An earlier Martin Scorsese film that’s something of a departure from the other films of his I’ve watched, which might as well have been rated “M” for “Manly”. Not that his movies lack memorable female characters, but they’re usually side characters in very masculine stories and are rarely the focus. Other than having a female protagonist, this movie is also an interesting exception in how low-key it is. There are no gangsters, famous boxers or extraordinary stakes or highs and lows in sight – it’s basically a slice-of-life comedy-drama about a recently widowed woman and her twelve-year-old son, shot in a restrained and unshowy manner which suits it perfectly.
At the beginning of the movie, Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is married to a surly, brutish truck driver who is soon killed in a road accident. Even though her life with him consisted mostly of trying to get out of the way of his bad temper, her new independence finds her disoriented, confused and quite broke. So Alice decides to leave their New Mexico town and go back to California with her son, with the hopes of reviving her dream of being a singer. Her money trouble force them to stop in Arizona, first in Phoenix where she finds a job singing in a bar, and later in Tucson where the scarce opportunities force her to become a waitress. There, she also meets a local divorced farmer (Kris Kristofferson), who could be a genuinely nice guy or just yet another man whose temper flares up when he feels that he’s not shown respect.
There’s not much story as such, and what is there doesn’t necessarily pan out the way you’d expect, except maybe for the ending which you can guess from looking at the DVD cover. For instance, one could easily assume that this is going to be a rags-to-riches story about Alice becoming a singer, but it’s made obvious that while she’s attractive and appealing as a performer her singing abilities aren’t good enough to really take her places. The pleasure of the movie is more about following Alice’s experiences and relationships with other people, chief of which is her sassy-mouthed son Tommy. It’s refreshing to see a mother-son relationship portrayed in such an unsanitised way and while Tommy can be a pain in the ass he comes off as a real kid rather than an annoyingly precocious movie kid. There are many great true-to-life moments such as when Tommy repeatedly tries to explain a bad long-winded joke with the intensity and determination young kids have, to the point where Alice starts to cry from exhaustion. Other memorable characters include Harvey Keitel as a deceptively nice younger man Alice hooks up with in Phoenix; a foul-mouthed fellow waitress Alice develops a genuine friendship with (female friendships as a rock in women’s lives get a nice portrayal here); and the very very young Jodie Foster as a tomboy delinquent who befriends Tommy.
Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for her performance here and she does a fantastic job with a plum role that made me think of an article I read once that pined for great complicated female characters in the movies rather than just Strong Female Characters. I liked that Alice was allowed to be weak and messy at times, and to feel ambivalent about the loss of a husband who both stifled her and made her feel secure – a realistic emotion especially considering the times and the shift in women’s lives they heralded. The film is also frequently funny and does a great job juggling comedy and sadness, sometimes within the same scene. There’s a loose rambling quality to it that some might find uneven and unfocused but I personally found quite endearing.