“Mom, where are we going now?”
I’d ask meekly, sitting in the passenger seat. On the surface I was a good little boy because my mother had put the fear of God in me to behave, but on the inside I was hurling obscenities like the girl in The Exorcist with a side of tourrettes.
“Home James, home.”
Watching Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore for the first time was familiar. I was Tommy, Alice’s son, on a long car ride but I’d been well trained to keep my mouth shut. Tommy on the other hand is loud and annoying.
The other main difference was that I was always going home, eventually, even if the ride felt like an eternity. Alice and Tommy were leaving New Mexico, headed to Monterey, California.
I love everything about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. On the surface, the movie is about a former singer whose husband is killed in a car accident which motivates her to sell up and move back to her childhood hometown of Monterey. Why Monterey? To sing.
As the movie unfolds, we discover that this story is truly a character piece. It’s about a woman who is a dreamer, a lover, a fighter, a mother, an optimist, a waitress, a charmer, a manipulator, a girlfriend, a wife, a mistress and a widower. Alice is a little delusional and at her very best, hopeful.
With funds dwindling, Alice and her son Tommy are forced to take up temporary residence in Phoenix, Arizona where Alice finds a job at a seedy bar as a lounge singer. She falls for the wrong man and suddenly finds herself in the middle of an abusive affair. Back on the road, Tommy and Alice stop in Tucson where Alice finds a job waitressing. It’s not long before she meets David (Kris Kristofferson, Blade, The Maple Leaf), a farmer who she finds is a good influence on the wise-cracking Tommy.
Alice is played by the super human that is Ellen Burstyn (Interstellar, The Exorcist). Burstyn couldn’t be more elegant if she tried, and yet she has a girl next door appeal.
Burstyn won an Academy Award for her performance. She says of the movie and the era,
“the idea that a woman could be a person in her own right… this idea that we were primary in our own lives, to ourselves, was astonishing… I felt that it was the right story to explore a woman’s point of view. [Until then] all of the women’s parts were the wife, the mother or the whore… the women were the assistant”.
Before the film was made, Burstyn was looking for a role that would allow her to explore a fresh persona on screen. Her agents sent her the script for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and she began searching for a director. When she met Martin Scorsese she said,
“I saw your film Mean Streets and I admire it very much but there really aren’t any women in it and this is a film I’d like told from a woman’s point of view. From your film I can’t tell what you know about women. What do you know about women?’ And Marty said ‘Nothing but I’d like to learn’. I said this is a wise man. I like this guy.” Burstyn’s full interview on the making of the movie is absolutely worth watching.
I find comfort in Alice. She has a good humor in everything – sad, angry, happy, or indifferent. She has a touch of the melodramatic and the “woe is me”. But she also laughs at herself for going total soap opera on it. In the midst of her emotional breakdowns, she realizes how ridiculous she’s being. This couldn’t be any better expressed than in the trailer which is also a throwback to cinema in the 1970s. Honestly, watch it.
Simply put, Alice is figuring it out. That good ol’ “it.” She’s set free when her husband dies to be what she always wanted to be. She thinks that maybe she can be a singer again and play the piano. She takes a serving job that she hates and finds that she loves it. She falls into relationships with various men. Freedom is simply a possibility. That’s all Alice ever wanted.
She represented women of the time who were questioning women’s liberation. She isn’t sure of her place in her personal freedom, but she knows that it’s something worth searching for.
I haven’t figured “it” out yet myself. I’m still trying everything, while knowing nothing. My Twitter location used to say “Almost Home.” Home is settling. I can be “on my way” into the endless and infinite but arriving home is so concrete. Alice is looking for that home. That “it”. And so am I.