Tuesday, 9 February 2010

'Life Is Short.' 'Yeah, Well, So Are You.'

It's an Ellen Burstyn festival! (There's another Burstyn starrer coming up in a couple of films time, after this one. Woohoo!) She's another that can do no wrong, though that goes back to when I first saw The Exorcist, back in the day. Requiem For A Dream merely cemented it for me.

While Burstyn won her Academy Award for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, she had already been nominated twice (for support in The Last Picture Show and lead in The Exorcist), and has since been nominated three times more. In Alice she plays the Alice of the title, recently widowed from a tumultuous relationship. With no money and no pre-marriage career outside of some singing she gave up when wed, and a young son to take care of, Alice heads off from where she had been living to make her way back to Monterey, where she had last earned a living off her voice.

Stopping off in Phoenix to sing at a piano bar in order that she can make enough to money to carry on with son Tommy (Alfred Lutter III), she begins a relationship with the immature but sweet Ben (Harvey Keitel), and bites off far more than she can chew. After discovering that he is not only already married but violent to boot she flees the town, finding herself in Tucson. Unable to find work as a singer she takes up as a waitress, working with loud, flirty Flo (Diane Ladd) and the simple Audrey (Jodie Foster.) There she meets and becomes involved with David (Kris Kristofferson), who owns a ranch outside of town and seems too good to be true. A divorcee with children he doesn't really see, David quickly starts to exert his own opinions on the family, creating tension between Alice and Tommy as the deadline for Tommy to enroll in school in Monterey approaches and they are still in Tucson, not earning enough money. After a short breakup, David and Alice get back together and the option of staying in Tucson rears its head... something both Alice and Tommy ultimately find very appealing.

Martin Scorsese helms the film, fresh from the acclaim of Mean Streets, before taking up the reigns on Raging Bull, though Burstyn apparently retained full creative control due to her starring role and the phenomenal success of The Exorcist. She chose Scorsese based on his willingness to embrace learning about women for the picture, but presumably due to Burstyn's influence the film is tonally quite different from Scorsese's pictures to follow. Visually it is striking in a very distinctive Scorsese way, with the angles and the movement of the camera, almost flat to the screen, something he manages to achieve without it ever feeling empty or amateurish. But it is a lot lighter than the majority of his work - not that that is a negative note on the film. It's a fine film centred around the outstanding performance of Burstyn, who is truly pivotal to the film. Hers is the story being told, and she is in almost every scene, and she owns every scene she is in, using a great script by Robert Getchell and wringing every comic and dramatic note out of it. Her relationship with her son is beautiful and hilarious. It didn't feel real in the slightest, not on the surface (though maybe I just know nothing about the era), but underneath you could feel the emotion running deep and the lines they exchanged worked so well that it is not only forgivable, it is laudable. 

A great effort all round. I think Burstyn's performances in both The Exorcist and Requiem For A Dream were more worthy of an Oscar than this (not that she wasn't worthy - I guess I mean her other two big ones were so damn big, but ignored), but she does turn in a very solid and definite lead job. 4 stars.

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