by Teena Webb and Betsy Martens
Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 4-5
We've heard that there is a new fad in today’s media, especially television and movies. The working class is in vogue in documentaries, situation comedies, and features. We're not sure what this genre will be called, when and if it is “discovered,” but it seems to be a blend of Hollywood fantasy and leftist realism. Like similar films produced during the 30s, these films can be viewed both as entertainment and as political comment. Generally the entertainment level is high and the political direction is confused.
But movies like this generate fairly predictable questions. Thus, in talking about THE HARDER THEY COME, we begin by asking if Jimmy Cliff provides a false hero model for people like him or a lesson in the results of individualism and adventurism. And is Junior in THE LAST AMERICAN HERO a character for emulation or an invitation to sell out? Is BILLY JACK'S popularity due to audience anger or to the idea of a strong individual delivering us from society’s ills? And what is the political content of MEAN STREETS?
What these films have in common is that they all attempt to be real stories about real people, about working class or poor life, about the people who constitute the bulk of the population. A recent addition to these films which are seen as having political potential are women’s films, no matter what the economic status of the woman: for example, in the United States, WANDA, LOVING, ONE IS A LONELY NUMBER, IMAGES, and A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE.
Women’s films generally receive more critical attention than, say, current Black films, perhaps because of guilt-tripping by liberal reviewers and editors, aided by the fairly well-organized communications network among active women, a network which is as vulnerable to co-optation and profit-grubbing as any other mass form. Thus it is important to keep a critical eye peeled. Ms. called ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, “brilliant.” Pauline Kael, although focusing generally on Burstyn’s acting, points out that it is a film whose content generates discussion: “How could the new marital comedies not be controversial?”
But if we put the New Yorker and Ms. to the side for a moment, who is seeing these attempted reflections of ordinary life? HARRY AND TONTO, which also features Burstyn, is said to attract a largely older audience but is receiving minimal critical attention, even after Art Carney won an Academy Award for his performance. We're not sure that it is the wives of truck drivers who are seeing ALICE, although it seems to be doing a respectable, if not spectacular, showing at the box office. Like HARRY AND TONTO and any other movie that receives an Oscar, it has benefited from Hollywood’s annual night of self-congratulations and spectacle.
In either case, a serious look at the movie involves examining its political content as well as its entertainment value: what is its message? Audiences are not likely to fall for the escape which sang and danced its way across the U.S. screen during the 30s, but perhaps a more subtle lid for public anger and frustration is available now.
This is not to say that ALICE is a “dangerous” film, as some characterize any movie that doesn't directly point the way to The Revolution. It is a generally enjoyable and pleasant film, a popcorn-eating film. But Alice provides no realistic model for women, nor does she make any strong decisions for herself. After her husband is killed, she takes off for an unrealistic Monterey with her son and her mediocre voice to be a singer. It’s not the kind of act that we can be expected to admire and emulate. She never left her husband, she never confronted him, and she is freed from him only by his accidental death.
But perhaps more to the point, there is an inconsistency in Alice’s character that makes her confusing and a little improbable. Burstyn’s humiliations as an actress and as a middle-class woman, however recent the latter status may be, show through her totally right visual presentation of Alice: she looks the part. But either the script or her acting gets in the way. Kael sees Burstyn’s history as an actress as the large factor in her performance. Kael’s anger, that Burstyn had to wait for God-knows-how-long for a good role, may be the most valid response to the film. Speaking of the intense, almost speedy way Burstyn plays Alice, Kael says:
“Sometimes a person’s anger and overstatement tell a bigger story than the person knows how to tell. The anger may derive from deprivation of the means to express oneself calmly, ‘rationally.’ People can be too angry to care about balance, while resenting everything that has unbalanced them.”
The problem, however, is not only in the ferocity with which Burstyn attacks the role. There is a decidedly prim and middle class touch to it in spite of the generally working class milieu. Alice’s swearing, for example, as tough tomboy style, played always for a laugh. And I can't imagine a woman like Alice initially rejecting Flo, the all-time champ of creative cussing, as she does, although their relationship does develop into a warm and human one. But it’s unbelievable that Alice is shocked and angry because of Flo’s mouth rather than delighted and amazed, as the audience is.
In some ways, Alice is the Doris Day heroine, updated. There is a swing away from the ladylike virgin to the cussing sexual woman and from the 50s authoritative parent to a 70s I'm-OK-you're-OK sensibility. And the fun does provide an image which is closer to contemporary women’s reality than Doris Day or than the bulk of women’s roles in movies today. But Doris Day was the embodiment of a seemingly attainable ideal: a working woman, or a mother with four kids, coping with life. Maybe that’s why our mothers loved her. Our affection for Alice comes from the same place: We see a woman who has experiences like our own and who is not ruined by them. But this is part of the myth—that we can cope and survive as she does and that Prince Charming is waiting.
