Sunday 10 July 2011

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)


When looking at Ellen Burstyn’s roles of the 1970s, her most well-known films have her as the mother. She was Cybill Shepherd’s mother in 1972’s The Last Picture Show and Linda Blair’s mother in 1973’s The Exorcist. Due to the success of both of these pictures, particularly The Exorcist, she was given free reign on any project she wanted. Burstyn wanted to make a film about a woman with real problems. Further to this, she wanted to give an up-and-coming director a chance. After finding a suitable script and a director on the cusp of the greatness, she went on to star in a film that won her an Oscar for Best Actress – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

When Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is suddenly widowed after years as a housewife, she decides to head to Monterey with her young son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) to resume a singing career. When she reaches Tucson, she puts her dream of singing on hold again and becomes a waitress. There she meets a divorced farmer, David (Kris Kristofferson), and starts to think about a new life of domesticity.

This was Robert Getchell’s first script and he would go on to work primarily in the vein of films about women. With Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, there are times when, given the amount of improvisation going on, it’s difficult to see the written word as nothing more than a premise to build on later. However, the structure is actually rather well defined to some degree, being that it’s a riff on The Wizard of Oz. Once this clicks, the scenes may seem a little more formulaic, but there is an undeniable cleverness to the whole end product. It’s never bashed over your head, either. It only really occurred to me afterwards when I was thinking about the titles and opening sequence and how that matched the overall effect. The direction also hits this well.

Martin Scorsese is hardly known for films looking at the female psyche. He tends to immerse himself in a world of men. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The King of Comedy, these are stories of men who are maybe a little crazy and often quite dangerous. In fact, because of the nature of Mean Streets, Ellen Burstyn wasn’t entirely sure he was capable of doing the story of a woman justice. However, when she asked him what he knew about women, his answer was, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” His openness and enthusiasm to explore the subject was what got him the job. And he does a great job. He intentionally ignores what would be so much of his own trademarks and signature style, allowing the film a much freer sense of flow, which suits the material well. There are flashes of the recognisably Scorsese in there, like the long tracking shots, the moments of tense and violent confrontation, and the visual flair of one who is, for lack of a better way of putting it, classically trained. For the most part, he allows the actors the freedom to move within the frame unhindered, often allowing things to unfold in single takes. There are times when Scorsese, seemingly at a loss for what to do in such unfamiliar territory, falls back on shots taken from Bergman or Antonioni. This is perhaps a little unfair because a) it works, and b) there’s an element of this in all his work.

As Alice Hyatt, Ellen Burstyn is excellent. So natural is her performance that there’s not a moment where you really see her acting. She simply is Alice, comfortably and completely. It’s a character that runs deep with emotional changes, and Burstyn handles it with a delicate subtlety that makes it something truly special to watch. Take, for example, the scene in which she lands her first singing job in Pheonix. She goes in with some confidence, and a bunch of nerves, her fragile weariness gets the better of her and she starts to cry, she works in a little humour, becomes finely manipulative and then goes back to the initial hesitant confidence again… and it’s all done without seeing a single gear change. The scenes between Alice and her son are pure gold, too. The standout that’s often mentioned is one where, on the road, Tommy keeps telling his mother the same joke over and over again, explaining it bit by bit and then telling it again to make sure she got it. It’s incredibly funny and it’s all improvised.

One thing that did annoy me was the near constant product placement of Coca Cola products. Not entirely intrusive, but not exactly subtle either.

Now I’ll engage in what could be a hideously poor move… I’m going to talk about the feminist aspects of the film. I could turn out to be really bad at this, so bare with me. Such is the nature of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore that it can clearly be regarded as film of female liberation and a chance for the female protagonist to find her own way in the world as defined by herself and not a man. However, is it necessarily successful as a feminist film? It’s certainly easy to see that there’s room for doubt. Would a truly feminist film have let the character of Ben leave the film in such a way? Doubtful. Would a truly feminist film have allowed the relationship between Alice and David? Maybe not. Would a truly feminist film have had that ending? Almost certainly not. In a certain way, it would seem that the intention behind the film and its main character is to provide a new role model, a modern women who has been given the chance to start fresh, build a new life her way and takes charge. To her credit, she does identify her dream and actively goes out after it. That Alice, after making such a huge personal leap in the beginning, then seems to regress back to a more familiar, comfortable and controlled existence can be seen as something of a cop out or even a betrayal of those it would apparently be most directly addressing. Plus, she does exhibit some of the behaviours that men and feminists alike find off-putting about women, like when she cries to get what she wants. Back in the old days of Katherine Hepburn, she would have used strength of character as her weapon of choice, effectively brow-beating her target into submission with a combination of fast talking, keen smarts and acerbic wit. Surely role models from the 70s should be better than those of the 40s.

The problem with attaching any kind of social or political or religious theories to anything, though, is that it rarely yields positive results because the approach is just so aggressive. Definitions of what it means to be any given thing become some so rigid that it means that there are few ways the subject can survive the scrutiny. Identifying any individual as an icon of any particular school of thought is asking for trouble because if you don’t like that person, for whatever reason, you can be turned off of that whole ideal. Even when someone tries to make something that exists as a Liberal text or a Marxist text or a Feminist text, it never entirely holds up, often because it becomes just as aggressively didactic as the theory it represents. Reality holds very little sway in such endeavours, so how can that be of any use to people living in the real world?

Personally, I can see the point being made by critics about its feminist credentials, and it was certainly something that did occur a little to me when watching it. However, I don’t really think I can necessarily condemn the film either. The world of film, as with any art form, is a construct, and one of the big concerns is what way the filmmaker seeks to represent the world – Realistically, where the artist would choose to show how the world seems to work from their perspective; or Idealistically, where the artist shows a potential world in order to make their point. (I would stress that just because they may choose to portray the world one way, doesn’t mean they necessarily want it to be that way.) Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore seems to want to be in the former category, especially when considering its beginning, which would belong in the latter category. Young Alice, once idealistic, is now all grown up and more familiar with how the world really works. She knows she only has a limited arsenal with which to begin her new life, and people of limited talents can’t always make it to the heights the seek. Sometimes they just have to content themselves with having a job, family and friends. Is that really so bad? To condemn Alice Hyatt for not becoming a symbol of Modern Woman is just unfair.

Of course, maybe all I’m really doing is trying to talk my way around disagreeable things so that I can continue liking this film.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore really is a warm, funny, occasionally tense, and incredibly enjoyable film. It’s a chick flick that neatly avoids the trappings of the chick flick, so it can comfortably exist on its own terms, and Burstyn is on superb form in the lead. Yes, I can see the root of what some people dislike about the film on an idealistic front, but I just don’t think I can agree with such considerations. If you’ve yet to see the film, you may wish to check it out and make your own mind up.

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