Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
Written by Robert Getchell
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Interestingly, the popular perception of Martin Scorsese is as a director of macho gangster pictures. Yes, he has made a considerable number of them, but after Mean Streets, it wouldn’t return that world until 1990’s Goodfellas. Instead, he showcased a genuine love of the cinema. In the documentary A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, it becomes inarguable that the director is most interested in continuing conversation begun in films he watched throughout his life. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore opens with a young girl walking along a country set in a soundstage, which immediately evokes images of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Yet, Scorsese immediately subverts our expectations by having young Alice give an expletive-laden outburst.
Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is a housewife in New Mexico whose life has not turned out the way she imagined. In her youth, Alice had dreams about becoming a performer, singing & entertaining people. Then she met Donald and settled. She certainly loves her son, Tommy, but things with her husband have fizzled. Donald is killed in a work-related accident, and Alice decides she wants to leave. She decides to take Tommy and head for Monterey, California, where she remembers performing with her brother as a double act. Money is scarce, so she has to stop along the way trying to find work and money to keep going. Alice has a brief and volatile relationship with a man named Ben (Harvey Keitel). Eventually, Alice and Tommy end up in Tuscon, where all she can find is a waitressing gig at Mel’s Diner. She begins a relationship with David (Kris Kristofferson), a regular at the diner, and Tommy begins getting himself into trouble with his friend Audrey (Jodie Foster).
Scorsese delivers a pitch-perfect comedy-drama that never once feels phony. He ends up presenting one of the most honest mother-son relationships I’ve seen in a film. Alice is by no means a conventional mother, and she regularly engages in arguments with her son that seem more appropriate for a friend. She is still a parental and is determined to keep her son out of trouble while allowing him space to mistakes and learn. The things she exposes her son to might cause some viewers to judge her for being immature and irresponsible. Tommy is present when Ben becomes violent with Alice. When Alice gets involved with David, Tommy is a part of their going out. It makes sense, though, because Alice’s life has a big chunk devoted to Tommy, so any person she might partner with is going to need to understand and get along with her child.
Ellen Burstyn runs away with the movie and delivers what is arguably the best role of her career. It’s enjoyable to spend time with Alice, and getting to know her enriches your time with the film. I’d read there were mixed opinions about the movie’s portrayal of women, and I’m confused as to what the disagreement was. The best way all people can be portrayed emotionally in cinema is as realistic as possible, especially when you are making a grounded film like this one. Alice is not a superwoman, but she’s also no idiot. She makes mistakes and lives her life. When it seems like love has come into her life, she doesn’t compromise, like with Donald. Alice clearly lays out what David will need to accept if he wants a relationship with her.
Scorses manages to play with the pieces of a modern romantic comedy before they become totally cliche and overwrought. I can imagine how some of these moments might have played out with a more journeyman studio director, and it just would have fallen flat. Scorsese allows for odd, funny moments that humanize the characters. A then-unknown Jodie Foster steals the show in her scenes as the ornery tomboy Audrey. Scorsese could have easily cut a lot of her work from the picture and still had a cohesive plot but having her there adds something beautiful to the story.
I definitely rank this up there as one of my all-time favorite Scorsese movies. It’s a great introduction to the director for people who have the wrong idea about the director’s work. It also serves to show the great variety of film genres Scorsese has tackled in his career. His next picture would swerve in a totally different direction than this one and showcase more of his versatility. That film was called Taxi Driver.