Tuesday, November 26, 2013

ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE 1974

Given how so many of my all-time favorite films are movies I was first exposed to as an usher at San Francisco’s Alhambra Theater on Polk Street (it still stands, but is currently a Crunch gym), I should consider the couple of years employed there during high-school to be my primer film school education. 
When Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore opened in San Francisco, it screened exclusively for the first month at the Alhambra Theater. For although Ellen Burstyn was very popular after The Exorcist (1973), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore wasn't really given a very big publicity push. Martin Scorsese was still mostly seen as an indie director, Kris Kristofferson’s marquee value was questionable, at best, and female-driven narratives were just not the norm in the male-centric 70s.
I had no advance knowledge of the film at all, and I considered myself a pretty big film fan. In fact, to illustrate what a weird kid I was, when the theater manager told me that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was to be the next attraction, I thought it literally had something to do with the 1933 Guy Lombardo song, Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore, which gives the film its name. Go figure. (And if you don’t know this song about a woman fed up with waiting for her man, it’s a worth a listen HERE. It charmingly adds to the film's lasting legacy of female empowerment.) 
Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt
Kris Kristofferson as David
Diane Ladd as Flo
Alfred Lutter as Tommy Hyatt
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - the story of a newly widowed housewife (Burstyn) who sets off on the road with her 12-year-old son to become a singer in Monterey, California – from a marketing angle, didn't have much to use as bait (no hookers, no gunplay, no nudity, no car chases) yet I recall it as being the biggest film to play the Alhambra during my time there. 
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was one of those movies that opened slowly and then boomed practically overnight. The theater had lines that stretched around the corner every day and sold out shows were the norm. People came back two and three times, always with someone they had recommended the film to. I had never seen anything like it. A true word-of-mouth hit. And what amazed me even more was the volume of elderly people this film attracted. For some reason, it's nostalgic tone perhaps, older audiences - a market largely ignored by the youth-films of the day -absolutely LOVED this movie! Sunday matinees looked like an AARP convention.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow...with a really foul mouth
Mia Bendixson portrays 8-year-old Alice in the Wizard of Oz-inspired opening sequence

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
There are several books, online articles, and even a DVD commentary detailing the significant role Ellen Burstyn played in getting Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore made. Aside from the almost mythological appeal of the story (a feminist collaborates with a famously male-centric director to make a film considered by many to be the quintessential cinematic articulation of the 70s women’s movement), what comes through strongest is the passion and commitment of everyone involved.
The family that prays together is still pretty screwed up
In an effort to move the plot forward and get Alice on the road as quickly as possible, several scenes that would have fleshed out the character of Alice's husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush) had to be cut. 

Martin Scorsese speaks of having the foreknowledge of the studio expecting him to turn out a genre film – a romantic comedy with a happy ending – yet he and Burstyn turn in a film of such unexpected freshness, I still find myself dazzled by it. Its characters, settings, dialog, and character-based humor felt so refreshingly personal, so original, and so surprising. Scorsese succeeds in creating a 70s revisionist take on the 40s woman's picture, something he endeavored (with considerably less success) with the 40s musical genre when he made New York, New York in 1977. Now there's a film that could have benefited from Ellen Burstyn's level-headed feminine perspective. 
I'd never seen an onscreen mother/son relationship like the one Alice and Tommy share
Scorsese’s fluid visual style gives the film a gritty kind of grace, while his laser-sharp editing has a way of turning simple cuts into clever visual punchlines. The performances are uniformly first rate (I have a particular fondness for the sweetly oddball waitress, Vera. I always wanted to know more about her character's life), and the very funny screenplay never scarifies character or theme for an easy laugh. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of my enduring favorites from the 70s.
As Alice's best friend, Bea, actress Lelia Goldoni (so memorable in John Cassavetes'  1959 film, Shadows) doesn't have a lot of screen time, but I always remember how touchingly real her character's relationship with Alice felt. Only in later years did I learn of Burstyn's and Goldoni's lengthy real-life friendship.

