This film was a rarity for the time in that it focused exclusively on a woman's point of view - a woman who is attractive, but not a bombshell, a woman who is flawed while still being a decent person, a woman who has no idea how to raise her mixed-up son, but does her best, a woman who has the same harmless delusions we all have, a woman who has been so constrained by society's idea of happiness, but still can't resist wanting to find love and fulfillment with men.
The next year, Ellen Burstyn, who won a well-deserved Oscar for her work in the role, would go on television complaining about the nominees for Best Actress, stating that they were supporting roles in a lead category. Last year, Diane Ladd, so superb as Flo and in many other roles, criticized the Academy for putting lead actresses in supporting roles. Sadly, if anything never changes in Hollywood, it's poor material for women.
Scorsese made sure viewers knew ADLHA was not a "soap opera" (even though both Ellen Burstyn, via her old name, and Diane Ladd both cut their teeth in daytime drama before moving to Hollywood), but the core is not far off the best of what soaps used to be - an exploration of the life of a "normal" woman, her day-to-day struggles, her haunted psyche, and her search for a better life. As soaps no longer have any interest in this type of woman (yet another reason they have faded into irrelevance), it's up to movies like this to live on.
What to make of Alice herself? While the opening scene gets it a little wrong in its attempt to shock us (a fake-Hollywood, Wizard-of-Oz-esque backdrop with a little girl who curses to remind us this is no fairy tale), the next scenes strongly establish what makes Alice such a refreshing character, how she is the everyday woman, a Socorro housewife, who is torn between wanting more for herself and barely managing to even cope with what she has. The scene where, after Tommy goads her husband into yet another outburst, she flings the doors of her dining room open and shouts, "Socorro sucks!," is a real shock to the system, yet it makes you laugh, and feel relieved. You're reminded that even if this isn't real life, you know Alice, and you care about her. You see her tease Tommy, who is about to implode from a father he both loves and hates. You see her banter with her best friend (another reflection of soap operas), a woman who, in a poignant moment before the departure for Phoenix, she realizes she will likely never have contact with again. While Alice, in a sense, is stuck in hell, the movie doesn't completely demonize her husband, doesn't make him a faceless droid of the liberation movement - he tries, but he's utterly helpless to understand his wife. The moment where she casually says she'd be better off without and then learns of his death, crying out, "God forgive me," is one of the film's most harrowing.
ADLHA has a harder edge than the sitcom it spawned in many ways - Tommy is a real brat, and not a TV-cute brat (likely why he was replaced so quickly on the sitcom), and rather than characters like Vera being dizzy but heartwarming creatures Alice takes into her heart, she's a space cadet, one, in an unpleasant but realistic enough scene, is openly laughed at (along with her father) by our noble heroine. And Diane Ladd's Flo is just a bit less heartwarming, a bit coarser than her TV version (superbly played by Polly Holliday). You get a warm welcome from her, but you are also on guard, as Alice is. One of the film's best moments is when an overwhelmed Flo spews profanity at the diner patrons, and Alice, astonished, convulses into raucous laughter that Flo initially mistakes as sobbing. From then on, they're firm friends. Only Vic Tayback, basically playing a Mel who can say blue language, closely resembles his TV counterpart.
Ironically, the sitcom gets one thing right that, for me, always keeps this film from being what it could have been, in that it scraps the relationship between Alice and David, and focuses more on her relationships with the women at the diner. While everything about Alice and David makes "sense," and I respect Scorsese and Burstyn for not bowing to the idea that a woman must be alone to be strong (as Pauline Kael said about the ending of An Unmarried Woman, who could believe anyone wouldn't go away with Alan Bates???), David feels like he is from another movie, and I never can invest in the chemistry between Kristofferson and Burstyn.
Jodie Foster, on the verge of stardom, pops up as a friend for Tommy. She also feels like she's from another movie, and is an odd mix with Tommy, although the scene where (after his mother kicks him out of the car for being mouthy and hostile) he tracks her down and they get drunk is pretty good.
In terms of romantic attachments, Alice - and the film - peak during far her brief turn with Harvey Keitel, who plays a charmer she knows is not going to be good for her, but has no idea just how bad he will turn out to be. Indeed, this portion of the movie - when she and Tommy are at their most broken and desperate, fleeing the hotel with every possession they own - is viscerally good, and is the part of the film that always stays with me most.
So, while certain parts of the movie make it what it is for me, it's still a very good, very unique, very modern film throughout. Give it a try.
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