“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” occupies a curiously odd spot in Martin Scorsese’s legendary filmmaking career. While sandwiched right between “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Taxi Driver” (1976), this little film is quite different from either of his two gritty urban masterpieces in many aspects. As an intimate female drama which tenderly and sensitively follows its plain heroine’s growth and self-discovery, this is surely something very rare in Scorsese’s filmography, and, that is why it should be cherished more besides being an excellent character study which still works well after many years.
The story mainly revolves around Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), a suburban housewife living in New Mexico. As reflected by the striking prologue scene tinged with fantasy and nostalgia, there was a time when she pursued her little aspiration of becoming a successful professional singer, but now she is stuck with her unloving trucker husband and their willful young son. Despite often being not so happy with her current living condition, she tries her best for making things better for her as well as her family, but she only gets frustrated again and again, and her only consolation comes from a fellow housewife who has been her best friend.
And then something quite unexpected suddenly happens on one day. Her husband unfortunately dies due to a horrible car accident, and Alice finds herself almost penniless as most of their money goes to his following funeral. For supporting herself and her son, she must find any possible way to earn money right now, and that is how she comes to decide that she should try to resume her old professional singing career in Monterey, California. While not so confident about her singing ability, she is ready to try her best nonetheless, and she soon leaves New Mexico along with her son, after saying a tearful goodbye to her best friend.
Not so surprisingly, things do not go as well as she wished. As staying in Phoenix, Arizona, Alice searches for any suitable bar where she can be employed and then hone her singing skill more, but that turns out to be not so easy at all. At one point, a callous bar owner shows more interest in her body rather than her actual singing ability, and that is when one of the sharpest lines in the film comes (“Well, look at my face – I don’t sing with my ass.”).
At least, Alice gets hired by some other bar owner later, but, alas, there comes another trouble for her not long after that. When she is approached by one seemingly charming guy in one evening, she is not so particularly interested in him at first, but then she lets herself charmed by him. As meeting him again, she considers becoming more serious about him, but, what do you know, he soon turns out to be much worse than her husband. Along with Alice, we are slapped with a sudden brutal moment of violence, and Harvey Keitel, who previously worked with Scorsese in “Who’s That Knocking My Door” (1967) and “Mean Streets”, is simply frightening in his brief but undeniably intense appearance.
Shortly after she and her son hurriedly move to Tuscon without looking back at all, Alice decides to put aside her aspiration for a while due to their poor financial status at present, so she begins to work as a local diner waitress. Although she struggles a lot on her very first day at the diner, she gradually gets accustomed to her new job mainly thanks to Florence (Diane Ladd), one of the two other waitresses of the diner.
Around that point, the screenplay by Robert Getchell slowly settles along with its heroine while further fleshing out a number of different characters around her. As the usual customers of the diner come and go during its opening hour, the diner is frequently brimming with a vivid and realistic sense of life, and we also get to observe more of the colorful personalities of Alice’s colleagues. My personal favorite moment is involved with Vera (Valerie Curtin), a shy and neurotic waitress who, to our little amusement, turns out to be more spirited than she seems on the surface.
When David (Kris Kristofferson), one of those usual customers, approaches to Alice for his little courtship on one day, Alice understandably hesitates, but she soon finds herself attracted to him as getting to know him more. As spending more time with him, she comes to consider living with him because he seems to be much better than her husband or that horrid guy, but she still wants to pursue her dream as before, and she keeps hesitating between her aspiration and the possible new love in her life.
While there subsequently comes a considerable conflict to be resolved in one way or another, Getchell’s screenplay wisely does not overplay that, and then it glides to an unexpectedly funny and touching scene between Alice and Florence. As a brash but no-nonsense woman, Florence gives a forthright advice to Alice, and Alice surely follows Florence’s sensible advice when she really has to make an important choice for her life. Her eventual choice can be regarded as a compromise, but she makes that choice on her own terms, and the very last shot of the film slyly implies to us that, regardless of whatever will happen next, there are still a lot of possibilities in front of her.
Scorsese was technically a hired hand in case of “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, but he was willing to demonstrate that he could be a fairly good mainstream filmmaker, and he turned out to be the right director for the movie as Burstyn felt after seeing “Mean Streets”. For subtly conveying to us Alice’s unsettled status, he and his cinematographer Kent L. Wakeford seldom let the camera become static throughout the film, and that also brings considerable verisimilitude to the screen. In addition, Scorsese often encouraged improvisation among his cast members, and they accordingly look natural and spontaneous in their interactions on the screen.
While she will be always remembered for “The Exorcist” (1973) and “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), Burstyn actually gave many other stellar performances including her breakthrough supporting turn in “The Last Picture Show” (1971), and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is definitely one of the highlights in her respectable acting career. Effortlessly embodying the ordinary but palpable human qualities of her character, she subtly illustrates her character’s gradual growth and development along the story, and she deservedly received a Best Actress Oscar for that (A small trivia: Because Burstyn could not come to the ceremony at that time, Scorsese came instead, so that was the first time he went up to the stage for receiving an Oscar, though he had to wait for more than 30 years for winning the one for himself at last).
Around Burstyn, several other main cast members inject an extra dose of life and personality to the film. While Diane Ladd received her first Oscar nomination for her scene-stealing supporting performance, Valerie Curtin, Vic Tayback, and Kris Kristofferson are also believable as the more colorful figures in the diner, and Alfred Lutter, who plays Alice’s occasionally unruly son, holds his own little place well besides Burstyn. Later in the story, Lutter has a couple of humorous scenes involved with a tomboy girl who is played by none other than young Jodie Foster, and you may also be able to spot young Laura Dern, who briefly played a girl eating ice cream cone in the movie (This was her second film after “White Lightning” (1973), by the way).
Although it is relatively modest compared to many of Scorsese’s great films ranging from “Mean Streets” to “Silence” (2016), “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” shows a more sensitive side of Scorsese’s peerless talent like “The Age of Innocence” (1993) and “Hugo” (2011), and it surely shows how willing he was to go outside his artistic comfort zone even at that time. When he was approached by Burstyn before the production of the film began, Burstyn directly asked him about what he really knew about women, and he frankly replied, “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.” As far as I can see from the film, he learned a lot, and he certainly did his best from that.