PERFORMANCES 
True to the axiom that comedy never gets any respect, whenever I think about my favorite film performances by an actress in the 70s, my mind goes straight to Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses,Don’t They? and Klute, Faye Dunaway in Chinatown, Karen Black in The Day of the Locust, or Glenda Jackson in anything. I always overlook the absolutely astonishing job Ellen Burstyn does in bringing the character of Alice Hyatt to life. I thought so in 1974 and looking at the film again after so many years, it still stands out as such a thoroughly realized performance. And by that I mean that Burstyn makes Alice Hyatt so authentic an individual, you honestly feel as though you have been observing a real person, not a fictional character. She is no male fantasy construct. She's not even a Women's Lib figurehead (she only seemed so when compared to the type of degrading roles being offered women during the 70s).
Smart Women / Foolish Choices
As  Ben Eberhart, Scorsese stalwart Harvey Keitel as gives a chilling portrait of the kind of courtly gentility that often masks an dominating nature. One of the many things I like about Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is how, in presenting a woman's point of view, it doesn't take the easy route of vilifying men. Instead, it explores why some women are drawn to a kind of archaic definition of masculinity that can lead to abusive relationships. I love the scene where Alice tells David how she was drawn to her husband's bossiness ("Yes, master!" she says, mocking her own passivity) and that she initially liked that he forbade her to have a career, stating that his oppressiveness was, "My idea of a man...strong and dominating."
The depth of Burstyn's performance has the effect of fulfilling what the premise of the film promises: an ordinary woman is revealed to be remarkable by sheer force of her humanity. Alice goes from being a someone's wife and mother to being the standout heroine of her own life. And it's the talent of Ellen Burstyn, giving an Academy Award-winning performance, that makes it happen.
The Academy got it right in awarding Burstyn the Best Actress Oscar, but seriously dropped the ball with the terrific Diane Ladd. Her folksy waitress, Flo, is one of the screen's great character performances. By the way, back when I was a movie usher, Flo's frustrated outburst: "She went to shit and the hogs ate her!" got the longest, loudest laugh I'd ever heard in a movie theater, yet it was also the single moment in the film I was most questioned about by departing patrons. It seemed like every third person came up to me after a screening asking, "What did that waitress say?" Apparently, folks were only able to make out the word "shit" and that (along with Ladd's explosive tone and body language) was sufficient for the scene to work. When I told them what she actually said, their faces almost always registered bewilderment. I think their imaginations wrote dialog that was far funnier. 
11-year-old Jodie Foster, two years before her explosive Oscar-nominated performance in Scorsese's Taxi Driver

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
In spite of it being a somewhat troublesome film genre with a built-in anecdotal construct that frequently leads to directors being unable to arrive at or maintain a consistent tone; I like road movies a great deal (a personal unsung favorite being the quirky Rafferty & the Gold Dust Twins – 1974). Like most road movies, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore has a literal road trip serve as a “journey of life / path of growth” metaphor, but in this instance, the cliché feels fresh because Alice’s story – a woman approaching middle age forced to confront life as a single mother – isn't the kind Hollywood has been falling over itself in an effort to tell.
Uncharted Territory
Stars Wars wouldn't premiere until some three years later, but to 1974 audiences, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - a movie about a 35-year-old woman, told from her perspective - was a visit to a world as remote as any galaxy far, far away.
Scorsese, Burstyn, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Robert Getchell (one of the many writers involved in wresting Mommie Dearest to the screen) fashion an engagingly contemporary Alice in Wonderland liberation allegory out of Alice Hyatt’s auto  pilgrimage to, as one writer astutely put it, the Monterey of her mind. Whereas most road films tend to run out of steam somewhere around the midpoint, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore grows increasingly funnier and more emotionally substantial as it goes along. I love the opening scenes in Socorro, New Mexico; the hilarious moments on the road that delineate Alice's unique relationship with her son; and the scenes highlighting Alice's early employment efforts or show her navigating the choppy waters of dating. But my favorite section -where the film fully hits its comedic stride - are the latter scenes of the film that take place in Tucson, Arizona. Specifically those within Mel & Ruby's Diner.
Being at turns funny, gritty, touching, dramatic, and very sweet, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a movie that covers a great deal of ground, but throughout, the film somehow sustains that amazingly delicate balance of being true to its genre conventions while still being a solid character drama about people we come to really know and care a great deal for. Best of all, it gives us a story of an individual's journey of self-discovery that is also one of the most well-rounded, dimensional portraits of a woman ever committed to film.
The depiction of the friendship that develops between the superficially dissimilar Alice and Flo is one of the best things in the film

