Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
Ellen Burstyn was riding high off the back of The Exorcist and looking for a prospective project to make with Warner Brothers when Robert Getchell’s script for what was to become Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore fell into her lap. It was the early 1970s and feminism was beginning to speak to the women of America. There was something in Getchell’s story, about a woman searching for her dream in the wake of a difficult relationship, that struck a chord with Burstyn, but she wanted it to have the impact it deserved. To that end, she wanted a director to helm it who was gritty, new and exciting. That someone was Martin Scorsese, who was then riding high off the back of Mean Streets.
Ever since she was a child, Alice Hyett’s dream was to sing professionally. However life got in the way and, at the age of thirty-five, she has found herself living in Socorro, New Mexico with a difficult and emotionally stunted husband and their precocious, eleven-year-old son Tommy. When her husband dies in a road accident, Alice sells up and takes to the road with her measly belongings and Tommy. They’re Monterey bound, with the intention of achieving her childhood ambition. Taking in temporary lodgings in towns along the way, Alice grabs a series of jobs (some singing and some waitressing) and finds herself romantically involved with men who may not be as reliable as they initially appear.
Scorsese wanted the challenge of making Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but he was also afraid of it too. It was to be his first studio movie, and he was fearful of executives interfering with his artistic vision. Not only that, but the young director, whose previous two features concerned the lives of macho, young Italian-American men , felt out of his depth directing a film whose central character was a woman and whose central message was ostensibly feminist. It took his then partner Sandy Weintraub to convince him that women were just people and that taking the job would ensure he would not be considered a one trick pony by studios, relied upon only to churn out a series of Italian-American gangster movies.
Given that to this day when people discuss Scorsese they inevitably think of the gangland epics and the predominantly masculine character studies, it’s fair to say that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore either didn’t do enough to convince studios otherwise, or – perhaps more importantly – the experience of making it confirmed Scorsese’s belief that at that stage in his career he really didn’t know or understand women. Either way, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore can be considered one of two things; an overlooked gem in an already impressive body of work, or an experimental and courageous miss-step.
The main problem that seems to exist for audiences is the depiction of Alice and the message to take from the film. For those viewers looking for a strong feminist statement, the film could be somewhat disappointing and it is perhaps most apparent in the film’s ending. Warner Brothers wanted a piece of ‘New Hollywood’ but were apprehensive about the penchant these creative young artists had for an unhappy ending. They wanted the romantic happy-ever-after, which meant that Alice had to go off into the sunset with her new beau, local rancher David (Kris Kristofferson), despite the warning sign that he may be as unsuitable as all the other men she had known in her life when he slaps Tommy (Alfred Lutter, a really sharp and engaging performance that shows a talent beyond his years) for misbehaving. Scorsese, wanting to stay true to his vision and to the character of Alice, felt that she should seize her independence and go on to Monterey to start her career. In the end, a compromise was reached which could arguably appease the feminists – on seeing how important Alice’s dreams are to her, David announces he’d walk out on everything just to be with her. For a 1974 film, it’s a deeply refreshing spin to end on the note of a man willing to give up his livelihood to follow the woman he loves as she goes in search of her dream…but it’s not a convincing one. For a start, we’re already told that David’s previous marriage failed when his wife realised she wasn’t cut out for the life of a rancher’s wife, and then there’s how Scorsese chooses to shoot this scene; following their very public soul baring in the local diner, Alice and David fall into each others arms as the previously grazing customers give them a spontaneous round of applause. “Marty wanted the people in the cafe to applaud when Kris made his offer, because he always felt that the ending was theatrical, not real, and the applause would underline that” Burstyn recalled. “He felt we should admit it” That the film’s real final scene is of Alice walking down the street with Tommy seemingly going back on her plans to reach Monterey, arguing “I can be a singer anywhere” and that it’s OK to fight with someone you love as long as you love them, suggests the implicit understanding from both characters and audience that David’s offer was ultimately a hollow, empty gesture and that, for all her sass and the best intentions, Alice is a woman who is destined to make the same mistakes over and over again in her life. The only difference this time being that she feels capable of voicing her dissatisfaction to David from time to time.
This sense of a fake and unreal ending means Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore comes full circle as the closing credits begin, as Scorsese had chosen to open his first studio film with a bold and artistic statement; an obviously Sirkian homage to The Wizard of Oz which presents us with an image of Alice as a little girl on her rural homesteade singing to herself beneath a crimson sky before being called in for the evening. Needless to say, Scorsese’s fears of interfering executives came true over this sequence; they wanted him to pull it, he made it clear that if they made him cut the scene, he would walk. The scene stayed in the picture, and it sped away into supersonic oblivion to the present day setting and a heavy, hefty blast of Mott the Hoople’s All the Way From Memphis, just one of the many examples of English rock Scorsese employs on a soundtrack one would perhaps expect to hear something more homegrown and in keeping with the rural Southwest setting – something more in keeping with Kristofferson’s David’s choice of music, what Tommy tauntingly calls “shit-kicking music”. The one thing Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has in common with the other films in Scorsese’s oeuvre is the strong soundtrack.
Whatever you take from Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, one thing that cannot be in question is the quality of Ellen Burstyn’s charismatic lead performance as the witty but emotionally vulnerable single mother who tries her best for both herself and her son but finds herself increasingly ill equipped for her life on the road. The commitment, energy and kooky charm she brings to the performance proves that this was clearly her baby, and she rightly gives it her all. This was subsequently and justly acknowledged with an Oscar and a BAFTA. Indeed, the film was well received here in the UK, earning a total of four BAFTAS – Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Diane Ladd for her role as Flo, the brassy waitress), Best Screenplay, and Best Film – so it’s only fitting then that the BFI have released the film on DVD in an impressive package that includes a partial audio commentary from Scorsese, Burstyn, Kristofferson and Ladd, a twenty-minute making of, the theatrical trailer and an illustrated booklet featuring credits and essays.