by Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary
Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 5-7
It’s a bad omen when Warner Brothers and the Ms. magazine sisters prove kissing corporate cousins. Realize that it was a strangely premeditated, pre-release hype review of Warners’ ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE in the January, 1975, issue which started the infernal bandwagon rolling. In the name of women everywhere Ms. editor Susan Braudy thanked the beneficent studio for “our movie ... a little gift from Hollywood,” the supposed masterwork of self-admitted macho director Martin Scorsese on his feminist trip.
By the time ALICE star Ellen Burstyn stepped gingerly onto the cover of the February Ms. (straining to appear at ease as incipient Movement Superstar), the smooth PR “correct line” on ALICE had spread to the hinterland that the movie was turning profits for Warners, and the Oscar for Ellen’s Alice was a fait accompli. From Canby at the Times to Zimmerman at Newsweek from Tweedledee at The Philadelphia Inquirer to Tweedledum at The Washington Star, one timid review fed into another. What good-willed critic could speak against a film so firmly committed to the women’s movement, a picture endorsed so enthusiastically by Ms.? ALICE was praised everywhere for its brave, unusual, original feminism and for offering actresses chances at last to express themselves in decent Hollywood roles.(1) As for Martin Scorsese, he set a new directorial record, bypassing even the mighty mouths of Godard-Gorin, in talking of ALICE to four film periodicals in one month: Filmmakers Newsletter, Film Comment, Film Heritage, and AFI Report.
Luckily, The Voice in the wilderness: Molly Haskell alone raised serious objections against ALICE in her original review, even making the heretical observation that Martin Scorsese doesn't seem to like women very much. And lately, dissident views of ALICE have emerged in other spots. Stephen Farber, in a heated Sunday Times column, declared ALICE an incredibly overrated work and admonished Scorsese for slipping into softness after the forceful, honest MEAN STREETS. John Simon, ruffled and annoyed at being confronted by such a silly movie, railed against ALICE in his Esquire column, wondering if the precocious eleven-year-old in the cast had ghostwritten the script. He banished Scorsese to that special chamber of hell reserved for idiots and John Cassavetes.
The plot of ALICE is thin but not altogether unsatisfactory. A mid-thirtyish woman, Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), freshly widowed, takes her young son on a journey-search for a new existence. Along the way, she makes female friends (such as Diane Ladd) with whom she works, weeps, and exchanges sexual fantasies. And she uncovers an enlightened lover, David (Kris Kristofferson)—a Marlboro man willing to sacrifice his lazy ranch life to join Alice in her search for her career. (That’s before Scorsese’s retrograde conclusion, to be dealt with later on.)
But even at the comparatively pleasant moments of ALICE Scorsese’s insecurity as a director works to cripple the narrative. He seems so utterly enamored of Ellen Burstyn (or perhaps intimidated by doing a “woman’s story”) that he allows the leading lady to do anything she wants—pout, mug, mutter, soliloquize, reminisce—and for as long as she wants. Burstyn takes full advantage, putting her whole repertoire of raw emotions on proud display. Yet without properly controlled direction (the kind Cukor gave Hepburn, for example), this woman’s intuition often proves completely wrong. Her Alice is strictly a non-character—floating, undefined, inconsistent—veering this way and that, depending on Burstyn’s whims in any particular scene.
Personal relationships in ALICE are likewise constructed through long and indulgent improvisations, such as the raucous, hysterical sequence in the diner: the waitresses swear, sob, and hug, dropping plates and spilling ketchup in the ecstasy of newly found camaraderie. There are too many scenes like this one, too many hugs, tears, and women under the influence, and too few quiet moments between crises when real friendships have time to develop.(2) (A rare, still predominantly visual, moment: where Burstyn and Diane Ladd sunbathe behind dark, enigmatic glasses, look-alikes to Bergman’s phantasmagoric nurse and patient of PERSONA.)
Ex-NYU movie freak Martin Scorsese obviously was tutored by the best around: the early Warners’ working class dramas, with Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell seeking employment in the face of the Depression; the old Hepburn, Dietrich, and Roz Russell vehicles, in which brassy, loudmouthed females grabbed what they wanted, be it man or job. Scorsese clearly wished to write a refrain to these 30s and 40s “Women’s Pictures,” but with the added touch of Today’s Consciousness bringing wisdom into the events.
Yet ALICE fails on both counts. It lacks the disciplined, ensemble professionalism and the tight scripting which kept the old pictures ever entertaining. And it is so humdrum predictable and programmed in its “new” feminism that many of the earlier, more outwardly conservative films seen startlingly unorthodox in comparison. (Is there any “liberated” notion in ALICE with one hundredth the shock power of barefoot Marlene Dietrich following Gary Cooper into the desert at the delirious end of Sternberg’s MOROCCO?)
ALICE does have one distinct, although perhaps mostly unconscious, element: its structure, a remarkably consistent reordering of THE WIZARD OF OZ for the modern age, with Alice as Dorothy in need of a women’s group.