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A lot has been written about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s somewhat problematic ending. An ending (two, actually, if you count the brief coda after the diner scene) suggesting Alice, after finding the love of a good man (a ranch-owning, dreamboat of an eligible bachelor who also happens to be the only guy for miles around who doesn't look like an extra from Hee Haw) is going to table her dream of going to Monterey. This Warner Bros-mandated ending proved a real crowd-pleaser with 70s audiences growing weary of all that New Hollywood nihilism, thus making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore one of the top grossing films of 1974. And while many welcomed the change of pace that an old-fashioned Hollywood happy ending presented, others were dismayed by the extent to which the chosen ending conflicted with - if not outright contradicted - much of what came before it. 
Had Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore been just one of many films made during the 70s that told a story from a woman’s point of view, audiences would likely have accepted the ending as being merely a choice suitable for this particular character (after all, as the honey-tones of the opening sequence imply, Alice’s memories of her life in Monterey are likely as idealized as the scope of her early singing career). But being that the vast majority of roles available to women in 70s could be typified by Karen Black’s catalog of supportively deferential, frequently-abandoned trollops; a disproportionate amount of feminist significance was therefore placed on Alice Hyatt and her personal journey of self-discovery.
That's 6-year-old Laura Dern (daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern) listening in on Alice and David's conversation
As is my wont, I’m of several minds about the ending.

a) From a movie buff’s perspective, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore’s ending feels like a perfect full circle for a film that begins with a title sequence (cursive lettering on satin) that references the tropes and clichés of the women’s film genre of the 40s.
b)From a character-based perspective, I think it’s possible to look upon Alice’s dream of returning to Monterey as a romanticized fantasy…a retreat to childhood, if you will…that she clings to in the midst of an unhappy marriage. In this light, her ultimate decision to be with Donald and remain in Tucson (“If I’m gonna be a singer I can be a singer anywhere, right?”) indicates a newfound maturity and personal growth on her part. She’s gained the ability to find happiness in her life as it is lived in the present, not from trying to return to an idealized happier time in her past.

c) It’s only when I look at the film from an ideological or political perspective that I have a problem with the ending. And that’s largely the film’s fault for establishing such a compelling narrative trajectory. One that takes us from the words of Alice’s friend, Bea at the start of the film: “Well, I sure couldn’t live without some kind of man around the house, and neither could you.” ; to Alice’s declaration near the end: “It’s my life! It’s not some man’s life I’m here to help him out with!”
So many 70s films ended with the male protagonist leaving behind a girlfriend or wife in order to find themselves (think Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces), that it virtually became a cliché. In each instance, the ending is presented as a happy and necessary step toward independence and self-growth. Given how Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore sets itself up as a challenge to the long-held belief that a woman’s life has little to no value without a man, who can be blamed for wishing this brilliant film had ended with a repudiation of that persistent myth?
In an early draft of the screenplay, the diner sequence was to be followed by (and the film end with) a close-up of Alice's hands playing the piano. The tight framing of the shot providing an ambiguous coda, as it is not apparent whether she is playing piano in a bar in Monterey, or in the living room of David's house - we just know that Alice didn't stop singing. Since this footage is used in the sidebar of the film's closing credits, I'd like to think that Alice did indeed become a professional singer...perhaps somewhere in Tucson where she made a happy life for herself with Tommy and David. (And of course, this allows Flo to remain her new best friend. Now, that's a happy ending.)
Copyright © Ken Anderson

