Martin Scorsese, 1974, US, 112 mins
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd
Review by Justin Whitton
Ask someone to name a Martin Scorsese film and the answer will almost certainly be a violent, male-dominated picture. His third directorial feature, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, could barely be further from that stereotype. Mixing drama, romance and comedy in equal measures, with a widowed mother as its main character, this 1974 film became a key cinematic contribution to the feminist movement of that decade. It remains a largely unseen gem in Scorsese’s remarkable filmography.
Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is the character referred to in the title. When her husband dies, she and her young son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), hit the road for her birth state of California. Alice is driven by the practical necessity to start a new life and to give her son an education, but she also harbours the more romantic desire to realise her dream of being a singer. She doesn’t make it to California, but Alice does find friendship (a lively waitress played by Diane Ladd) and love (in the form of Kris Kristofferson’s divorced rancher). More important, at least when assessing the film’s feminist credentials, is that Alice finds independence and the power to make her own decisions.
Oddly enough, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is more a Burstyn film than a Scorsese one. It was Burstyn who brought the original screenplay (by Robert Getchell) to the attention of Warner Bros, Burstyn who rewrote some of the dialogue, Burstyn who recruited Scorsese (fresh from the success of Mean Streets) to direct the film. And it’s Burstyn’s magnificent, Oscar-winning performance that is the centrepiece of this moving, enjoyable picture. The most admirable aspect of her portrayal is her willingness to show Alice’s faults, notably her stubbornness and her tendency to act without thinking. Her transition from initial insecurity to ultimate strength is utterly convincing, and this transition is punctuated by moments of warmth and tenderness. It’s a wonderful piece of playing from one of America’s finest screen actors of the 1970s.
But around this performance, Scorsese builds a perfectly-balanced film. He draws excellent performances from Lutter and Kristofferson, allows Harvey Keitel (as a married man with whom Alice has a torrid affair) a mini-reprisal of his volatile character in Mean Streets, and even offers viewers a taste of his next project by casting Jodie Foster as Tommy’s teenage friend. He deals confidently with the short but crucial early scenes, showing Alice’s frustration with the dead-end marriage she finds herself in. From then on, he lets the story proceed at a leisurely pace without allowing the narrative to drift. It’s great to see Scorsese deliver a character-driven film; on subsequent occasions, he would eschew this approach in favour of demonstrations of his technical prowess that impress film students but don’t always contribute to moving the film forwards. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the work of the director is almost invisible.
It’s hard to imagine Scorsese making a small, intimate picture like this today. Perhaps it was easier for him then, when his reputation was still new and he didn’t carry the considerable burden of being “the greatest director of his generation”. Scorsese would go on to make many memorable, highly-acclaimed films over the next 30 years, but few were better than this.
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