Monday, January 9, 2012

The Films of Martin Scorsese Vol. 1: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

I have to admit two things, first of all Martin Scorsese is my favorite director and has been for years. It began with my ever growing love of Goodfellas since I first watched it as a kid. Sadly I must also admit that my admiration of Marty comes from mostly his post Goodfellas catalog. Casino, The Aviator, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Shutter Island, and of course Hugo all rank among my favorite films. I have not completely deprived myself of his early work, Taxi Driver is one of my favorite Scorsese film, and I love Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Then there is that small pocket of early Scorsese films that I am very unfamiliar with. In fact I had not seen any of his pre-1980’s works at all, something that I plan to fix in this coming year, and write about it in the process. Now it has officially begun with 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

I went in knowing nothing about this film at all. I knew that Ellen Burstyn (who plays our heroine Alice) claimed the Best Actress Oscar for her part in the film, an award very much deserving. Besides that though, I went in with a blind eye. Needless to say I finished it instantly hating myself for taking so long to watch it.

Since a child, Alice wanted nothing more than to be in show business, an aspiration developed from her enjoyment of going to the movies (I would not be surprised if this part of her character was added by Scorsese himself). More specifically she wanted to be a singer, and in her younger days she was just that. Then she met her husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) who decided she was to give up her singing career and be his wife instead. So she left her life as a singer in Monterey, California and became a full time wife and mother. She was trapped in a broken marriage, and her dream of being a singer became nothing but a faded memory. Her life is about to be given a second chance as her husband is tragically killed when he crashes his Coke delivery truck. Though Alice is grief stricken by the death of her husband, she soon realizes that her acquired sense of devotion over the years had left her incapable of even knowing how to live without a man in her life. So she does the only thing she can think to do, and takes advantage of her new found freedom, selling most of her belongings, and with a promise to her son to get him to Monterey and in school before his 12th birthday she packs her station wagon and they leave on their way to a new life, a journey that will not be an easy one.

This film was a product of Ellen Burstyn’s agreeing to do another film with Warner Brothers. She read and turned down many screenplays, as at that time in 1974 it seemed the only roles for a woman were to compliment the lead male cast. That was until she found a script written by Robert Getchell called Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. It was a fresh story, with a strong female lead, so she agreed to do it. To find a director she asked her good friend Francis Ford Coppola if he knew any young and interesting Directors, and his response was to show her a film called Mean Streets, directed by Martin Scorsese. She loved it, and approached him to direct. She was a tad apprehensive; as much as she adored his film, she also took note of its lack of a female cast. So she asked him “Do you know anything about women?” to which he replied “No, but I’d like to learn”. She liked that answer, and the 32 year old Martin Scorsese was brought on to Direct.

A great script can only take you so far, but Alice brings with it a great cast of acting talent. Some established, and some future talent. Kris Kristofferson plays the role of David, Alice’s eventual love interest. At the time he was still pretty green as an actor and was making a career as a Country singer/songwriter. He was nervous about taking on such a tall order. But Scorsese had the confidence in his actor to guide him along the way, and it is clearly shown. He may not have picked up any awards himself, but he is excellent as Alice’s rock, at a time when the men in her life were far from her Prince Charming. There is also a noteworthy appearance from Harvey Keitel, whose role I will not get into, as its better left to be seen, but he definitely leaves a strong mark. Making his big screen debut, and playing Alice’s troubled young son Tommy is Alfred Lutter. Tommy is a complicated character to gage, on the surface he appears as just a typical annoying kid. Always complaining, never satisfied, and always demanding to get what he wants. But there is also an innocent and sweet side to him that carefully shows itself at the right moment, and does so enough to earn the audiences sympathy. He is after all leaving a broken home to live out of hotels. He does eventually meet a new friend, a problem child in her own right Audrey, played by a young Jodie Foster.

Scorsese himself takes a script that could have easily been a corny, and generic film and uses his ambitious style and enormous talent to craft a truly wonderful piece of work. The films opening depicts Alice as a young child declaring that she is going to grow up to be famous, all while her mother insistently yells at her to come in for dinner. It is a strange opening, but excellent one. The style is not like the film to follow, its a kind of dream state that is a clear homage to opening of The Wizard of Oz. Its this opening that instantly screams, "This is a Martin Scorsese film, get ready!". Another interesting piece of trivia comes with one of the films funnier moments when Tommy is desperately trying to tell his mother a really bad joke. He tries and tries many times to make her understand, and as he repeats the joke it just continues to not make any sense. It instead just causes his mother to become increasing annoyed with his persistence. This is a true moment, as this same exchange actually happened between the young actor and his Director one day on the way to shoot. As frustrating as it was, Scorsese also thought it was so funny that he wanted to include it in the film. So he did, twice.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore may not have found itself lost in the shadows of his other films. But it’s worth watching, it came at a pre-Taxi Driver/Raging Bull time when Scorsese hadn’t quite established himself to the status he would eventually hold. So to see his smaller earlier work, and to watch his unique and incredible style start to take form is a true treat for any Scorsese fan, including myself and though I hate to admit it has taken me this long to see it, I am also glad I was able to finally start appreciating the early work of my favorite Director.

-Jeff Wildman

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