23 comments:

  1. I just saw this film earlier this year on TCM after not seeing it since its initial '70s release (when I was in junior high!)
    It still held up, I thought...
    And most amazingly, a most atypical movie for frequently bombastic Scorsese.
    The cast is stellar, and how can anyone not love Ellen Burstyn? That smile!
    Again, thanks for all your writing and diverse choices. Love reading you!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This lovely film really IS a nice departure for Scorsese. Which I guess should speak volumes about Burstyn's input and the sizable female crew she was instrumental is getting involved in the making.
      It's always a pleasure to see a film in which you wind up very much liking the main character, and I agree...how can anyone not love Ellen Burstyn?
      Thanks, Rico! I'm so very pleased you enjoy the blog.

      Delete
  2. I haven't seen this yet, but I remember its TV incarnation ALICE quite fondly. I really must get 'round to this one!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A friend recently wrote to me about getting into that TV series "Alice" again now that it is available on DVD. I haven't seen it since it's original run, but it amuses me to remember that toward the close of it's run, Diane Ladd joined the show as a character named Belle. A replacement for the Flo character she actually originated (Polly Holliday) when she was given her own spinoff series.
      I hope you get around to seeing this movie sometimes. If you are a fan of the show, I think you'll be nicely surprised at the ways it differs from the show. Thanks very much stoppig by and for taking the time to comment, WaverBoy!

      Delete
  3. Hi Ken,

    I have to be honest and admit I could never really get into this film even with a second viewing but I enjoyed reading your thoughts and impressions on it.

    There's no question Ellen Burstyn is wonderful in the film, when is she not, but I'm more of a fan of her work in Resurrection. I saw an interview she gave when she was doing publicity for this in the 70's and she stated that Scorsese’s inspiration for the film at least in part was Doris Day's second film My Dream Is Yours. Having seen that movie many times and loving it I can see certain things that tangentially speaking relate to ADLHAM but they are vastly different viewing experiences.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'd never heard that about the Doris Day film (a film I've never seen) but it's a provocative and perhaps apt notion that Scorsese looked to 40's films at least for partial inspiration for how he would approach "Alice..."
      Ellen Burstyn is such a versatile actress, she tends to be fascinating to watch in anything (I recall what a departure her 1977 film "Providence" seemed to me after seeing her so down to earth in this). Resurrection is a fave. Thanks for reading my post even if the film is not a particular favorite!

      Delete
    2. My Dream Is Yours is actually going to be on TCM sometime this week so if you have the chance you might find it interesting to compare. It's really very enjoyable and has all the pluses of the old studio system. Lush Technicolor, a cast full of great supporting players including Eve Arden and Jack Carson both of whom I love, and a wonderful score of terrific music and good direction from that jack of all genres Michael Curtiz. Then there's also the incredibly young Doris Day singing like a songbird who is always worthwhile.

      Delete
    3. Thanks for the tip, Joel! I think I'll DVD it. I like early Doris Day a great deal, and Jack Carson is always terrific.

      Delete
  4. Hi Ken - beautiful and thought-provoking article that helped me understand why this is my all-time favorite among Scorsese films. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the director's other works, Alice has such a keen and realistic female (not necessarily feminist) POV...I believe this is the only Scorsese with the woman as protagonist. Now I learn from you how collaborative Scorsese was with Burstyn, and it all makes sense.

    Rico nailed it when he said it is less bombastic than the average Scorsese pic--it's more intimate, less sensational, less epic, more slice-of-life.

    I love these amazing actors working together, particularly Burstyn with Lutter as the bratty son, Lutter and Foster, Burstyn with Kristofferson and Keitel, and of course with Diane Ladd as the tough and tender Flo.

    Funny Law of Attraction moment--I just met Diane Ladd last Saturday night at an event in South Beach honoring Anjelica Huston, whose autobiography was just published. Ms. Ladd, who I had just seen again last week as the fake Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown, directed by Anjelica's father, came to the party at The Standard to support her good friend. They are both amazingly gracious ladies...and I got the chance to mention to Diane her Oscar-worthy performance as Flo. Much as I love Ingrid Bergman, Ms. Ladd should have won for this glorious and gritty performance rather than Bergman for the campy Agatha Christie picture!

