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 in ... Written by
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.
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