In striving toward “that level of being real,” Burstyn handpicked much of the film’s eventual cast from her Actors Studio cohort – a decision that meshed well with both Scorsese’s approach to directing actors and his already-established Harvey Keitel fixation. After stripping away what Burstyn has called the “slick” qualities of Getchell’s script, she and Scorsese emerged from pre-production with a character study centered on the limits of self-reinvention as a single mother, and the difficulty of negotiating honestly between our past and present selves.
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“Whoever writes about his childhood must beware of exaggeration and self-pity,” George Orwell once wrote, in an essay that more or less equates his adolescence with martyrdom. Nostalgia, he might have mentioned, has an equal and opposite ability to distort – one that’s examined right from the beginning of Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974). In the film’s opening sequence, a title card introduces us to Alice Graham as “a young girl” in Monterey, California, skipping home to a Wizard of Oz–inspired farmhouse while singing Alice Faye’s “You’ll Never Know.” Filtered through a rose-tinted lens, the sequence is over-the-top in its depiction of rural American life, every manicured element of it ringing false – right down to the perfectly outlined silhouettes of a happy family, seen seated around a dinner table through the house’s windows. Even in this idealized memory of Alice’s childhood, though, a bit of sourness creeps in: an eerie orange light radiates from the windows, and Alice’s mother threatens to beat “the living daylights” out of her.
“I can sing better than Alice Faye,” Alice says in defiance, addressing the porcelain doll in her arms. “I swear to Christ I can. You wait and see. And if anybody doesn’t like it, they can blow it out their ass.” She goes on singing, and her voice warps into a creepy, echoey cacophony as the image on-screen races away from the viewer, and young Alice’s vocals are replaced by the opening notes of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Way from Memphis.” A series of establishing shots introduces us to adult Alice (Ellen Burstyn), 27 years later, now a suburban housewife in Socorro, New Mexico, doing her best to keep the peace between her aggro truck-driver husband, Donald (Billy “Green” Bush), and their smartass preteen son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III).
Reality, it seems, caught up to Alice fast. Hollywood dreams of a singing career have long gone, and now she mostly just wants her emotionally stunted husband to chat with her over dinner or to “chase [her] around the bedroom.” The moment she confesses to a friend that she’d be just as happy if she never saw another man again, Alice receives a call saying Donald died in a trucking accident. With fate forcing a second act upon her, Alice sets course with Tommy for Monterey and a singing career, hoping to recapture that idealized vision of her past and to return to a place where her dreams for the future still seemed possible.
“When we get to Monterey, things will get better,” she says, finding a new mantra. Tommy chimes in: “How do you know?”
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Released on December 9, 1974, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore found Scorsese hot off the career-redefining success of Mean Streets (1973), a movie that – 46 years later – remains more neatly situated than Alice within a filmography largely concerned with male-dominant narratives. As the story goes, Burstyn, having just received a second Oscar nomination for The Exorcist (1973), shepherded the Robert Getchell script to Warner Bros. before pitching it to Scorsese. In a 2019 interview with New York Magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz, Burstyn recalled those early discussions:
But my mission was to make a film from a woman’s point of view, and a certain level of reality in the acting was what I knew I wanted. I saw Mean Streets and said, “That’s it. That’s Studio.” Meaning, that’s Actors Studio. That level of being real. That’s why I wanted Marty. Then Marty and I met, and I said, “I want to make a movie from a woman’s point of view, and I can’t tell from your movie if you know anything about women. Do you?” He said, “No, but I’d like to learn.”
That exchange would predict the natural ease of collaboration that emerged between the two artists throughout the film’s production. Having joined Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio in 1967, Burstyn saw an opportunity to portray Alice as a raw nerve – emotionally volatile, not always likable, and often shockingly blunt in her rapport with Tommy (“If you open your mouth once more, I swear to God, I’m gonna nail it shut.”). In striving toward “that level of being real,” Burstyn handpicked much of the film’s eventual cast from her Actors Studio cohort – a decision that meshed well with both Scorsese’s approach to directing actors and his already-established Harvey Keitel fixation. After stripping away what Burstyn has called the “slick” qualities of Getchell’s script, she and Scorsese emerged from pre-production with a character study centered on the limits of self-reinvention as a single mother, and the difficulty of negotiating honestly between our past and present selves.
It makes sense, then, that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore unfurls as a road movie, in which Alice and Tommy banter their way from one southwestern town to the next, stopping long enough in each for her to earn a little money singing at a bar or waitressing at a diner. Scorsese varies his approach along the way, allowing each locale to represent its own slice of Americana – the New Mexico scenes invoke a family sitcom, while the roadside-diner ones play like a screwball comedy, complete with eccentric customers with names like “Daddy Duke” (not to mention an Oscar-nominated performance by Diane Ladd as Flo the waitress, and a brief appearance by her real-life daughter, Laura Dern). The film moves with a comedic touch through small-town America, even as the perennial new beginnings promised by the open road devolve into a cycle of Alice making the same old mistakes.
