Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

"Is it sexy?"
"Sexy for Phoenix.."

Martin Scorsese’s forth picture and the forth in my Scorsese in Sequence series is Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is a ex lounge singer turned housewife who lives with her pre teen son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) and her emotionally cold and distant husband Donald (Billy Green Bush). After Donald is killed while driving his truck Alice takes the opportunity to travel through the South Western States of America in search of work as a singer in order to get to Monterey where she hopes to settle and rebuild her singing career.

This is Scorsese’s first film that is overtly comedic. While each of his three previous films had occasional funny moments, Aliceis the first Scorsese film that I’d describe as a drama-comedy. This doesn’t mean that it’s a laugh a minute popcorn film though. Like all of his funnier films (The King of Comedy, After Hours) there is still a strong dramatic thread to it and it can be sad and even distressing in places.

The film opens with an idealised view of Alice’s childhood in which she is stood outside a house, clutching a doll. This scene is quite surreal and feels like a homage to the Wizard of Oz. The set features obvious fake backdrops and what looks like a flimsy set house and is filmed with a deep red filter. Unlike Oz where Dorothy wants to escape Kansas it feels like Alice is looking back on her childhood wishing she could escape her adult life and return to that idealised red world.

The main draw of the film now is Ellen Burstyn’s performance for which she won an Oscar and a BAFTA for Best Actress. Burstyn creates a character unlike any female character I’ve seen from the 1970s. She manages to be both independent and forthright at the same time as being a dutiful 70s housewife and is quick witted, funny and easy going. Alice is a wonderfully written character and Burstyn brings her to life brilliantly. The film is littered with great performances from loud mouth waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) who was also nominated for an Oscar and won a BAFTA to rugged rancher David (Kris Kristofferson) who manages to remain aloof and intriguing in his pursuit of Alice. A couple of great cameos from Harvey Keitel (his third Scorsese film to date) and Jodie Foster who aged just twelve showed the director enough to cast her in Taxi Driver a couple of years later, help to beef up the great cast. The weak link for me was Alfred Lutter who was quite uneven although at times was superb. Despite not really liking his character or performance, the best scenes all feature Tommy and Alice joking around.

Scorsese’s direction was fairly conventional but showed flashes of brilliance. The first establishing shot was a beautiful craned pan that slowly sunk down to head level as the camera moved down the street on which the family lived. He also uses the odd very quick zoom shot and most notably jumpy editing whenever Alice and Tommy are on the road.

I have to be honest and say that despite having seen the film about three or maybe four times I’m still not that keen on it. Despite some cute and funny moments, strong emotional outbursts and a magnificent performance from Burstyn it languishes towards the bottom of Scorsese’s filmography for me along with Boxcar Bertha and The Last Temptation of Christ.  


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