976 – 1985), where Vic Tayback plays Mel the cook in both.  Diane Ladd as the foul-mouthed and sexually charged Flo, and Valerie Curtin as the always spaced out Vera, play the other two waitresses, where after a brief battle of wills, Flo and Alice bury the hatchet and become friends, beautifully expressed here in a near surreal visualization Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Any YouTube (1:45).  Add to the mix Kris Kristofferson as David, a local rancher who becomes Alice’s regular customer and new love interest, while also bursting onto the scene is a young child actress named Jodie Foster, an iconic figure from Scorsese’s next film TAXI DRIVER (1976), playing young Audrey Jodie Foster in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) YouTube (4:37), a local girl that schools Tommy on how to shoplift and drink cheap Ripple wine, who after an arrest utters the memorable phrase “So long, suckers!” as her mother embarrassingly drags her out of the police station.  One of the more novel dynamics of the picture is the mother and son relationship, where the child must be devastated at being cooped up in a motel room all day during the summer months while his mother goes off to work, which is a nice contrast with the mother’s annoyance at being imprisoned by a small child who relentlessly demands all of her attention over and over again.  Although Burstyn has an achingly real sequence in a disarming moment where she acts out a childhood vaudeville routine, Keitel, Diane Ladd and Jodie Foster add needed spice and personality to this film, where the secondary characters are often more fun than the leads, where their spark and originality make this more than a conscious raising film coming early in the Women’s Movement of the 60’s and 70’s.  This is a film where women as well as men should re-examine their own lives, change or re-evaluate their perspectives, and reflect upon the old values of compliance and obedience in the role of a dutiful wife.  While the film does emphasize women’s issues, shifting to a position of empowerment, it’s certainly not a radical film in any respect, especially with such a conventional (or cop out) ending, much to the disappointment of many, feeling exactly like the end of An Unmarried Woman, where in both, despite being labeled feminist or women’s films, women were not yet ready to completely let go of the idea of needing a man.         

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