It must be somewhat of a tradition with me, after best picture month, to go back to Scorsese films. I would like to blame the Academy for not awarding his films more. Anyway, what we have here is Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one of the members of what I like to call the “weird half” of Scorsese’s filmography. What sets this film apart is that it is Scorsese’s only film to have a female as the main character. That tends to make more of a difference in subject matter rather than style. However, it fails (for me) along the same lines as Mean Streets does: there are several scenes that are fantastic but the film as a whole is a bit unfocused.
Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is an average American housewife in the seventies. She puts up with her lousy husband and her “smart ass kid” and tries to make the best of life. The opening shows her as a child, back on a farm in California that looks and feels like it could be Kansas from The Wizard of Oz. Slightly marring this is her foul mouth and unladylike determination. Fast forward to thirty five year old Alice’s life, which is not terrible but definitely not ideal either. Everything changes when her husband dies, and she decides to use this opportunity to pursue her life long dream of being a singer, even though she’s not very good and “too old” at thirty five to really break into show biz.
What follows is a sort of road movie with a couple of stops, first in Phoenix and then in Tuscon. In Phoenix, she ends up getting a job as a singer in a bar and hooking up with this psychopathic guy Ben (Harvey Keitel). Neither of these last long, and she and her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) are moving on to Tuscon pretty quick. She works as a waitress there, which she sees as a bit of a comedown. Other than that, Tuscon proves to be a lot better, as the guy she meets is nicer (played by Kris Kristofferson), and she ends up making friends with the other women who work in the restaurant.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is designed in great part to tackle issues the average American woman was facing circa 1974. Immediately, it comes under scrutiny of those who want to make sure the feminism angle is portrayed just right. For the most part, I was able to set the constant worry of political correctness aside and focus on the characters. At some points, the film directly addresses these issues and you can’t help but notice. There’s one scene where Alice refuses to be hired on basis of physical appearance, and another with a heart to heart conversation with Flo (another waitress, played wonderfully by Diane Ladd) about her career as a housewife and how she doesn’t really know what to do on her own. These seemed realistic to me. While these days everyone gets mad if a female character is not “strong,” (aka a complete badass who kills people or engages in otherwise drastic behavior) back then I suppose it was enough to show someone trying to be. It feels real. You can’t just dump most people on their own after being taken care by someone else for their whole lives and expect them to be great at it all the time. The only thing I was worrying about is almost all the women in this film are incredibly weepy. They’re crying all the time! Other than that, I’m pretty okay with the politics here.
The film, like much of Scorsese’s early work, feels a bit rambling and unfocused. That may make it feel more like life, but it also makes it feel less like a movie. The characters just aren’t compelling enough to make this a purely character driven piece. The plot is there, but it doesn’t seem to be driving the story, which is not necessary for a movie to be good, but in the absence of anything else it sure helps. The bottom line is, I try to recall the overall story arc and it’s kind of hard, but individual scenes taken out of context stand out in my memory. It makes it hard to think of the film as a whole.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore might not be the best film Scorsese has turned out by a long shot, but it’s still an interesting watch. Tackling feminism in the seventies must have been a tricky proposition and for the most part it comes off well. The film might feel a bit loose and unorganized, but it’s definitely still watchable and interesting. See it for early Scorsese, the seventies time period, and Ellen Burstyn’s great central performance. It’s not a classic you’ll watch over and over again, but it’s worth a look just the same.
“He always said you could fight with somebody and still like him.”
Long story short: 3/4