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Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

It's odd noting that two of Hollywood's great inside-outsiders, Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese — who've created movies that are raw, unflinching, and definitely of the counter-culture generation — spawned two of the most famous and longest-running television sitcoms. Ironic, because anything that lasts on television has to be antithetical to their styles. For whatever reasons, Altman's 1970 Korea-conflict movie spawned "M*A*S*H" (which ran from 1972-83), while Scorsese's 1974 Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore brought on "Alice" (1976-85). Then again, it was a strange time in Hollywood. The film nerds took over and changed the way movies were made, if only for a couple of years, and Scorsese was at the head of the pack. Though there's no denying his greatness, Scorsese is best-known for his gangster pictures (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino) and his antisocial-loner films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), which focus on Catholic-guilt-ridden men who don't understand women (and often don't care to). And yet throughout his career, for every movie that follows this pattern, Scorsese delivers one outside of the mold. There's Goodfellas, but there's also Kundun, and The Last Waltz, and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. And with Alice, the director delivers a dramatic comedy about a woman forced to raise a child on her own — it couldn't be more against type. Scorsese is more of a journeyman director than he's given credit for, and Alice is one of his better films that gets shuffled aside, trod upon by the foot of Auteur Criticism. Alice first opens in Academy ratio (1.33:1), and in what looks to be Technicolor. After a Douglas Sirk-esque opening credit sequence, we are introduced to young Alice (played by Mia Bendixsen at eight), who's singing along to Alice Faye's "You'll Never Know." But as she's introduced on a farm (a la The Wizard of Oz), the fission of Sirk's "Woman's Picture" genre quickly becomes evident — the young Alice swears like a sailor, and the movie then switches to a tracking shot of Alice's house, scored to Mott the Hoople. Twenty-seven years later, Alice (Ellen Burstyn, who won an Academy Award for her performance) is married to a slightly abusive husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) and has a loving and playful relationship with her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). But when tragedy strikes, Alice and her son are forced to hit the road, where Alice hopes to get to Monterey, Calif., and become a singer; it's a dream she abandoned when she got married. On the way she gets a job singing at a bar and meets Ben (Harvey Keitel) — a younger man she gets involved with, but who proves abusive and a philanderer. Moving on to Tucson, Ariz., Alice finds work at a diner and immediately has awkward relationships with outspoken fellow waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) and the charming David (Kris Kristofferson), who romances her by taking out her son to his ranch. But as comfort broaches, Alice isn't sure that she's doing the right thing.

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One of the great things about Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is how Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell never mock the less fortunate. Often in films when characters are shown to be destitute, they are surrounded by white-trash characters who are flamboyant and one-dimensional. Alice has comic moments, but they are never at the expense of the characters. Like all of Scorsese's great films, there's a duality — Scorsese's greatest influences are old Hollywood and the explosive realism of directors like John Cassavetes. Here, the collision between these sensibilities achieves a harmony; scenes pop to life. Scorsese makes these characters believable and fully dimensional while maintaining the framework of the previous generation's Woman's Picture, but also while also trying to modernize it. Ellen Burstyn gives a great performance — one senses the love she has for her son, while also understanding the dual sense of loss and freedom that came after her husband's death. She wants to get by without needing a man, but she also likes being with men, and she expresses both sentiments without getting pigeonholed. Burstyn is well balanced by Alfred Lutter's Tommy, who's both intelligent and obnoxious. Tommy spends most of the film's second half with Jodie Foster's character Audrey, a tomboy daughter of a prostitute who's constantly trying to get Tommy drunk on ripple. The film is also chock full of notable small parts: Ladd is great as the mouthy Flo — a far cry from the "kiss my grits" TV catchphrase — as she plays off of Vic Tayback's Mel (both would re-appear in the TV series), while Keitel's performance is one of his best: With only a few minutes of screen-time, his Ben is frighteningly real. Though the film finds itself a little less sure-footed in its conclusion (it doesn't know what to make of either Alice's possible singing career or her romance with David), it's a wonderful character piece, showing that Martin Scorsese can do whatever he wants, and usually he does it well. Warner's DVD release of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with the original monaural audio on a DD 1.0 track. Extras consist of scene-specific commentary with credited commentators Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, and Kris Kristofferson — and the uncredited Diane Ladd — and runs for 53 minutes. Most revealing is when Scorsese says how he intentionally populated his support staff with women, such as editor Marcia Lucas and production designer Toby Carr Raeflson (both of whom were directors' wives at the time). Also included are the featurette "Second Chances" (20 min.) featuring Burstyn and Kristofferson's reminiscences, and the embarrassing theatrical trailer that does a very poor job of advertising the picture. Keep-case.

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