The last three movies I’ve seen of director Martin Scorsese have been male-centric and gun crazy that it’s a relief to see his earlier woman’s picture Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore on TV. Housewife Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), with her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) at her side, drives towards Monterey after her husband’s death. Again, I didn’t see it all in the beginning, but I think I tuned in at the right time.
Alice has a conversation with Tommy during a meal, goes to work as a singer on a piano bar and is courted by Ben (Harvey Keitel) a guy with a ridiculous white cowboy costume. Their conversation pretty much was a marker for me in the film, with its energetic humour. In the rest of the film, we see and hear Alice – smart, jaded yet funny – talk to the other characters. Along with Ben there are other characters as we meet them. Her outgoing nature towards the other characters make for the appearance of good writing. Or good writing, complemented by Scorsese’s vision for characters. The film adds Scorsesean characteristic on women, who repress their actions but not while speaking their minds.
Alice imagines her son being ‘bored out of his mind,’ and there he is, watching an old colour movie where a man makes a woman’s costume more scandalous, makes her sing, but she sings gladly. Eventually he’ll get bad friends (Jodie Foster) and get into trouble. Two possible readings of the scene and Tommy’s story line. First and the most obvious one, he’s imagining his mother going through the same thing, as the movie he’s watching is cheapening both women’s common ordeal. Alice would later tell her next boyfriend David (Kris Kristofferson) about Lana Turner, showing how movies influence these characters’ perceptions. The second, this scene is the manifestation of familial conditions of the time. Not just with single moms but with the looming recession two years after this film is released, mothers both single and married have to go back in the workplace and children are left alone in their homes. Scorsese, however, is mature enough not to blame neither mother nor child for this.
The only reason why I hesitated to call on the film’s excellent writing is because of how one of the next scenes play out. Surprisingly, Ben’s wife comes knocking at Alice’s door. There’s an emotional scene found in most melodramas, mixed not so distractingly with Scorsese using handheld, only to be sandbagged by Ben banging on Alice’s motel room door. I really thought Keitel would stay against type in the film, and I expected the same with Scorsese as well. It ended up becoming like a milder version of that scene in Raging Bull. However, I accept what happens in the story, especially since we’re observing Alice’s reaction to Ben showing his evil side. She looks like she’s been there before, but she’s shell shocked and defeated, unable to defy Ben. Nonetheless, she knows what to do.
Her pit stop at Tucson – hopefully not as backwoods-y as Scorsese portrays it – takes up half of the film’s running time, escalating the tension between her and Tommy. A main reason I like this film is her rapport with him, possibly echoed within the passive aggressive banter of Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms of Endearment almost a decade later. Plus Alice knows how to play with her child, sometimes gets too mean and shortsighted towards him, yet she never seems childlike with him. They’re each other’s best friends, they share each other’s dreams and allow each other’s indulgences. With their runaway budget, she gets to buy dresses, he gets to have guitar lessons.
This film also breaks the cardinal rule of ‘All child actors before Haley Joel Osment are terrible.’ There are exceptions to this rule, but we’ll talk about that later, as well as showing how well Scorsese works with younger actors. Lutter puts flesh, blood and preteen intelligence to Tommy, questioning his mother’s decisions as per situations when families become ‘unconventional.’ He’s also a test to both her mother and to David. David, despite the nice working farmer’s smile, has hit him unlike Ben but Alice never gets comfortable with Ben enough for him to get to know the previous boyfriend. David fails a test but is right on a few things about a Tommy and Alice.
Alice in Tucson also exposes a duality within her, cowering slightly when Tommy swears in front of David or when Flo (Diane Ladd) uses her in the latter’s routine. She’s a woman with one foot off the edge of respectability, in a way denying that she’s in denial about her ‘maniac’ boyfriends, low paying jobs, serving locals better food than what she’s recently cooked for her own son. Unlike say, a Blanche duBois who relates being ladylike with fragility, and choosing that over truth, Alice is tougher. She’ll shed her exterior if that means having to survive and having to keep her relationships together. Yes, I know that Gena Rowlands must have had a better performance than this on A Woman Under the Influence – I haven’t seen it yet – but Burstyn as Alice is a work of being and balance, a performance about decisions on a mental level instead of a physical one.
What follows, as Chuck Klosterman would say, in the consummation of a relationship – offscreen – but that presents problems of its own. Alice has already made sacrifices on her first marriage and worry about the compromises she’ll make on this relationship. Nonetheless, she’s happy. Tommy’s happy. They understand each other and are more mature in the end.