For decades now, male artists have been concerning themselves with the whereabouts of women named Alice. Lewis Carrol looked for one throughout Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Jerry Cantrell and Layne Staley put one in chains, Smokie was always banging on about living next door to one, much to the chagrin of Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown who never knew who the fuck they were on about. Eventually, Martin Scorsese went to her house, only to find out that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
What drove Alice (Ellen Burstyn) away was the prospect of having to pay the mortgage on her house after her husband dies in a motoring accident. He was the breadwinner, and Alice, who had never had a job in her life apart from as an entertainer, can’t see herself doing anything else but singing. But, in a dead-end town with a kid to feed, clothe and shelter, she has to do everything she can to bring the money in as a single mother in the 1970s American West.
The film follows her and her smarty-pants kid (Alfred Lutter III) as they try to find somewhere they can be fulfilled and happy. Dreams and ambitious fantasies are treated with caution in this modern day fable as they both provide the two lead characters with triumphs and tragedies. The film opens like a 1950s melodrama with the cast list, all in Petit Formal Script, playing over a background of blue silk.
Then we fade to a set bathed in passionate red. It’s a ranch scene with a farm house made by Mattel and a background on loan from St Thomas Primary’s 1960 Christmas production. It’s a fantasy, it’s a memory, it’s a nostalgia, quite literally rose tinted, and it is ripped away from the screen with ferocity in the in the same fashion as Alice’s way of life is in the opening act. Alice is a persistent and instinctual fantasist, and reality hangs over her head like the sword of Damocles. Throughout the film you see her big breaks turn to shattered glass that threatens to cut her and her son to pieces.
When that happens it, Scorsese gives it the sharp crack of the whip, that visceral, abrupt, peace breaking, illusion crushing stab of noise and pace that would make his name in the next two decades. It’s harrowing when it happens, like a gunshot in a churchyard, tragic and destructive, but it does not define the movie.
Or rather, the characters don’t let it define them. Every time Alice hits a setback, she and her boy find a way to move on, through sheer stubborn perseverance. Robert Getchell’s script gives her the wit she needs to survive, but Ellen Burstyn provides the charm that makes her so endearing as well as the vulnerability that makes her so believable. Her relationship with her son isn’t a fairy tale portrait of perfection, but a scrappy and relatable mess. They haven’t been trained to handle the shit that gets thrown their way, so they fight, laugh, scream and shout until they finally muddle their way through to an appeaseable ending.
Her child, Tommy, knows far more than he should at his age and she is far too permissive with him than 1970s society would deem appropriate, but he’s her son and she’ll raise him how she damn well pleases. Besides, if everybody else’s way includes smacking and spanking, her way can’t be all that bad. Alfred Lutter III is funnier than most fully trained, thirty-something comedians are and halfway through the movie he meets Jodie foster, who, at 12 years of age, has more charisma in her fringe than most actors with Acadamy Awards have in their lauded deliveries.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a movie about chasing after all the things we think we want, fame, independence, creative recognition, and showing us that we can derive just as much purpose from the things that we, need, care, love, security. It shows us that a happy ending tied up in paper parcel string, not in a pretty little bow, is still a happy ending and it’s what’s inside the parcel that counts, not what it looks like on the outside.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is out now on DVD.
Dir: Martin Scorsese
Scr: Robert Getchell
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Alfred Lutter III, Harvey Keitel, Jodie Foster
Prd: Audrey Maas, David Susskind
DOP: Kent L. Wakeford
Music: Richard LaSalle