Alice wants to be a singer, something she has known since a kid. The film opens surrealistically. Young Alice walks down a Fox country road, a John Ford TOBACCO ROAD, belting an Alice Faye tune, “You'll Never Know.” She is a child of the screen, a Dorothy look-alike and dress-alike, whose L. Frank Baum farmhouse is framed by an MGM ultrared Technicolor sunset.
Suddenly, a tornado-like camera movement propels Alice out of her childhood. The camera swirls high above the farm and comes down to rest in an alien time and place: modern suburbia, where the hard rock unisex of Mott the Hoople blares from the soundtrack with gale force. Glitter fey replaces Alice Faye. Our Alice is grown now, with singing career abandoned for man, marriage and child. It’s the old story. She is trapped as surely as Dorothy was caught in Oz.
Alice cries herself to sleep nights. But—ding! Dong!—her husband gets dead. Alice is free. And with her son (Toto?) she sets out West on the superhighway toward Monterey—California magic—and a singing career at last. But this road is paved with neither gold nor even yellow bricks, only one-night bars and motels. Alice becomes involved with a young dude, a secretly married wife-beater, a straw man without brains, heart, or courage. And her wizard is no more a magician than his Oz counterpart. He is only Mel, who puts Alice to work in his greasy spoon Tucson diner.
But those who pine for traditional happy endings need only recall the WIZARD OF OZ’s heartening conclusion. The Good Witch of the North places little lost Dorothy in a balloon. And cheered on by the munchkins, Dorothy returns at last to her peaceful Kansas home. For Scorsese, the good witch becomes a man—Alice’s rancher boyfriend, David, who, in the engaging person of Kris Kristofferson’s crinkly nose and bassoon voice, finally proves irresistible.
Especially when he offers Alice the perfect proposal for the budding feminist: soothing assurance, perhaps even sincere, that he would leave his own life behind to follow her. Alas, the heroic gesture proves enough. Witnessed by the festive hashery crowd, munchkins grinning in every booth, Alice agrees to marry David—and later, of her own volition, decides to remain in Tucson on his ranch—motherhood, wifehood, and home at the range.
Here’s the way Marty Scorsese describes his conclusion:
Scorsese’s ultimate message of “a little understanding” is the touching political program of a Hallmark greeting card, of an evening with John Denver, but hardly the serious word of a male friend to the women’s movement. Much less is this the philosophy of a progressive political thinker. Scorsese says that Alice Hyatt is working class, even assigns her dirt-farmer parentage. There is no way to believe it. Burstyn’s clever mannerisms, her too-cute improvisational lines, her Dewey progressive way of relating to her son, and her condescending attitude toward her work situations (and coworkers) all indicate the existence of a displaced, alienated, middle class consciousness—stuck among the masses and trying to wiggle her way out.
Her chances begin early when Alice’s monosyllabic beast of a trucker husband (an incredibly revealing caricature of an U.S. worker) is killed off so that Alice can “grow” (grow more bourgeois?) and find a better match. Question: why does a wealthy rancher like Kristofferson hang around a poor waitress like Alice? Answer: because he sniffs out a hidden class ally. Just as in those fairy tales, Alice is really a disinherited princess. Properly, she bypasses two wrong suitors (her husband and Evil Ben, the stud, culprits from the lower classes) for her rightful and appropriate destiny: marriage to a gentle (and landed) nouveau riche prince. No wonder Alice says “to hell” with her singing career.
In an obscure 1949 RKO picture, HOLIDAY AFFAIR, Janet Leigh is widowed mother to a boy the age of Alice’s Tommy. Their relationship is tight, sympathetic, vocal and democratic, and among the things shared is a deep and binding reverence for a dead man’s photo upon the bureau. That the husband’s spirit still controls becomes obvious in the sudden family tension the moment Leigh dares to contemplate a second marriage. When she wilts under her child’s pressure, Leigh is lectured by one of her suitors (Robert Mitchum) for transforming her boy into a surrogate husband—a little man with full domain in choosing her lovers and dictating her lifestyle. This accusation carries force against the entangled oedipal relationship of ALICE.
Even before widowhood, Alice is soulmate to her son, Tommy.(4) They laugh at each other’s jokes and form secret alliances against the mean tempered husband. Yet after the husband’s death, Tommy adds to his “mother’s companion” role a stern second duty. He becomes the rational voice, the person of common sense, questioning his mother on every decision and at every step of their journey. “How do you know you can make it? ... What about school? ... What about Monterey?” It’s a feud between Tommy and David which precipitates Alice’s temporary break with the rancher. And again, it’s Tommy’s wish to attend school in Tucson which allows Alice to stay on in Arizona, abandoning her life goals without feeling too guilty or compromised.
For a time it seems that Tommy, Alice, and Rancher David will get it together without a single crisis. David is charmed silly listening to Alice’s interminable adolescent rememberings, a sure sign of Love the Morning After. And Alice smiles contentedly as she washes after-supper dishes while the two males practice guitar in the living room. But a fight erupts, and the engagement is forestalled for twenty-four hours of trauma and melodrama.
