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Matt Connolly on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

The recent debates surrounding the representation of financial-sector bacchanalian excess in The Wolf of Wall Street placed renewed emphasis upon a much-longer-standing question regarding Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre: what to make of the women in his movies? Scorsese’s auteurist reputation rests largely upon a body of work that oscillates between the exploration of masculine isolation and paranoia (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Bringing Out the Dead, The Aviator) and the investigation of all-male subcultures built around violence and ritualized machismo (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed).

It comes as little surprise, then, that the privileging of male subjectivity and experience within his work relegates female characters to supporting roles. Wives, girlfriends, mothers, prostitutes—such labels apply easily, if often reductively, to the women in Scorsese’s oeuvre, many of whom operate within diegetic universes dominated by men who are casually sexist at best, aggressively dominating and abusive at worst. Whether Scorsese’s handling of his female characters ultimately reflects a nuanced critique of entrenched social misogyny or an implicit acceptance (and even glorification) of anti-woman sentiment became a central point of debate surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street, and extended to two separate video essays that each used an array of clips from the filmmaker’s work to illustrate conceptions of female experience throughout his career. Dina Fiasconaro’s “The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese Films” moves through a series of intertitled sections (“Cheating and Jealousy,” “Verbal Abuse,” “Sex Work”) that catalog instances of male control and violence around women from Scorsese’s films. Nelson Carvajal and Max Winter’s “Women in the Works of Martin Scorsese” charts a wider range of moods and events within Scorsese’s movies, showcasing the ways in which his female characters become objects of admiration, obsession, and occasional companionship to male protagonists. Despite differences in tone and intent, both videos rely upon the same fundamental assumption that women remain a problem within Scorsese’s work to be addressed, grappled with, denounced, recuperated, etc.

What to make, then, of how little any of these critics have to say about 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the only work within Scorsese’s filmography that places a single woman at the center of the narrative? Fiasconaro features the film but primarily acknowledges it as an example of violence against women, while Carvajal and Winter merely use the titular character’s bar-singer performances as background music for other clips. Such an exception does not necessarily overturn these critics’ arguments, but proves revealing for exactly the ways in which it handles a woman’s subjectivity and experience—issues that must jockey for the spotlight even in Scorsese films that more prominently feature female characters, such as New York, New York, Goodfellas, and The Age of Innocence. What about Alice’s story attracted Scorsese in the first place? After scoring a major success with Mean Streets, which seemingly set the template for popular culture’s notion of a quintessential Scorsese work, why would he follow it up with a mid-tempo character study of a thirtysomething wife and mother trying to restart her stalled-out life? (Revealingly, lead actress Ellen Burstyn, already attached to the project, requested to work with Scorsese, complicating potential auteurist assumptions about Scorsese’s autonomous choice of projects.) Addressing such questions might not only illuminate an oft-forgotten gem within the director’s career but also shed some light on Scorsese’s larger notions of female experience, heterosexual coupling, and their relationship to the pleasures and perversions of cinema.

Female experience is a fraught and contradictory thing in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, established within a matrix of domestic responsibilities, culturally influenced fantasies, and conflicting social expectations regarding the proper relationship between a woman’s desires and duties. Of course, one could say the same thing about the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk or the great Hollywood weepies of the 1940s starring the likes of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford—the sort of “woman’s films” that Molly Haskell describes in From Reverence to Rape as “only superficially superficial,” rooted as they are in a female protagonist’s conflict “between what she conceives of as a biologically rooted duty and her spiritual wish to be free.” Such movies exert a heavy influence on Alice, which proves less than surprising given Scorsese’s own cinephilia and his career-spanning interest in how pop-culture imagery shapes his protagonists’ expectations of life, love, and gender roles.

The centrality of these silver-screen phantasms to Alice’s own burgeoning sense of self and the disjuncture between image and reality both are imminently clear in one of Scorsese’s finest opening sequences. After the Saul Bass–designed Warner Bros. logo (with its bold red and black backgrounds and minimalist rendering of the “W”), the company name gets emblazoned across the screen again—this time in its classic iteration of the golden “WB” crest suspended amidst a light blue sky with still white and gray clouds. The lush romanticism of Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know” (itself originally heard in the 1943 20th Century Fox musical Hello, Frisco, Hello) drifts over the opening credits, whose pastel fabric backdrop and ornate, blood-red lettering recall innumerable melodramas from mid-century Hollywood. This pastiche continues in the film’s prologue, set in an idyllic fantasy of Monterey, California. The time period is defined simply as when Alice was “a young girl”; the camera tracks dreamily across a blatantly artificial soundstage replication of a country farm. Chickens peck about in their coop, rickety picket fences arc gently over a small hill and offscreen left, and mother’s silhouette appears through the dining-room curtains as she prepares the dinner table—all bathed in the retina-searing orange of a Technicolor sunset.

