Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
Under the comic frosting

by Russell E. Davis

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

Is ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE controversial? Certainly it is an important project, worthy of discussion. But the points that warrant the thoughtful attention of a viewer are more a matter of firm line of story and character than arguable ideas of modern culture.

At a time when anything starring Robert Redford or Paul Newman sells automatically, the players, director, and producers deserve a vote of thanks for daring to center a substantial budget upon a woman, who is not a ladylike star either in role or personality. It is difficult to find in Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) the truly liberated woman, the focal point of the current feminist movement. This Alice, in her essential character, lacks the concentration to become the figurehead of her sisters’ freedom. She readily admits that she cannot live without a man, and of course any guy, however stupid, will at once realize this and move in on her.

In several published interviews,   the thrice-divorced Ms. Burstyn has said that she herself is this kind of a woman. This confusion of the star’s private life and the character Alice might well be the reason why the main focus of the picture is so often blurred. The total effect of the work is one of constant shifting of emotions, feelings, relationships, saved largely by a very original style of comedy.

This uncertainty, however, is not a fatal flaw. Even if a certain amount of personal insecurity shows through Burstyn’s performance, she has the combination of authority, magnetism, and self mocking humor to counterbalance this vulnerability. The actress has a wealth of talent and common sense that the character lacks.

Perhaps the really controversial point lies in exactly what the picture is about. We are accustomed to movies that begin with the statement of a problem, and that then carry the protagonist through a series of episodes to the point of either success or failure. ALICE does not match this easy format.

A clumsy prologue leads us to expect that an outspoken girl, having been intrigued by an Alice Faye movie, will grow up to devote her life to duplicating her idol’s success. Without any transition, twenty-five years later Alice, in a state of unquiet desperation, is saddled with Donald (Billy Green Bush), a slob of a husband, and Tommy (Alfred Lutter), a problem son who too often reflects Alice’s vocabulary, frustrations, and attitudes towards others.

Too much is left unexplained. We never understand how Alice, the forthright girl, ever grew up and settled for the dullard, who gives no indication that he was a “Good Kisser,” the one attribute Alice finds in him. It is strange, too, that in this household Tommy has conceived the burning ambition to go to school.

Abruptly, when the husband is disposed of in an accident, Alice has an unexpected gift of freedom. Momentarily we are back on the conventional track. Alice sets out to rebuild her girlhood dream, in Monterey—to be another Alice Faye.

Her passable voice, coupled with a winning smile and a flash of fierce determination, give us a certain amount of hope for her. But in the end, all hints and promises about Alice and her career become pointless. Nothing substantial results. She gets and holds for a little while a job as a singer in a piano bar, but a raw encounter with Ben (Harvey Keitel), a charming psychotic, forces mother and son out on the road again. After almost slave labor in a roadside diner, Alice settles for, David (Kris Kristofferson), a calm, self-possessed rancher. He does say, “All right, I'll take you to Monterey,” but there is neither a reason nor a purpose behind this promise.

In a published interview (AFI Dialogue on Film, April, l975), Martin Scorsese, the director, says that the picture is not about Alice and her career, but rather it is concerned with certain real characters living in confusion. For this reason, the picture ends with Alice and Tommy on the verge of a total mutual understanding, a necessary preliminary to their successful coping with the world’s chaos. The success of the mother-son relationship is the whole point of the film, David being just another guy along the way.

Confusion is a valid dramatic background, but it must never weaken the characterizations and narrative line. Above all, it must never enter the minds of the audience. But with ALICE as seen in the final cut, questions are automatic. Is dramatic and artistic sense destroyed by the unrealized implication that Alice will have a singing career? If David is incidental to Alice’s life, why are we led to believe that he will provide the good life for her and Tommy?

Alice understands that David refused to be subservient to his first wife, but she does not question, as does the viewer, if she will be happy for very long down on the farm. With the natural alliance of mother and son so obvious, we wonder what chance for happiness David has. And there is the ultimate question about the Alice-David relationship: What do they see in each other? Quiet David never strikes sexual fire as did the sadistic Ben. The shifting emotions, the uncertain feelings of Alice are totally alien to David’s rural world.