    I highly recommend the recent Showtime TV series Enlightened, in which Ladd costars with her daughter Laura Dern. I think you'll enjoy.

    Thanks, Ken, for highlighting this wonderful and special Scorsese film...which now the Universe is telling me, "You must see again."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chris
      That's a wonderful Diane Ladd encounter! How terrific for you! With both Ladd and Anjelica Houston aroun, hound on earth did you rein in the gush? I would have been a big puddle of embarrassing fawning.

      All you said about the intimate, personal quality of this film is very true. He definitely leaves his stylistic imprint on it, and the film seems a person creative blend of two diverse artist's yin and yang.

      I love Ingrid Berman, but I honestly don't know what the Academy was smoking that year. For ages, Berman's "Little brown babies" line from "Murder on the Orient Express" was a sure-fire laugh around our household. (Also, I always forget Diane Ladd was in "Chinatown"...thanks for bringing that up!)

      I've heard great things about that Showtime program you mention, and it will be a must-see when it comes out on DVD.
      And yes, it's time for you to watch "Alice..." again. Thanks a heap, Chris!

      Delete
  5. I misspoke--of course, Chinatown was directed by Polanski and costarred John Huston...

    ReplyDelete
  6. I don't think I've seen "Alice" since it was in release. You're so right, it was a HUGE movie. I was trying to remember if I saw it at the Alhambra, but I don't think I was permanently in SF yet. Anyway...I don't remember being upset by the ending - perhaps, in my mind, it didn't seem unlikely that a middle-aged woman of that time would decide to forgo the dream of a singing career in the face of a relationship with a "ranch-owning, dreamboat of an eligible bachelor." But the ending you describe from an early draft of the screenplay would've been more satisfying, I think.

    Jane Fonda in "They Shoot Horses" and Faye Dunaway in "Chinatown" are two of my very favorite performances - then and now.



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Eve
      It would have been a kick had you seen "Alice..." at the Alhambra. I most certainly would have been the fellow taking your ticket.
      I think in these post-women's lib years, the high level of expectation placed on Alice's shoulders has lessened completely. In a sea of Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, and Charles Bronson; Ellen Burstyn was alone wolf and her simple role here was imbued with a considerable amount of socio-political baggage that prevented it from being appreciated exclusively (as Angelman put it) a realistic movie from a woman's point of view. Not ALL women.
      And I love that Fonda and Dunaway in "Horses" and "Chinatown" are favorites.
      I think so many people tend to remember the 70s as being a better era for women on screen than it actually was because, even though there weren't a lot of roles for women then, the ones that were there were some of the best and most memorable ever to come out of Hollywood.
      Thanks, Eve. Always a pleasure to hear from you!

      Delete
  7. Argyle, here. Love this movie! It took a couple of viewings for me to get there - it's very subtle and meandering. But Ellen Burstyn is so good. Everyone looks incredible, so fresh and un-ironic. Your first screen cap of Diane Ladd is perfect, her alertness and energy. (I second the recommendation of "Enlightened" - she and Laura Dern and Mike White, incredible.) Tommy always reminds me of my younger brother, hair, glasses, spaciness. Jodie Foster is also perfect - the whole Ramada Rose/drinking ripple subplot. Doesn't Burstyn constantly call Tommy a "pain in the neck"? I guess in general, there's such an air of worry, just short of desperation, and unraveling that lies under the light and air and color and blondness of it all that I really like. You understand that she really needs to find a job... I totally respect Scorsese but am not always that interested in his male-o-dramas; "Alice..." is sort of under-wrought, which I think is great. Thanks as always, Ken!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Argyle
      I love the term, "male-o-dramas"! If that is yours, you need to copyright it. I adore Scorsese as a filmmaker, but I've always thought I was in the minority as one of those who loathed "Goodfellas", and never saw "Mean Streets". And one of his least popular films, "Casino" is one of my favorites. Go figure. He is one of the best filmmakers around, but there is a certain kind of macho, unleavenened by some kind of strong female female character in the narrative, that I just don't find compelling or interesting. "Alice" is such a wonderful departure for him, because his trademark grittiness and finely observed details of life is exactly what a movie like this needs. he and Burstyn are terrific collaborators.
      I too like the whole Jodie Foster subplot, and I think you are right in pinpointing a certain worry and desperation in the proceedings that gives it all some heft.
      I love how the seedy locations, Tommy being shut up in a tiny motel all day, Alice shaving her legs in the sink...all these details point to a real-life kind of poverty (movie poverty is rarely ever as grimy as this) that makes Alice chasing a gossamer dream like being a singer, all the more engaging.

