In some ways Alice shares a lot of the same DNA with some of Scorsese's more recognisable films from the 70's - there is support from Harvey Keitel and a young Jodie Foster, (indeed in watching this again recently you are reminded just how intimidating a screen presence Keitel was and how much charisma teenage Foster possessed) there is a great soundtrack and the film creates a distinctive world for its characters to inhabit; However, this road movie really is a departure for Scorsese from the films that would come to define him.
Ellen Burstyn plays Alice, a recent widow and mother to a precocious son. Following the death of her husband Alice is freed from an unhappy marriage and she and her young Son Tommy pack up and take to the road to travel to Monterey, California, the only place where Alice ever felt truly happy. Alice wants to make it as a Singer but along the way, in order to make ends meet, she is forced to take a waitressing job in a small town where she befriends another waitress, Flo (Diane Ladd) and falls for a local farmer (Kris Kristofferson). The dialogue is snappy and it clips along at a nice pace. Alice is sharp witted and her exchanges with her son Tommy give the film a real sense of warmth and convey that they are in it together. Burstyn and Ladd are great on screen together and after a frosty to start to their friendship their relationship is utterly believable and, rarely for a 70’s New Hollywood film passes the Bechdel test with ease. Burstyn is fantastic as Alice, a Woman in her mid thirties who married young and chose the wrong man. After her husband’s death she is left penniless with a wise-cracking son to care for. Her performance manages to convey a compelling blend of world weariness and worry for the future with a spirit and optimism and great humour.
The romance with Kristopherson feels a little forced and it may have made for a more compelling story if they don't end up together but rather Alice finds happiness in her independence, that being said, it is interesting to see a gender reversed 'manic pixie dream girl' archetype playing out on screen.
This was Scorsese’s first major movie following the unexpected success of his breakthrough hit, Mean Streets. He was referred to Burstyn by Francis Ford Coppola who was looking for an up and coming director to bring her vision for Alice to the screen. The fact that this is someone else’s artistic vision brought to life by Scorsese makes this an interesting film to watch in the context of his wider career. The direction is simple but effective, there are one or two visual flourishes that Scorsese fans will recognise as his but this is clearly Burstyn’s film. The combination of these two creative influences gives us a film that is full of Scorsese’s trademark vibrancy and energy but is also a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of a Woman attempting to make sense of her situation and forge her own identity.
As a viewer we root for Alice each step of the way and by the end of the film are left more confident that wherever she lives she has what she needs to be happy.