Then, too, there is always the dividing force: Tommy. He is a brat, but without him at some length, we would miss the interaction of his personality with that of Alice. There is no shadow of the Oedipus complex here. He is sexually aware, but his chief concern is worry, not jealousy. From the first, he has his doubts about Ben, while those of Alice are easily overwhelmed. Tommy, the child, keeps asking, “What do I know?” The answer is dramatized, not stated, when he takes off his glasses to look Alice straight in the eyes with an understanding and knowledge that any mother would treasure, even as it frightened her. Another scene of similar tone is needed at the end to convey the director’s idea that the complete understanding between mother and son is the keynote of the film.

Other questions will certainly arise from the film’s serio-comic style, perhaps its most important contribution to cinematic art. Scorsese understands that too much realism can break a dramatic line. The same can be true in comic structure. Those addicted to the obvious humor of routine movies and television will not accept easily Scorsese’s mixture of mirth and care which grows naturally from the lives of Alice’s co-workers in the diner. The owner, Mel (Vic Tayback), and two waitresses: Flo (Diane Ladd) and Vera (Valerie Curtin), familiar U.S. types, are carried beyond the obvious to establish memorable characters.

We learn that Flo, of the foul mouth and heart of gold, is much concerned with the future of her bucktooth daughter. Vera, hilarious in her playing musical plates as she sorts orders, cries silently after dropping a heavy pot on her foot. She makes her character more complex when she dons a crash helmet and rides into the desert night on the back of a motor bike. Mel comes closest to reality when, with tears in his eyes and voice, he tries to run his diner in spite of his problem female staff. We can believe that he actually owns this diner, which, in a weak moment, he was conned into renting to a location troupe.

A thoroughly different comic personality is found in Audrey (Jody Foster), a stray child in jeans, product of a broken home, whose entire vocabulary seems to consist of the word “weird.” In spite of her name, we think of her as a boy until an unexpected remark pinpoints her sex as female.

The uneasy alliance of humor and care is most graphically dramatized when Alice and Flo, during a break, take a sunbath behind the diner. Alice has easily overcome her distaste for Flo’s earthy yaking, and the two friends exchange confidences, underlining the conversation with suggestive laughter. The sun boils down from an impersonal sky. The frame widens to take in garbage cans, then the desert, and in the distance the crouching, ever-present mountains. The soundtrack expands with the buzzing of continuous traffic on a hot pavement.

The reasons for this possible confusion and misunderstanding are well documented. ALICE began as Ellen Burstyn’s personal project with her acquisition of Robert Getchell’s book. After viewing Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS, she was confident that he could work her way. Star and director met, found no significant frictions, and agreed that things were fine.

The money for ALICE, Scorsese’s first studio-based film, was not available until a script was in evidence. The hurried book (plus the numerous ideas of all concerned with the picture) resulted in a rough cut 96 minutes long. The eventual editing of 85 minutes pared away much characterization, motivation, exposition. Scorsese says of ALICE that it was a mistake to cut the picture instead of the script. One is always reluctant to destroy the evidence of hard work that is needed to get something good on film.

No one person had the vision to set up a suitable target or the power to control the tangled forces needed to produce the film. David Susskind, one of the producers, paid so little attention to his job that he was surprised at the result. The director was under obligation to the star, who brought in several friends and associates as cast and technicians. One of these was Marcia Lucas, who made the final cut under Scorsese’s supervision when he became too ill to do the work himself.

Several endings for ALICE were written. Finally, apparently by accident, Kris Kristofferson suggested leaving Alice and Tommy with their approach to a mutual understanding. Many viewers and critics have called this a cop-out. Certainly there is no indication of the director’s idea that now mother and son are ready to take on the world and its problems.

Burstyn says that probably no ending would be satisfactory. Perhaps, but not necessarily. Scorsese’s previous work shows clearly that he has rare talent which can be controlled by a creative, personal force. In ALICE we have the betrayal of the style and content we have the right to expect from a topflight director.

Several critics have accused the director of selling out to Hollywood. It is more likely that he was forced to agree with several whom he had expected to control. The result is a flawed picture, more interesting for its possibilities than its finished form.