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Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Martin Scorsese is so firmly associated with gangster epics and violent New York Stories that Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is going to take many people by surprise. Almost immediately after his breakthrough picture, the ethno-biographical Mean Streets, Scorsese took his cameras to the wide southwest for a subject that can only be classified as Something Completely Different. Alice Hyatt is an ordinary working class housewife trying to make it on her own, with the weight of the world on her shoulders and her childhood dreams still echoing in her ears.
Fresh from The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for this funny and touching, yet still Scorsese-realistic movie. Not only that, but a hit television sitcom was spun off from the hijinks at Mel's Cafe. Try doing that with Taxi Driver.
The main thing to communicate about Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is simply how satisfying it is. The basic idea sounds like a feminist tract, but the film rejects any notion of carrying out a thesis mission. Alice Hyatt and the people she meets symbolize nothing and remain individuals wrapped up in individual lives with different goals. Unlike the dark Paul Schrader world that would soon monopolize Scorsese's professional imagination, Alice moves in a neutral landscape where personalities rule and happiness is possible. She begins as a suffering wife trying to make sense of a nightmare marriage. She's strong enough to hold up her end of the relationship, but then (as Scorsese says) God comes down and deals her a new hand. Out of disaster she's given a chance to start anew. Once again, character is the determining factor.
Robert Getchell and Martin Scorsese have the sense to know that characters become more real when set loose from confining genre regulations and predetermined concepts. Alice has the positive energy needed to hit the highway with her demanding son. She's willing to make a go of her singing career, even when it means using very un-feminist means, mainly, crying in front of a sympathetic bar owner to get him to hire her against his best interest. That's the film's strongest aspect, that it refuses to define its characters within the scheme of some "-ism" or another. Complainers get upset because Alice eventually "abandons her dreams" at the end to become yet another man's wife. They don't seem bothered when Alice very handily resorts to tears and a helpless act to get what she needs.
Other 'feminist' movies bend their stories to political demands. The author's rage comes through so strongly in Diary of a Mad Housewife that it's a miracle Carrie Snodgress can keep her character together. As good a picture as it is, Diary now seems an eccentric relic of another time. The dud Stand Up and Be Counted has women empowering themselves in trite scenes against stereotyped male chauvinists. It's totally forgotten, and I haven't heard its theme song I Am Woman played anywhere for years now.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore isn't a rigged deck like the rather good An Unmarried Woman. Alice's husband isn't a whiney weenie and she doesn't have the luxury of pursuing a trendy creative career, while being confronted with intriguing romantic choices. Alice has to figure out how to put Spaghetti-os on the table and how to keep from losing her kid to the youth authorities. And it's not easy out there when the men one meets could be dangerously unstable, as with Harvey Keitel's Ben Eberhardt.
The early 70s is now considered a time of maturity in American movies, when interesting work like Alice departed from formulas and moved in new directions. That assessment ignores the ten ordinary or inferior pictures that were made for every exceptional artistic effort, but it's very true in reference to this show. The structure throws one for a complete loop. Scorsese's studio-recreated prologue that represents Alice's idyllic Monterey childhood still seems completely out of whack with the rest of the show; it connects only intellectually with Alice's later stubbornness about returning to Monterey and seems the wish of a director to do a completely stylized sequence in case his career should suddenly evaporate. 1
Scorsese's brand of edgy tension is based on character and therefore never goes out of style - it can't be dulled by copycats as has happened with the million permutations of Taxi Driver: Spare us, O Lord, from Abel Ferrara. We feel Alice's terror over Ben Eberhardt (and his scorpion logic) and escape with her to the next town on the map. Interestingly, we keep expecting PLOT to re-intervene. In any self-respecting old-fashioned movie with a formally structured script, it would be essential for Keitel's Ben to make an unwelcome return at the last minute to threaten Alice's new relationship with Kris Kristofferson's David. The movie could then find a marketing niche, as a warm character study that's also a nail-biting thriller!
Alice keeps us interested by going against our expectations, giving us real-life drama instead of "drama" drama. In real life, heroism is putting up with impossible personalities. Hyperactive son Tommy is a test for Job that Alice passes with flying colors - she even manages to make their relationship magical (the water fight) while sharing her problems with the little guy.
Alice is determined to be a singer but suddenly announces that she's settling for being a waitress. We don't see her make the decision. Just as in real life, the decision made itself and she has to deal with it, the first step being breaking the news to her son. Waiting tables is a humiliating trial at first and a brutalizing comedown for the girl who dreamed of singing for a career. Then Alice begins to understand or at least cope with her eccentric co-workers - the Mel/Flo/Vera combo of crazies that launched the tamed-down TV series - and begins her adjustment to a new life. There's no justice in any of this. It's not a feminist fantasy, either.
