Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Robert Getchell.
Starring: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Hyatt), Kris Kristofferson (David), Alfred Lutter (Tommy), Diane Ladd (Flo), Harvey Keitel (Ben), Billy Green Bush (Donald), Jodie Foster (Audrey), Harry Northup (Joe & Jim's Bartender).
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is the rarest of Scorsese movies as it is his only great film that centers on a female character. In fairness, with the exception of Boxcar Bertha and arguably New York, New York (in which Liza Minelli was a co-lead with DeNiro); it’s his only film with a female character at its core. But like many of Scorsese’s other films that at first glance appear to be a complete departure for him (I’m think specifically of The Age of Innocence and Kundun), Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore actually does fit rather nicely into Scorsese’s body of work. The women in Scorsese’s films have always been defined by the men in their lives. Most of the time, the movies see the female characters as the male protagonists do – in objective terms – but Scorsese always offers at least a brief glimpse into who these women are as people, and not just as objects. Take for instance the scene in Taxi Driver where we see Jodie Foster dance with Harvey Keitel – it is the only moment in the film that we do not see her through Travis’ eyes, and perhaps her most honest moment in the film. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is like an entire movie built around that moment.
As a little girl, Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) always dreamed of being a singer, and even worked for one for a brief time in Monte Ray. But then she met and fell in love with Donald (Billy Green Bush), an angry man with a temper, and settled into a life as a housewife, raising her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). She is trapped in life, and doesn’t much like it, but is unprepared to deal with things once Donald gets killed in an accident. She decides to take Tommy and hit the road – go back to Monte Ray and resume her singing career. She has no money, so she has to make a few stops along the way to earn it. First there is Phoenix, where she does actually find a job as a singer and for a brief period of time has a relationship with Ben (Harvey Keitel), who at first seems to be nice – but is actually a much nastier version of Donald. Then comes Tucson, where she cannot find a job singing, so she’s stuck as a waitress in a tiny diner. It’s here she meets Flo (Dian e Ladd), a loud, brash fellow waitress, as well as David (Kris Kristofferson), another man, but one who seems genuinely nice and kind – not just to her, but also to Tommy.
In 1974, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was something of a rarity – a movie where the female character did not play second fiddle to a male character. This is not a male centric story with a woman thrown in, but a story of woman struggling to free herself from the trap that she has found herself in. She doesn’t just want to be the “wife” and “mother” anymore – doesn’t want to be just a supporting character in the story of a man’s life, but be the star of her own. She gets knocked down repeatedly in the movie, but picks herself right back up again.
Yet, to a certain degree, Alice cannot free herself of the role she has been playing all those years. With Donald, she will always just be Alice – his doting wife that he can yell at at the end of a long day. To Tommy, she will always be his mother, the woman he can constantly annoy with his demands and his stories, and his incoherent jokes. For Ben, she is the glamorous singer, who offers a relief from his day to day life with his nagging wife. To these men, she will always just be playing a role in their lives – and they will never really consider hers.
David is at least somewhat different. He likes her; he listens to her and seems to genuinely care about her and her well being. After they argue, he comes back to the diner to make up, and in one those scenes with the grand romantic gesture (which of course ends with people cheering); he tells her that if she wants to go to Monte Ray to sing, then dammit, he’ll take her right now. He doesn’t care about his ranch, he cares about her.
I have Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore three times now, and the first two times through, I always viewed it as a rather happy movie. There are moments of drama and heartbreak, and Harvey Keitel’s character is truly frightening, but the movie ends on a happy note. Watching it this time though, I started to have my doubts. Is this really a happy ending? True, David offers to put his life on hold so that they can follow Alice’s dream, but in the last scene in the movie – between Alice and Tommy – she tells him that they may not get to Monte Ray soon, and he may have to go to school in Tucson. Is it enough for her that David offered to go to Monte Ray, and she has no plans on actually taking him up on his offer? Isn’t she falling right back into the same trap she was in before – allowing herself to be defined by the men in her life? I’m not sure, but the happy tone in the final scenes of the movie struck me as much sadder this time through. I have a feeling Alice is going to be stuck at that diner for a long time.
If Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is different from all of Scorsese’s other films because it focuses on a woman, what isn’t different is the level of the filmmaking, and the performances he elicits from his actors. Watch how the camera spins around while Alice is singing, taking us to another world. Or how the camera is unflinching at capturing the chaos, violence and heartbreak in the scene with Keitel. Or the very subtle moment when Alice realizes that she loves David – when we are told all we need to know by the look on Burstyn’s face. She won an Oscar, richly deserved, for this performance, and Diane Ladd also received a nomination. Keitel continued his great work with Scorsese and was perhaps never more terrifying on screen then he was here. Kris Kristofferson was a newcomer to acting, but you wouldn’t know it from his performance here – it’s subtle, quiet work. And young Alfred Lutter is great as the alternately lovable and annoying Tommy. A young Jodie Foster shows off some skills here as well.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not the first film that springs to mind when people think of Martin Scorsese. In terms of its plot, it’s so far away from what his normal films, that often it is simply glazed over in his biography. But it is a legitimately great film on its own terms – and watching it again, I realized just how much of a “Scorsese” film it actually is.