Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was on in cinemas in the UK and US in November and is now on Netflix internationally. So Tripwire set its editor-in-chief Joel Meadows and senior editor Andrew Colman the mammoth task of watching and reviewing all of his films. Next up is 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, reviewed by Andrew Colman…
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Mia Bendixsen, Alfred Lutter III
Alice was almost an intermission or stopgap movie for Scorsese – granted, the original running time was considerably longer than its 107 minutes, which (according to the director) would’ve made the project a very different proposition indeed. However Scorsese, on this occasion, was essentially a hired director for what was an Ellen Burstyn vehicle.
Burstyn plays a put-upon housewife with a typically (for this genre) unsympathetic husband (Billy Bush) and a precocious, needy, preteen son (Alfred Lutter) in New Mexico. She longs for her idealised childhood spent in Monterey, and when her husband suddenly dies, she quickly skips town with her son in order to pursue her dream of returning to California and becoming a lounge singer. Arriving in Phoenix, she manages to get a job singing in a bar before being wooed and subsequently terrorised by the smooth talking Ben (Harvey Keitel, playing both against and in type). She then swiftly moves on to Tucson, where she finds work as a waitress, befriending sassy co-worker Florence (Diane Ladd, who almost steals the movie) and love interest and salvation David (Kris Kristofferson, very much in type). Meanwhile his son goes slightly off the rails when he falls under the influence of his more street-smart friend Audrey (Jodie Foster). In the end true love and resolution prevails. Burstyn maintains her principles as a free agent after a formulaic falling out / reconciliation with Kristofferson (in the café where she works, of course).
Scorsese considered Alice a developing experience that would prove invaluable for future projects, while Burstyn, who commissioned the young director for the movie, felt he was key to its success due to his enthusiasm and desire to learn, especially when it came to directing women. Her Oscar winning turn as the eponymous Alice has generally been lauded by fans and is seen as a marker for a type of naturalistic feminism. However this is still a deeply conventional film, apart from the odd left-field moment (such as when Keitel reverts to psychosis). Burstyn is certainly very good, although her performance, consisting of serial meltdowns and anxiety, does lack nuance and range. Alice’s son Tommy gradually wears you down with his irritatingly selfish (and shouty) tantrums – their relationship, which is the hub of the film, never really shifts away from such bickering. And as this is a chick flick of sorts, most of the men are portrayed as unreconstructed and somewhat creepy, although that isn’t really a criticism – in this respect Scorsese’s eye for the authentic is on the money.
Considering that this film was sandwiched between two classic Scorsese movies featuring either gangsters, outsiders or both in a febrile New York peopled with grotesques, waifs and strays, it is a remarkable if rather mundane detour, focusing as it does on characters who aren’t broken, desperate or terrifyingly destructive. The film’s fans claim that Alice was a movie that showed that Scorsese had a warmer side, and could do happy endings that eschew Grand Guignol, or indeed much in the way of high drama. Which is indeed true, but Scorsese for the most part is not known for films such as this one, nor is it generally the case that wholesome characters like Alice make for great movies – in Scorsese’s canon the antagonists capture the imagination, if indeed there are any characters in his films who lack venality. Strictly speaking it isn’t a Scorsese movie if one considers him exclusively an auteur – there are few trademark cinematic tropes of his throughout, and indeed if he had been given leeway to do as he wanted, one would assume it would have been a much darker picture. There are times, especially when Kristofferson arrives halfway through, that it does get rather soapy (there was a television spin-off of Alice that lasted over 200 episodes). That’s not to say it isn’t without its pluses – Diane Ladd is excellent, while Jodie Foster’s turn as the errant Audrey is so assured and beyond her years that it was little wonder that Scorsese casted her in his next movie.
A necessary if rather strange step for the celebrated director perhaps, but in the end this was a project that marked time before his ongoing ascension to the peak of his powers, and indeed his profession.
Here’s the film’s trailer
Here’s the other reviews so far…