Alice emerges from an apparently totally negative marriage relatively unscarred. Her husband responds to her only in bed and even then only after she has begun to cry because of his indifference to her. Her resiliency is admirable, but it doesn't feel real. The rest of her background is vague. What were her parents like, for example? We are only reminded of the lack here by an unnecessary little Wizard of Oz parody, which has little connection with the rest of the movie and tells us little except that Scorcese had plenty of money to spend on his route to becoming the 70s Otto Preminger.
The film is a mixture of improbable situations and reactions along with strikingly real ones. It is the real ones that give it its strength. Alice’s relationship with her son, who comes off as a totally real kid, rings true. And it is this relationship which is the film’s real focus. The driving scenes are bound to bring a shock of recognition to anyone who has traveled with a child: the carsickness, the “are-we-there-yet?,” the long-winded and incomprehensible joke. Alice’s reactions to all this pull us right in. But they are clever scenes that anyone with a sharp eye and ear could do.
The birthday scene is on another level: Alice’s tension about how her son and her lover get along, her alternating her attention and anger on first one and then the other, her refusal to let them work out their relationship without her in the middle of it, as well as the absurd birthday present of a cowboy suit and the shabby party decorations—all of these elements combine to bring off the complexities of the emotions involved in a solid and useful way. Alice’s relationship with Bea and Bea’s fantasy of leaving her husband and kids “just like that” similarly reflect an unusual care and understanding of women and their lives. And I shudder to think how many of us recognize Ben, who exhibits warning signs of macho madness, but who charms and tricks us until all we can do is run away to keep from being sucked into it.
But what can be the point about women’s position when the husband is made to be such a blatantly villainous sort? Women can sympathize and compare their own husbands favorably: it sparks the old no-shoes versus no-feet mentality. And it gives men an easy out. They can compare themselves with two incredible brutes and congratulate themselves on their relatively low degree of inhumanity. I suspect this is a trick of men directors. Remember DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE? And then, as a bonus, we are given Kris Kristoffersom, who is so nondescript in this role that one can project almost anything onto him. Kael calls him a fusion of “geniality and sexiness,” and Susan Braudy describes him as “stern, taciturn, and sexy.” We found him a little boring: the charm that he had in BLUME IN LOVE, as well as a self-sufficient strength, are gone. Nor are we particularly struck by the sincerity of his offer to give up his ranch. In point of fact, his word isn't put to the test, since Alice decides to stay in Tucson rather than continue her dreamer’s journey to Monterey. So Kristofferson provides the way out for men who want to have their cake and eat it too.
The movie presents Alice with only two choices, once she has decided to move. Either she can lead the sleazy life of a lonely, untalented, aging, piano bar singer who gets knocked around by the guys she meets there, or she can settle down with a man on his ranch. Big choice.
And we're not sure but what the real story of a woman who had chosen the former would not look so dismal. The singer in CALIFORNIA SPLIT might be an example. The difference between her and Alice is mainly one of toughness. Alice is soft, vulnerable and innocent, in spite of her tough talk. The other woman is independent, on her own, and shows us more about herself, through nothing more than her singing and wisecracks, than Alice ever does. Scorcese’s fancy camera spiraling around her while she sings almost glosses over the weakness here, but whatever our reaction to the scene, it stems from the camera work, lighting and editing, and from her cleverly arranged medley rather than from her character or her singing.
Part of what sits wrong in Alice’s desire to be a singer is that she does not come off as someone who cares about music. Her desire to be a singer comes from the image of what a singer is, an unrealistic and romantic view of a glamorous life. She would feel like a more consistent character if she showed a little feeling for her music, tried a few improvisations, even if they were poor. Her desire to be a singer is, instead, childish and egocentric. It almost says to women, “You think you've got hidden talents? Well, you probably don't. Find a good man and settle down.”
Continuing with this silent voice of the film, it says, “Yeah, sure. There’s a better life for all of you wives of brutish husbands. Pray for him to die and then find a sweet old mushy thing like Kris Kristofferson and things will look up. But take off in search of El Dorado and you're doomed to a shabby life.” Viewed in this way, the film looks like a fairly traditional all-American movie. This is an exaggeration, of course. But there is a real difference between the qualified happily-ever-after-ending of ALICE and the dogged determination of the last Lucia in the Cuban film LUICIA. Lucia loves her husband, she loves her freedom, and she is determined to have both. The ending of LUCIA implies continuing and conscious work to be done instead of acceptance and compromise. That seems like the most likely possibility for women who want to change their lives.
But Alice is tricked, or we are tricked by the film, into thinking that she has found her better life. Could it be that women know that five years from now Alice will be like many of the other wives in Tucson, going half-mad with the contradictory frustrations, guilt, love and joy in their lives?Alice provides neither a realistic character for women to identify with, nor does her happy ending look like a very attractive proposition to someone looking for a way out. But this film moves more in those directions than anything else that has come out of Hollywood recently, and for that it is welcome.