On two occasions in the film, Alice nearly allows a man to sidetrack her progress. The first guy – a seemingly charming, secretly violent cowboy-type named Ben (Keitel, above) – reaffirms her fear that she’s doomed to keep falling for mediocre or downright evil men. (It’s in Keitel’s scenes, when a seductive charm masks the threat of violence, that Alice feels most of a piece with Scorsese’s other ‘70s films.) The second – a wealthy, too-perfect Tucson rancher named David (Kris Kristofferson, below) – might just be as good as he seems, but how could she be sure? Either way, derailing her journey for another man would be falling back into the same pattern, and Alice starts to think of Monterey as the only place where old habits might finally die hard.
Of course, the movie isn’t all that interested in a plucky, one-note narrative of a repressed woman achieving independence – it’s a little messier than that. While a commercial and critical success that earned Burstyn her Oscar (and spawned the long-running sitcom Alice, with Linda Lavin taking over the titular role), the film sparked a fair share of debate over its feminist merits. (Scorsese, for his part, insisted to Roger Ebert in 1976 that Taxi Driver, not Alice, was his “feminist film.”) Those attuned to the hallowed battlegrounds of Film Twitter may have seen a less nuanced version of this debate play out – one that positions Alice as a bulwark against broader critiques leveled at Scorsese’s depictions (or lack thereof) of women. These conversations tend to exist independently of the film itself, reducing it to a signpost deemed useful only for defending the director from blanket accusations of unexamined macho-ness. Further, they overlook the fact that it is Burstyn’s authorship – not Scorsese’s – that resonates most thoroughly in the film’s themes.
“There’s so much of me in Alice. She’s just there,” Burstyn said, in a 2014 appearance at Brooklyn Academy of Music, reported on by Forbes. “I don’t think of her as someone separate.” Three times divorced by the start of production and traveling for work with her then-preteen son, Jefferson, Burstyn’s superficial connections to Alice Graham offered a ripe narrative for profile writers and Oscar voters alike. Beyond that, her input reshaped the original ending of the film itself, solidifying its themes around the uncertainty of second chances, and how the human inability to remember the past how it actually was often leads people to repeat their mistakes. In the original script, Alice and David get married in Tucson – a classic Hollywood ending that would have denied Alice her dreams of a singing career in Monterey and seemed, to Burstyn, too tidy for a story about the messy push-and-pull of personal growth.
Instead, Burstyn & Co. rewrote the ending in the middle of filming. When David attempts to win her back at the diner, Alice reasserts her resolve to pursue her singing career, to which he responds: “Who’s stopping you? Pack your bags. I’ll take you to Monterey.” It’s a swoon-worthy, improbable move, and the film implies that Alice might settle down in Tucson anyway, having finally found someone willing to compromise for her aspirations the way she’s always done for everyone else. At the time of its release, critics struggled to reach a consensus on the film’s ending, with some claiming it undermined a possible empowerment narrative, and others saying the movie was simply indecisive about what it wanted to be. In a 1975 interview with the New York Times, Burstyn argued her case for how the ending is consistent with the film’s themes:
When another person says, “I love you, and I want you to be happy,” it’s not about staying on the ranch, or going to Monterey. It’s just the free exchange of love. How come none of us ever thought of that? . . . I’m still not entirely happy about the ending. But we don’t say definitely they’re getting married. We say that whatever they do will have to include Alice’s aspirations. I think any way we ended it would have been partly unsatisfactory because this movie is about something we’re all going through right now, and nobody knows how it’s all going to end.
In some ways, this framing presents the ending as typical of the New Hollywood generation, when the cultural comedown from 1960s optimism found filmmakers closing their movies on bleak, unresolved notes. But Alice attempts something trickier, presenting its ending as upbeat while leaving a little room for the audience to doubt whether anything has really changed. After all, the idea that Alice’s second act could unfold with a wealthy, handsome rancher who also prioritizes her singing career seems . . . too good to be true – the perfect reconciliation of her nostalgia for the past and the practicalities of the present. As Roger Ebert noted in his review at the time, “A lot of the things in the film don’t work as pure logic. There’s a little myth to them.”
Forty-five years later, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore remains an imperfect blend of raw character study and Americana fairytale, one that functions best as a collection of indelible scenes – Alice and Flo commiserating while basking in the sun (above); the driving sequence set to Elton John’s “Daniel”; Tommy’s intermittent flashes of wisdom amid Alice’s moments of despair. In a 2004 reassessment of the film, Molly Haskell noted how these high points had grown in her estimation:
At the time, I was so transfixed by the idea of “role models” – wanting to see a new kind of woman on the screen who would somehow reflect the aspirations of the women’s movement, mobilize and do justice to our ambitions – that I was a little tone deaf to the immense charm of the film.
In a period of Hollywood history defined by the angsty-boy protagonists who so transfixed the Movie Brats, Alice was doomed to fail at accomplishing everything desired of it by an audience starved for representation. Even now, it remains something of an outlier within Scorsese’s filmography, an exception that proves the rule of which stories he prefers to tell, and one that makes you wonder what masterpieces might have resulted from him returning to similar territory. Within Burstyn’s body of work, it’s a calling card – an instance of an established star successfully using her clout to make the precise kind of film she would want to see, even as it foregrounded a protagonist atypical of the New Hollywood. Which is to say that, for a folksy road movie about chasing the past, much of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore remains ahead of its time.
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All images are screenshots from the DVD.