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Saturday, 27 June 2009
Star: Ellen Burstyn
In between giving stunning performances in stunning films like The Exorcist in 1973 and Requiem for a Dream, no less than 27 years later, Ellen Burstyn seems to have picked her films. She was far from prolific but consistently kept working in films that don't have huge reputations, presumably because she wanted the roles. Certainly she had influence here, given that The Exorcist was such a hit, and apparently she chose not just the part but the director, Martin Scorsese. Perhaps because it's an Scorsese film, as much about women as Mean Streets was about men, the opening credits feel utterly like a woman's picture, either that or a John Waters film. It's hammering the point home before the film even starts.
Once it starts it hammers home the point of impermanency. We begin with a short prelude, all shot in dynamic red, of the young Alice in Monterey, CA, singing in a child's voice the song that backed the opening credits. Obviously though her family aren't interested in singing and apparently this is all a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, but then we quickly leap 27 years to Socorro, NM where Alice is a wife and a mother, at least for a little while. Her son Tommy is twelve year old Alfred Lutter, Ogilvie from The Bad News Bears, and her husband's an idiot. Alice's life in Socorro seems to be mediating between the two so that one doesn't kill the other. And not singing.
Then, when hubby gets himself killed in a car accident, it's just Alice and Tommy and they sell up and head back to Monterey. Without hubby in the way, the pair of them can bounce smart ass banter off each other very effectively but I couldn't help but notice the lack of seatbelts. Sure, this is 1974 but they'd just lost two thirds of the family in a car accident, after all. Unfortunately for Alice her bad judgement follows her all the way to Phoenix, AZ, where she works as a singer in a bar and ends up dating a married psychopath played by Harvey Keitel with his hair combed over like he's trying to be Crispin Glover. And then it's the road again.
Before we start wondering if we're going to bounce on down the road for the whole movie, at least those of us who didn't know this film turned into a long running TV series set in a greasy spoon cafe in Phoenix called Mel's Diner (which is real, by the way). Well here it's Mel and Ruby's Diner and it's in Tucson, but it's still a greasy spoon cafe that Alice ends up working at, alongside sassy foul mouthed Flo and slow Vera. These characters, along with Mel, who runs the place, all continued on to the show but in variations of what we see here. Or so I'm told; I grew up in England and never saw the thing, even though it ran to nine seasons, eleven if you count the spinoff series called Flo.
Before Ellen Burstyn picked Martin Scorsese to direct this picture, she watched Mean Streets and realised his talent but wondered if he could direct anything that wasn't all about men. She asked him what he knew about women and he answered, 'Nothing, but I'd like to learn.' Apparently the film is accordingly the result of close teamwork between the pair and first time screenwriter Robert Getchell. It plays a lot better than I ever expected it would, with a lot of the camerawork recognisable from Mean Streets. The dialogue is clever and well delivered.
The cast is interesting, well beyond Ellen Burstyn who is superb. She had a lot of competition that year for the Best Actress Oscar but she won the day. What's more surprising is that she only has one to her credit out of six nominations. The men in Alice's life are played by Billy Green Bush (her husband), Harvey Keitel (the nutjob in Phoenix) and Kris Kristofferson (a rancher in Tucson). All of them do a fine job, in very different ways. Alfred Lutter is excellent as Alice's son, Tommy, though to be fair he gets a lot more opportunity than Jodie Foster, who was half a year younger but looks a lot older in a small part as a friend of Tommy's in Tucson. Diane Ladd is memorable as Flo, and ended up in the series, not as Flo but as the Flo replacement when Flo got her own series.
At the end of the day though, this is supposed to be a picture about women, looking at the reality that they have to deal with on an ongoing basis. And this must work as a women's picture because my wife understands all sorts of stuff that I didn't even realise needed to understood. There's a scene where Alice shaves her legs in the sink of a Phoenix hotel room and talks about how she'll shaves her legs when her ship comes in. I thought it was just a scene to show how little money Alice had and how down to earth she was, but my wife was nodding along and agreeing out loud. I didn't even know there was anything to agree with.