Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Alice (1990)

Then The first time I read about Alice was in the late, somewhat lamented Starburst Magazine who seemed quite surprised to be covering a Woody Allen film but were polite and lengthy all the same with a giant picture of Mia filling three quarters of a page. When I finally saw the film as part of the HMV splurge of 1994, I was bored, although I think I did have a cold at the time. One should never watch films for the first time when you’re running a fever. It’s not fair to them.

Now We’re through the looking glass now people, just over halfway through this adventure. As I may have mentioned, I’m tending to watch, through Lovefilm, the movies that the BFI are programming in a given month and in March they’ve scheduled, because of the Tim Burton 3D spectacular, adaptations and films influenced by Alice In Wonderland. From my vague memory I’d wondered why Woody’s film wasn’t included, given the potions and ghostly goings on.

Showing the BFI’s keen curatorial sensibilities, the reason this film wasn’t included (unless it was because of print availability) is that though Alice enters a new emotional wonderland aided by the herbs with their fantastical properties, the icons of Lewis Carroll’s story aren’t included. There isn’t a white rabbit exactly. Some people are seen playing cards and Alec Baldwin’s ghost has a Cheshire cat grin. But if Mia’s character was called Mildred, the audience might not make a direct connection.

In fact, now that I turn as ever to the Bjorkman interview, he actively distances himself from Carroll, stating that he chose Alice because it’s “a quintessential kind of rich WASPy name” and it might as well have been Leslie. Woody instead explains that he was trying to make a comic version of Another Woman, with the device of listening in (this time through invisibility) as the way of provoking the character to change her life after viewing her so-called friends and position from the outside.

That allows him to finally give Mia a proper starring role in which she’s allowed to offer the wide range of emotions that she was always obviously capable of but generally only allowed to offer one character at a time. Across the film, via the herbs, Alice becomes a seductress, adultress, gossip, horrendously stoned and finally as feminine as she’s perhaps ever been. Mia is one of my small revelations during the process; far from the repellent slightly winy figure I’d remembered, she’s funny, resilient and at times incredibly sexy. And that’s just in this film.

She’s ably supported by the men, but Woody is careful never to let them take over, with understandable exception of Keye Luke as Mr. Yang, her spiritual guide who’s hypnotic voice drives her forward. If William Hurt at times seems like he’s wandered in from an Adrian Lynne domestic revenge thriller, Joe Mantegna is incredible, demonstrating how underused he’s been across his career playing dozens of mafia figures. His speechless reaction to Alice’s advances is one of his best ever scenes. When Woody says that half his directing is done in the casting, this is the kind of film which demonstrates what that means.

There are other casting surprises. Baldwin (in the same year as Hunt For Red October) appears as the ghostly presence of one of Mia past lovers, offering relationship to advice to Mia just as Bogart did for Allan in Play It Again, Sam. A post-Moonlighting Cybill Shepherd has a tiny role as a tv producer. This is Bernadette Peters’s only appearance in a Woody Allen film as a Muse (“Very deep is exactly where he wants to put it”). At one point a famous model is pointed out, she turns around, and it’s Elle McPhereson. Even Bob Balaban is in there somewhere towards the end. It’s also a good film for Woody ensemble watchers with Julie Kavner cameoing, Blythe Danner and the first appearance from Judy Davis.

As you can tell from all these paragraphs I’m quite enamoured with Alice (and its casting). It’s not his best film; it’s at least ten minutes too long and Carlo Di Palma is back behind the camera with his very long takes which make some scenes drag a bit. The orientalist “other” approach to Far Eastern culture is a shame but in vogue at the time (see Gremlins and Blade Runner). But as an attempt to inject magic and fantasy into what theorist Molly Haskell called “women’s films” and offer a third way at the conclusion from the usual climax of such things as marriage or oblivion it has to be applauded.

Alice was seriously underrated. By me.

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