      Delete
  8. Argyle, again. Just remembered the (seemingly constant) changing of clothes in tiny, awkward, public bathrooms which is such a perfect detail that is so expressive and relatable. And then Alice and Flo have that meeting of the minds in the tiny bathroom (blue?) that's shot from above. And the long take of Burstyn singing and playing the electric piano in the bar ("Where or When"?) It's so unexpected but you really need that interlude and you're relieved that she's such a charming performer - maybe she can make it! For me, those scenes really show Scorsese's mastery and Burstyn's absolute co-authorship.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. On a further note, all the things you call attention to are among the things I like most about this film. As a kid, my entire family traveled across country a great deal by car, and this film gets so many of the small details right.
      And indeed, it is nice that Alice actually CAN sing and that she's not delusional. The song "Where or When" was one of my audition songs during my days as a dancer (I copied a Johnny Mathis version, but this movie inspired me to use it). On a side note, my "upbeat" audition song was "Memphis"...the song composed and sung by Karen Black in "Nashville". No wonder I lost so many jobs!
      Thanks for the dual entries, Argyle, and if your little brother is anything like Alice's son in this movie, you must have had a lot of fun as a kid.

      Delete
  9. I've seen the movie three times, the last time recently. At the time it made me fall in love with Ellen instantly. She also made me realize that she is actually the strongest element in The Exorcist, a movie that didn't sweep me from my feet to begin with. But Burstyn as Regan's mother was great. Without her, I would have considered the Exorcist hardly more than B-rated trash. (and save for Max Von Sydow, who can't do any wrong with me either. Anyone seen him in Needful Things? Another example of one actor saving a whole movie from mediocrity and oblivion)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Willem
      I agree. For a brief time in the 70s Ellen Burstyn , after playing strong supporting roles, got to show her stuff as a lead who could carry a film in an era where the males were in (over)abundance. She is great here and I think rather marvelous in "The Exorcist", too.
      I saw "Needful Things" once, and Sydow is definitely that strong one in that film.
      I've seen more than my share of horror films that get the best of otherwise good actors, but when the casting is right, I agree, a strong actor can add the weight of human authenticity to something that in other hands would be thoroughly forgettable.

      Delete
  10. I so very much enjoyed this movie, as well, and was blown away with how it was constructed. Honest performances, clean direction, believable characters, and a great story. I'd heard so much about this movie over the years and having only seen the spin-off sitcom, didn't know what to expect. Of course, since I was familiar with the sitcom, I was expecting that level of "wackiness" because that seems to be how Hollywood treats its subjects (see also: "MASH" movie vs. TV series. Dark satire vs. hijinx ahoy!) However, this is the much more human, for lack of a better term, of the two. It's more realistic, warm, and down to earth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Andy
      Your very apt description of what Hollywood does to films they adapt to TV shows made me laugh. They really do ratchet up the schtick to the point one is scarcely able to recognize the source material at all.
      I'm glad to hear you find this film to be as charming and well-made as I did. Thank you for checking out another post and taking the time to comment! Much appreciated!

      Delete
  11. I truly love that movie and K.K character..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, a wonderful movie and Kristofferson's character is one of the nicest, least macho in the Scorsese canon.
      Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

      Delete