Few luxuriate in the aesthetic glories of classical Hollywood better than Scorsese does here, which makes the slow intrusion of a cruder reality all the more jarring. After Faye’s voice drifts off the soundtrack, young Alice asserts aloud that she can sing “You’ll Never Know” better than its originator, adding tartly, “I swear to Christ I can.” The dashes of vinegar to all this studio-era sweetness continue as Alice’s mother calls her daughter in to dinner (“You get in this house before I beat the living daylights out of you”) and Alice herself doubles down on her vocal abilities: “And if anyone doesn’t like it, they can blow it out their ass.” The instability of this fantasy gets hammered home in the sequence’s jolting final moments, when Alice’s climactic notes of the song suddenly become a cacophonous, distorted echo on the soundtrack and the image itself rushes away from the screen, seemingly accompanied by the sound of an airplane taking off. Smash-cut to present-day Socorro, New Mexico, and the banging piano chords of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way from Memphis.” The camera swoops in from an aerial view to the window of a modest southwestern house, framing the adult Alice (Burstyn) at her sewing machine as husband Donald (Billy Green Bush) complains of their son Tommy’s (Alfred Lutter III) blasting of the aforementioned rock song. Alice’s (and, by extension, Scorsese’s) rendering of childhood cannot transcend the rough edges of a rural upbringing any more than it can escape cinema-inflected nostalgia—both of which have to further contend with the jarring interventions of the here and now.

Such interventions come quickly for Alice, who learns roughly ten minutes into the film that Donald has been killed in a grisly car accident. As she contends with her own ambivalence surrounding her husband’s death (their brief scenes together reveal him to be an emotionally constipated and aggressive man), Alice must also figure out the practicalities of raising Tommy as a single mother with little work experience and few marketable skills. She decides to pursue her long-dormant childhood dream of becoming a professional singer, hitting the road with Tommy to start her new life in her childhood home of Monterey. Alice doesn’t push the irony of its protagonist’s self-reinvention occurring via a return to her youthful haunts, as much of the film’s poignancy and intelligence comes from observing Alice negotiate between her past and present selves. Her musical predilections certainly reflect an earlier era. Torch-song standards like “Where or When,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” form the backbone of her repertoire, which she performs first tentatively in her home in New Mexico and later in a wood-paneled Phoenix bar after Alice and Tommy set up temporary lodgings en route to Monterey in a local motel and Alice tries to make some money. (The opening contrast between “You’ll Never Know” and “All the Way from Memphis” cues the way in which Alice charts contrasts between—and within—characters via differing musical eras and genres.) If the song choices belie a certain nostalgia, however, Alice’s efforts to remake herself as a singer launch her into the unknown of her post-homemaker life: a world often defined by sexist humiliation and callous rejection, but also by a sense of burgeoning self-empowerment that Scorsese captures with thrilling immediacy. Alice lacks many of the stylistic flourishes found in Scorsese’s more celebrated 1970s films—there are no swan dives into squirmy, Travis Bickle–esque interiority or druggy slo-mo walks through neon-drenched bars—retaining a naturalist palette of sandy browns, yellows, and greens, and letting scenes unfold in fairly unobtrusive long takes or shot–reverse shots. When Alice sits down at the piano to audition for her Phoenix gig, though, Scorsese, cinematographer Kent Wakeford, and editor Marcia Lucas utilize energized circular tracks, jazzy jump cuts, and elegant shifts in shot scale to transform the midday drabness of a sleepy bar into a subjective arena for Alice’s growing sense of confidence and self-possession.

Dreams of professional success and financial stability are soon complicated by romance—first with Phoenix-based charmer Ben (Harvey Keitel) and later with rugged, soft-spoken Tucson rancher David (Kris Kristofferson). Such a career-versus-relationship conundrum has been a staple of woman’s films for decades (and within larger cultural discourse for even longer). Alice does not transcend this binary so much as explore how Alice—and, one might argue, a lot of women like her in the mid-seventies—acknowledges its predictable pervasiveness in her own experience and attempts to come to some sort of reconciliation between her private and public selves. Robert Getchell’s script (which was reworked by Scorsese and Burstyn) does not frame Alice explicitly within a recognizably feminist paradigm, a point driven home when Alice admits to David that she continually finds herself attracted to “men’s men” types. That she reveals this with a self-deprecating laugh points to an awareness of how her own sexual and emotional needs do not always align with her more forward-thinking aspirations—indeed, that the former can actively derail the latter. Alice’s flight from Phoenix and her singing gig comes after Ben is revealed as a philandering sleazeball when the wife Alice didn’t know he had visits her motel room to reveal Ben’s adultery.

