I find it interesting how someone comes to remember an actress for a single performance. I was never really exposed to a lot of horror films when I was young, so I don’t remember Ellen Burstyn as the mother from the Exorcist. I also didn’t have a classic film background so I don’t remember her in The Last Picture Show either. What I remember her for and what I, unconsciously, expect from her is her performance in Requiem for a Dream. That performance scared the crap out of me when I was an impressionable teenager (and thought that it was that movie was the height artsy independent movies at the time… oh how naive I was.). She was grandiose. She was grotesque. She was amazing as a pill addicted mother of a heroin addict. But the performance was so arresting that it was hard for me to see her as anything else which is very unfair. I want to try to separate this actress from the performance that brought her so much attention in the early 2000s. I think that watching Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a good place to start her image transformation in my mind.
Ellen Burstyn plays a housewife stuck in a sticky situation. She no longer seems to love her husband for the way he treats their son and insults her cooking, but she is so dependent on him that she can’t leave. This all changes when her evil caricature of a husband dies in a car crash. She sells her house, packs up her precocious son and makes a journey to realize her long dormant dreams of becoming a lounge singer. This dream journey has some unrealized bumps along the road. These include very small and grubby hotel rooms, a deceptively nice man who ends up beating her (played brilliantly by Harvey Keitel…), a shortage of cash and a shortage of jobs. This leads her to her final destination as a waitress in Mel’s Diner in Phoenix, Arizona. She is completely over her head in a job she has never done in her life. To top it off it is a place full of groping men, loud mouth co-workers and a fast paced environment. She finds solace in a beautiful stranger who happens to be an eligible farmer who loves kids. But even this falls apart eventually. Will she ever find a place in this world where she is comfortable?
I felt like this film is more true to life than other movies I have seen about the same subject matter. In the real world, people have dreams but they also have real responsibilities. Dreams can easily get pushed to the side when you are starving. Alice never predicted when she was dreaming of leaving her husband in that cookie cutter house of hers that she would end up in a diner in Phoenix in a difficult relationship with a farmer. But that is where she is. Life isn’t just one big decision, but a lot of smaller decisions. She learned that when she decided to date the cowboy who turned out to be a very violent man. But she also learned that she has the strength to leave. These things that she learned she can only have learned them through living them. Beyond the events of the film, the characters seemed more real to me than I have typically seen. For instance her son while in the car with her for a very long time starts to tell this joke to her. He tells it over and over again, but it never makes sense. It only makes sense in his head. She gets angry at him for constantly talking in a riddle that is complete nonsense and yells at him. Both of these things are typical of a normal relationship between a twelve-year-old and his mother. I don’t know if you have younger siblings but I have had two. Trust me this age is when we are at our most annoying.
The only thing that really bothered me was when she decides to get back together with the farmer and stay in Phoenix at the very end. She had left him, because the farmer and her child were developing a relationship that was like the one he had with his biological father. It echoed the relationship she only got out of after someone died. So why go back to him? Why decide to end your journey in a place that is so incredibly far from your dreams? I guess since this whole film had a foot in reality, they didn’t want to end it in an idealistic way. But I kind of wish they had.
I wanted to end it with that last paragraph, but I forgot to mention Martin Scorsese. This was his fourth feature film, but the second one to really garner some attention. From here he would go on to make Taxi Driver and dozens of other pictures. Although there are tracking shots and interesting angles in some shots, this isn’t typical Scorsese. I think this is a good thing. I would actually like to see him come back to a film that has a woman protagonist and a little bit more realistic tones. However I think that he has strayed so far the other way that to get back to this gritty realistic shooting style would be a severe challenge to him. However seeing his latest films, I think he is in need of a real challenge. (And not some bullshit one like shooting in 3D)