By Daniel Barnes
In the recent Australian chiller The Babadook, Essie Davis plays a widowed mother who feels trapped by parenthood. She eventually becomes a greater threat to her screeching son than the titular monster. I thought about The Babadook while I was watching Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the 1974 film that won Ellen Burstyn the Academy Award for Best Actress (against formidable competition, too – Gena Rowlands of A Woman Under the Influence and Faye Dunaway of Chinatown were among her fellow nominees). Separated by four decades, both films are about redefining genre templates. The Babadook takes on horror tropes while Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore updates the classic Hollywood “women’s picture” for the era of liberation. However, they both deal with the same underlying theme: a modern woman’s struggle to reconcile her need for self-fulfillment with the overwhelming demands of mothering a troubled child.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a film about complication and tension – marriage as an end, death as a beginning, open roads leading to dead ends, Monterey dreams in an Arizona piano bar – and perhaps the most exciting tension is the unlikely collaboration between Burstyn and director Martin Scorsese. Burstyn helped to develop the material at Warner Bros. as her follow-up vehicle to The Exorcist, and she was instrumental in bringing aboard Scorsese, then hot off of his little-seen but widely respected 1973 film Mean Streets. It’s fascinating to see a young Scorsese as a sort of James Mangold-ian director-for-hire, and you can feel him struggling against the limitations of studio filmmaking like a trapped bird, just as Alice frantically and helplessly flaps her arms against the sliding glass door of her suburban prison.
Scorsese takes an intensely personal approach to his films – if he can’t find himself in the material, he can’t envision the movie – and I love that the demands of the project forced him to forge an intense personal identification with a complex female character (and a lonely Southwestern housewife at that!). There’s nothing else like it in his repertoire. He’s had great female characters, but after this film and New York, New York in 1977, the closest that Scorsese would come to having a female lead in any of his movies was probably Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence. Even there, he seems more interested in fetishizing the character than understanding her. You can feel Scorsese try to assert himself on the material with ostentatious Steadicam shots and T. Rex music cues, but to his credit, his cinematic audacity never overshadows or overwhelms Burstyn’s excellent performance.
Her Alice is an unhappy New Mexico housewife and mother whose loveless march to the grave gets disrupted by the unexpected death of her Coke truck-driving husband. Out of money and stuck with her bratty son, Alice intends to move them to her childhood home of Monterey, with a wispy dream of restarting her pre-marriage job as a lounge singer. However, she gets waylaid in Arizona, first by a lack of money, and then by a succession of smarmy suitors. Burstyn is the perfect actress for the role of Alice – Faye Dunaway or Gena Rowlands could have carried the emotional weight of the character, but probably not the layers of humor and vulnerability that Burstyn brings to the part. The passive-aggressive, sarcastic tone that Burstyn takes with her son, even as he pounds his fists on her psychological buttons, is a key to the character, an emotional shield used to keep her real feelings inside. “I don’t have to show all my emotions,” she tells him, seconds before an emotional outburst.
Burstyn never strays from the truth of the character, even when the Robert Getchell script does. Alice is “re-entering” the single/working scenes for the first time since her teens, into a new world of mostly unappealing options. In almost every scene, Burstyn has to play Alice on multiple levels – responsibility, desire, excitement, longing, and fear exist in the same moment. Stuck in Phoenix, Alice gets propositioned by a smarmy young dope played by Harvey Keitel (credit Scorsese for having the vision to cast Keitel as a yee-haw Arizona cowboy), and Burstyn shows us both Alice’s weary skepticism and the softening effect of his adolescent flattery. She can smell his bullshit from a mile away, and falls for it anyway.
Keitel’s cowboy turns out to be a married psychopath, making it an easy decision for Alice and her boy to move on down the road towards Monterey. But when they get stuck in Tucson, Alice finds work waitressing at a bottom-rung diner, where she meets a sweet-talking rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who presents a more substantial impediment to her Monterey dreams. In a film that opens on a ridiculously artificial soundstage, transitions into Mott the Hoople helicopter shots of the New Mexico suburbs, and shows slight traces of magical realism throughout, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore turns unintentionally surreal in this second half. The diner scenes, and the dynamic of an Arizona single mother/waitress chasing a singing career, all served as inspiration for the TV show Alice (there was even some casting crossover, including Vic Tayback as Mel). It doesn’t derail the picture, but it is retroactively bizarre that this idiosyncratic Scorsese film about reexamining traditional Hollywood female roles suddenly overlaps and swaps DNA with a laugh track-heavy 1970s sitcom.
A young, pre-Taxi Driver Jodie Foster also shows up in this final third, offering Ripple to Alice’s boy and calling Tucson “a hellhole” (between this film and Hamlet 2, the Tucson Tourism Board has not fared well). As her son makes some tentative inroads into juvenile delinquency, Burstyn grows closer to Kristofferson, but she is unable to commit. Alice longs to have it all, and she is terrified that she may get it. They have an artificial public reconciliation scene in the diner where all the customers applaud, and while it’s a rare moment of falseness, it’s also quite telling that the film does not end there. Instead, it’s Alice and her son who get the last long lover’s walk into the sunset, ready to settle for life in Tucson, their visions of Monterey existing only as a neon hotel sign on a dingy main drag. The hopeless cynic in me thinks that the Burstyn character in Requiem for a Dream might be the Burstyn character in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore after a quarter century of enabling her son’s awfulness and forestalling her hopes and dreams. But the hopeless optimist in me prefers to believe that they all lived happily ever after.