“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”

Martin Scorsese’s follow up to his breakthrough film “Mean Streets,” “Alice” is unlike any movie Scorsese has made. For starters, it primarily features women. At the center of the film is the relationship between Alice, played by Ellen Burstyn, and her adolescent son. Their scenes are surprisingly real; they have an endearing relationship full of banter, and they seem more friends than a mother and son. All of this is held together by the son’s performance. He’s not marvelous or anything, but good child performances are rare, and if the actor hadn’t seemed genuine, the movie would have fallen apart.

“Alice,” however, is Ellen Burstyn’s movie. She won the Oscar in 1974 for her performance. She is very expressive; she gets angry a lot, and cries, and laughs, and yet manages to do so without going over the top. Her character is in a fragile state – her (boorish) husband has just died in a car accident – so her wild swings of mood are understandable. And Alice has been married her whole adult life, so we are witnessing her first growing pains as a full-blown adult. She has the added responsibility of a young son to look after. My friend Reid, with whom I watched the movie, commented that he quite disliked the protagonist. I found all of her follies understandable. She is dealing with freedom, which is obviously exhilarating, and as she comes out of her shell, she seems torn by the heightened freedom and her newly heightened responsibility.

The dialogue is excellent. I was hoping that Scorsese had written the script, but when I looked it up and saw that he hadn’t, it made sense. Scorsese is a visual director; he can create energy with his camera work, and coax marvelous performances out of his actors, but these are un-nuanced, almost brutish qualities in a director. I couldn’t see him writing dialogue with so much subtle humor. Nevertheless, he directed the movie – no small feat – and the dialogue is matched by swift, offbeat pacing that sets the tone of the movie perfectly.

The best portions of the movie take place in a diner, where Alice has taken a waitressing job. It’s a bizarre place, where the patrons are sometimes privy to the high drama of hot-blooded arguments, and hardly a day goes by without some form of liquid being spilled on a customer. One of Alice’s fellow waitresses is a lively tart who plays for tips; Alice hates her at first but soon succumbs to her magnetic personality. The other waitress is hilariously strange; she cries spontaneously, and says strange things, and drops plates by the dozen. I don’t know what inspired Scorsese to put her in the movie, but she’s a delight. It’s the best kind of humor: emotional slapstick.

It’s the same feeling I get when I see a strange bit of humanity in public. I was in a coffee shop the other day, and a dirty, possibly homeless man pushing a nice baby carriage entered the shop. He peered at the counter, where the sole employee had just disappeared into the back, and then took the half-and-half container and emptied it into the child’s bottle. After peering around a bit more, he exited. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. He seemed homeless, which was only confirmed by his needing to steal milk to feed the baby. And yet, the baby was in a nice new carriage. The only thing I could think of was that the man had just stolen the baby from under its mother’s nose, and then realized he didn’t have enough money for milk and needed to steal some. I probably should have called CPS or something, but I was too busy trying to understand what I’d witnessed.

This is how I felt watching the waitress Vera’s scenes in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” She lurks in the background, stumbling and mumbling, and spilling things everywhere. She’s always on the verge of tears. And it is pure delight to watch her life unfold. This was one of those comic performances so terrific that I have to assume it was unintentional.

Elsewhere, more normal things happen. There is a love interest, of course, and a conflict that threatens to keep the lovebirds apart. But Scorsese, for all of his technical flourishes, restrains himself when it comes to the drama. This was his strong point in the 70’s; even in “Raging Bull,” surely his most intensely dramatic film, the drama arises from the potency of the acting. It’s organic, and unrelated to any conceivable plot. In “Alice,” he never overstates things. Certain moments, like a dead-end subplot with a spontaneously violent Harvey Keitel, threaten to steal the film’s gravity. Scorsese keeps pulling back, however. He doesn’t let the plot get in the way of the actors. Even young Jodie Foster, who I would assume was on a short leash, gets the freedom to do what she wants, and she absolutely nails it. Her performance is right in line with the other performances, which are all surreally real.

As a result, when the climax arrives, it therefore feels more significant. Ellen Burstyn has brought Alice alive throughout the movie, so when the big kiss comes at the end, it has the emotional heft that larger, more ostensibly ambitious films don’t have.

In some ways it’s Scorsese’s most liberated film. I’d like to give him credit for orchestrating “Alice.” I think what really happened is this: he realized he was out of his element, and that he needed to loosen his grip on the action. I hate to pigeonhole him, but given his track record, it’s pretty obvious that he’s most comfortable working with men. His aesthetic hadn’t crystallized yet in 1974, but in “Mean Streets” he bared his teeth pretty viciously. Here, he realized that he had some truly lively actresses to work with, and he realized that with no lurking violent undertones, he needed to loosen the film. He let the actresses construct the pathos with their performances, and he edited it to feel jaunty, letting nothing linger too long on the screen. Thanks to a wonderful script, it all came together, and the result is quite a delight.

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