This eruption of male violence both places Alice within Scorsese’s broader world of masculine aggression and establishes an unsettling near parallel later in the film. When David approaches Alice in a similar manner as Ben (at her place of work, charming grin on his face), the viewer cannot help but brace for the possibility of another smiling sociopath who will send Alice fleeing for her safety. That David reveals himself to be a decent and caring man who nevertheless harbors some fairly traditional ideas about parenting and masculine discipline around Tommy sets up the film’s final confrontation between Alice’s independence and romantic longing. Shouting at one another across the crowded greasy-spoon diner in Tucson where Alice has found employment, the would-be couple attempt to reach a provisional understanding of how Alice can both pursue her dreams and depend upon David for love and support. The scene has a neo-Hawksian raucousness that harkens back to the battle of the sexes in classic screwball comedies while acknowledging how the ideological undercurrents of such negotiations have shifted.

If the men in Alice serve key thematic functions (and offer emotional grace notes in their own right), it’s Alice’s relationships with other women and her son that form the film’s heart. Female camaraderie permeates the entire film. Alice spends afternoons chatting with neighbor Bea (Lelia Goldoni), who is there when Alice receives the fateful phone call informing her of Donald’s death and helps Alice run a yard sale before leaving Socorro. (In one of the film’s loveliest scenes, Alice initially rolls her eyes at an elderly woman haggling over the price of an embroidered shawl, only to give her the shawl at day’s end for free.) Similarly, the scene with her and Ben’s wife reveals an affinity and respect between the women—both know the trials of loving and living with difficult, violent men—broken by Ben’s savagery. And then there’s Flo (Diane Ladd), Alice’s salty-tongued, smoking, lipsticked coworker. Flo’s good-time chumming with the diner’s male patrons initially turns off the more reserved Alice, but this distrust quickly melts into ribald companionship. Their scenes of candid sunbathing and laughing-through-tears ladies’-room confessionals have a richness and spontaneity that certainly owe much to Ladd and Burstyn’s stellar performances, both of which were nominated for Oscars, with Burstyn winning in the best-actress category. (Indeed, two of the five Scorsese-directed performances to receive Academy Awards have been by women, as have ten of the twenty-two Oscar-nominated performances in his films—less a vindication of Scorsese the covert feminist than a suggestion that women have perhaps played a more memorable part in the director’s work than might be assumed.)

An even stronger feeling of lived-in intimacy—a private landscape of jokes, routines, and verbal shorthand—can be felt in the scenes between Alice and Tommy, the latter of whom remains one of the movies’ most idiosyncratic renditions of American boyhood. A gawky, bespectacled motormouth, Tommy knows just how far to push his mother with precocious questions, and even then sometimes goes too far. Alice replies in turn with a mixture of amazement, frustration, comradeship, and fierce love that Burstyn sketches with astonishing fluidity and profoundly felt sincerity. It’s a choice irony indeed that Scorsese, so often accused of reducing women to mother figures, could work with as strong a collaborator as Burstyn to craft such an unusual portrait of a mother-son relationship, one based simultaneously on deep trust in the other’s strengths and understandings of the other’s flaws.

Of course, one great exception can stand gloriously on its own while still proving the rule. If considering Alice within the context of Scorsese’s oeuvre does serve to complicate any blanket denunciation of the director as a boy’s-club navel-gazer for whom women serve perfunctory roles, it also points to the missed opportunities within his career for exploring female subjectivity and experience. It does nothing to denigrate the rich portrayals of masculine communities and male loners to which Scorsese has largely dedicated himself to wonder what would have happened if he had returned to female protagonists like Alice—not as supporting characters in their husbands’ and sons’ or boyfriends’ worlds, but as the center of a film’s narrative, emotional, and thematic universe. If Alice proves anything, it’s that the qualities that mark his best work (cinematographic virtuosity, tonal ambiguity, vibrant performances) can flourish in stories about women as well those about men. That they so often haven’t inspires not anger in this Scorsese fan but frustration and heartache—emotions a certain housewife, mother, singer, and dreamer knows more than a little about.