Scorsese's casting is inspired. Billy Green Bush is perfect as the hopeless husband and John Cassavetes graduate Lelia Goldoni (Shadows) makes an emotional impression as Alice's neighbor. Harvey Keitel somehow exudes trouble the moment we first see him, and in just a couple of scenes becomes a psychotic demon. Diane Ladd creates a crude waitresses who surprises us with her depth of feeling, quashing the idea that Alice is one of those New York movies where rural hicks are just there for comedy relief.
Accomplished screenwriter Valerie Curtin's Vera comes the closest to comedy relief yet is just too individualized to be a side joke. Yes, she's a barely conscious loner living in her own world, but the screenplay respects the notion that everybody has dignity and a life happening off the screen. Even Alice makes jokes when Vera motors off with her father, but Vera is a real person too. After Tommy crashes into her in the cafe, she's kind enough to show him her prized pocketbook.
Alfred Lutter's Tommy gets a quick study in feminine mystery through cocky little Jodie Foster, a little girl still all elbows and freckles yet nervy enough to forge her way through life. Scorsese softens the social comment - Foster's the daughter of a prostitute, but a prostitute thoughtful enough to buy music lessons for her little girl.
Scorsese gets the first really good performance from Kris Kristofferson, even though he was acceptable in Peckinpah's Billy the Kid movie. He's ragged enough to offset the White Knight Syndrome where third-act Lancelots show up to rescue movie heroines and provide a happy ending. That essentially happens here as well but Getchell and Scorsese keep it up in the air. David's invaluable asset is his ability to sense what Alice needs, and he's a real find for that reason. True, the windup is really Alice solving her problem with how David fits into her picture of what she wants her future to be, but it's more than credible and satisfying. When they have their bit of drama amid the crowded tables of Mel's Diner Alice gets what she wants: A center-stage star performance to elevate her from being "just a waitress," and a man unafraid to meet her more than halfway. In the world of working mothers and Spaghettios, that's a blessing.
Warner's DVD of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a beauty. The sparkling transfer once again makes me want to say that I don't remember it looking this good in the theater.
The extras are exceptional. The interview documentary is a handsome pair of relaxed and insightful sit-downs with Burstyn and Kristofferson that very quickly sketch the uniqueness of the movie. Both actors are charming and self-deprecating. The docu is typical of producer Jeffrey Schwarz' best work - to the point, on-target and never padded out.
Both the docu and the commentary are tailored to the scope of the show instead of the common studio practice of slathering a long list of fluffy content onto the back of the box. The commentary is one of those brilliant "selective scene" jobs, which skips through the picture to place speaker comments over the appropriate footage. It's perhaps 25 minutes long. Instead of slogging through the entire feature saying whatever they can think of, the participants get to make the statements they want and then exit. The idea worked great on Warner's DVD of The Accidental Tourist and it's a big success here too. The box mentions only Scorsese, Burstyn and Kristofferson but the commentary also has some great passages with Diane Ladd, who explains a lot about her role and her personal background. She even points out little Laura Dern (her daughter) in one of the diner scenes, eating one of 19 ice cream cones she gobbled up in 19 takes.
In the extras, we find out from Burstyn that she initiated Alice and asked for Scorsese after seeing Mean Streets. Everyone involved in the show seems to have been serious and professional and none of their comments can be called empty flattery. They really add to the appreciation of the film. The only curiosity about both the docu and the commentary is the omission (unless I missed something) of any mention of Jodie Foster. I would have thought she'd be a featured sub-topic. Savant's antennae sense something happening behind the scenes, there.
In keeping with Warner's pleasing current trend the DVD cover utilizes original release poster art. If you are a DVD klutz like Savant and want to hear the commentary, take note to direction-arrow UP from the "return" button on the commentary page to highlight the little reel. It took me several minutes to figure out a problem that would probably take the average kid 2.5 seconds.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore rates:
Supplements: Commentary, docu Second Chances, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2004
1. A cross between Gone With the Wind (split rail fence, determined heroine) and Invaders from Mars (split rail fence, sand pit-like hilltop), the prologue is like Alice's personal version of Scarlett O'Hara's "Tomorrow is another day, I will survive" monologue. It's also designed to look like a Technicolor version of shots from Night of the Hunter. Scorsese was clearly channelling Michael Powell and William Cameron Menzies here. Ordinary viewers tend to get so heavily into the film that when they see it again at a later time, they forget that the movie began that way. Not that it's a crime - the Monterey prologue looks great (especially on this DVD) and seems a warm-up for the ambitious New York, New York where the whole picture is designed with a similar heightened artificiality.