Where is Tommy? While Alice sweats the night, Tommy cavorts with androgyne Audrey, the hooker’s daughter, who teaches the boy the fine arts of boozing and shoplifting. If the unisex and streetwise image of Audrey is exciting and subversive, a rare female leader of the pack, she is swiftly undercut by the filmmakers and revealed to be a true Bad Seed. The punishment for her, and those who foolishly follow after, is midnight in detention.
At the end of Tommy’s drunken night in jail, Alice encounters weird Audrey’s infamous mother, a bleached blonde caricatured prostitute in a tight, clinging green-flowered pantsuit. With this jarring example of lapsed parenthood confronting her in the night, Alice bustles Tommy out of detention. The lesson is learned. No longer can Alice be indolent or unclear in her motherly duty. Tommy must be molded into proper male adulthood—with a home, good school, and, in David, a proper male model to adulate.
With Tommy firmly in control, Alice remains in Tucson to groom and nurture him. It’s the end of the road. Even a film so blissfully informed by the women’s movement can discover no new alternatives for its weary and wearisome heroine.(5) Motherhood—defined as the sacrifice of one’s own identity for the sake of the child—is still the highest and holiest good. In 1975, Alice does live here again and again and again.
1. While good parts for women in Hollywood films have been indeed few and far between in recent years, they have not been so totally missing as the self-righteous ALICE fans have led others to believe. Surely some of the actresses’ roles below are worthy of consideration next to Ellen Burstyn’s heralded Alice Hyatt: Raquel Welch in KANSAS CITY BOMBER and HANNIE CAULDER, Dyann Cannon in SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, Barbra Streisand in THE WAY WE WERE, Goldie Hawn in SUGARLAND EXPRESS, Jane Fonda in KLUTE and A DOLL'S HOUSE, Karen Black in AIRPORT 75, Anne Bancroft in THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE, Julie Christie in DON'T LOOK NOW, Shirley MacLaine in THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY, Diana Ross in LADY SINGS THE BLUES.
2. Some people have argued with us that ALICE is one of the few U.S. movies in which women’s emotions have been allowed free reign. Not true at all. “Weepies” have always contained at least as many tears and handkerchiefs on screen as in the audience—look at Joan Crawford or Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, or the masterful Sirk melodramas of the 1950s such as ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS or IMITATION OF LIFE.
Ellen Burstyn, Lelia Goldoni, and Diane Ladd are all protégées of the Actor’s Studio, which emotional acting style is the real reason for the outbursts in ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. This picture is simply one more in a long line of Method-influenced movies with strongly emotional women’s parts: STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, THE THREE FACES OF EVE, THE MIRACLE WORKER, SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, DUTCHMAN, THE RAIN PEOPLE, RACHEL, RACHEL, etc.
3. F. Anthony Macklin, “It’s a Personal Thing with Me,” Film Heritage, Spring, 1975, pp. 13-29. The best interview with Scorsese about ALICE, thanks to the sassy, irreverent tone of the interviewer.
4. For comparison, some other Hollywood films to anticipate Alice’s story of a mother left alone with a son: BLONDE VENUS (1932, Sternberg), with Dietrich on the road, waitressing and perhaps hooking so her son can eat; THREE ON A MATCH (1933, LeRoy), with Ann Dvorak as an estranged socialite who drags her son along on her affair with a racketeer; LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948, Ophuls), with Joan Fontaine abandoning her son and marriage to pursue the great love of her life; HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949, Hartman), with Janet Leigh, like Alice, treating her son as a tiny adult and letting him dictate her romances; CINDERELLA LIBERTY (1974, Rydell), with Marsha Mason as a white prostitute lush with a heart of gold and a black, delinquent child.
5. And a special plea for one great movie: Douglas Sirk’s TARNISHED ANGELS (1957), based on William Faulkner’s Depression novel of the Mardi Gras, Pylon. At the film’s center is Laverne (a bittersweet, beautiful Dorothy Malone)—parachute jumper, mother of a school-age boy, and alienated wife to Roger (Robert Stack), the anguished lead performer in the barnstorming Shumann Flying Circus.
Like Alice, Laverne sought escape from the farm through a glorious entertainment, career. But she found herself instead reduced to an unanticipated sex object on the job and a sexless wife off it, caught in a marriage of mistrust and misperception. Despite his love, Roger will prostitute her for the price of an airplane. She, hungry for affection, flirts with adultery with an over-anxious newspaperman (Rock Hudson). When Roger is killed in a plane crash, Laverne is left alone to fend for herself and her son in an environment of men vying for her sexual attentions.
Nothing bears resemblance to ALICE except the plot elements. The super-intelligent handling of this truly adult love story, the sensitive and dignified interplay of mother and child, mother and father, mother and suitors, the remarkable literary script, and Sirk’s controlled poetic visual style (black-and-white Cinemascope) seem striking contrasts to Scorsese’s intuitive cinematic ramblings. It is TARNISHED ANGELS which should be revived, to serve as paradigm of movies about women left alone with children. And it is Douglas Sirk who should be honored as a truly worthy women’s director.