I was not the biggest supporter of Martin Scorsese’s first studio film, 1973’s Mean Streets. That film had moments of brilliance and it proved the man would go on to have a magnificent career. That was more evident by his next feature, 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. While still not a masterpiece, it’s definitely a very engaging film and Scorsese does an excellent job in getting the best out of his actors in his movie. What I really liked is how the film get you feeling at certain parts. Some parts of the film are incredibly funny (especially the scenes between mother and son), while others are intensely dramatic and tear-jerking. Scorsese does an excellent job in balancing those two tones, so it does not feel like the movie is all over the place. We get some magnificent performances out of everyone, especially from Ellen Burstyn who deserved her Oscar win for her portrayal of a mother trying to find independence and self-sufficiency.
Before we delve deep into plot details, this film came out with a very important message: the representation of women in American society. Women, at the time, was still seen as housewives and not workers. They must obey their men without question and it is okay for men to beat or abuse them. That was pretty much the mindset of this era. Scorsese, screenwriter Robert Getchell, and Ellen Burstyn set out to make a film that shows women as man’s equal. They deserve to have careers, to be paid as much as men do, to do anything a man can do. I think they succeed in bringing a clear message across. Even in today’s world, where women are treated better, there are still some obstacles preventing women from achieving the status of men do. But this movie conveys a very important message about women, and about family. I liked the beginning of the film as it goes along with the themes of conceived concepts of what society thought of womanhood. There is this fake sunset and fake sense of happiness as it shows the women should be happy as the family’s domestic servant. I almost thought I was watching The Wizard of Oz by mistake, but this scene gets its point across easily.
Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) finds herself an independent woman after many years in domesticity when her abusive husbands dies in a tractor-trailer accident. She decides to move to California with her eleven-year-old son named Tommy (Alfred Lutter) so she can begin a singing career. On their travels, they make lengthy stops in Arizona. They first stop in Phoenix, where she gets a job at a piano bar and dates a man named Ben (Harvey Keitel) who actually turns out to be married. They travel to Tucson where she puts her dreams of singing off to the side and becomes a waitress. There she meets a new friend, a fellow waitress named Flo (Diane Ladd), and more importantly a relationship with a farmer named David (Kris Kristofferson).
The performances are all wonderful. Ellen Burstyn is totally deserving of all her accolades. She plays an ordinary mother with the decent looks and prosperous dreams (she’s actually a terrible singer). But after years in domesticity, she finally finds herself in a position of independence. Her performance is very natural and realistic. Alfred Lutter was virtually an unknown and he never had much of an acting career after this film, but he was decent here. He could have been great, but sometimes he was annoying. Diane Ladd was wonderful as the waitress friend who is frank, honest, and loves sex. I liked Kris Kristofferson (or the Jeff Bridges lookalike) as the gentle farmer who is a handyman and he loves Alice from first sight. He loves her so much that he does anything he can to convince her to love him back and to show he’s not a fake. Finally, Harvey Keitel, a mainstay for Scorsese, is only in the movie for brief but he does a good job in being one of those idiot men who cheats on their wives.
Not only is the film about women, but it’s about other relationships. There is the relationship between Alice and Flo that works out well. They have this completely honest discussion during this beach scene and it’s a terrific scene to watch. There is the interesting relationship between Tommy and David. David tries to become a mentor in Tommy’s life, but is unable to reach out to him. He tries his best to act like a father figure, but that is all but ruined during a catastrophic birthday party scene. There is also the relationship between Tommy and Audrey (played by the young Jodie Foster.) Audrey becomes a friend to Tommy, but she is an outcast and she convinces Tommy to break the law (when it comes to stealing candy bars, etc). All these relationships have effective dynamics to them and are truly believable.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Before has had its supporters and critics within the feminism movement. Some people say this film is overly feminist while others support the messages of the film. I, myself do find the themes to be powerful. Sometimes it feels like I’m being beaten over the head with these feminism issues in the movie, but they are very important. It has gotten better for women, but it is still not good enough. Fortunately, I am a man who believes every woman is my equal. This is not Martin Scorsese’s greatest film, but it’s a remarkable improvement over his last feature. The performances are all excellent, and the film is written very well. The pacing needs to be a little better, but overall it’s well-directed. Martin is learning very fast. Just wait till you see the remarkable Taxi Driver. I loved how he interjected a soundtrack full of rock’n’roll tunes. It’s nice to hear songs from Mott the Hoople and Elton John. This is a solid road-trip dramedy that highlights a very important issue.
My Grade: B+