Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Martin Scorsese is so firmly associated with gangster epics and violent New York Stories that
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is going to take many people by surprise. Almost immediately
after his breakthrough picture, the ethno-biographical Mean Streets, Scorsese took his
cameras to the wide southwest for a subject that can only be classified as Something Completely Different.
Alice Hyatt is an ordinary working class housewife trying to make it on her own, with the weight
of the world on her shoulders and her childhood dreams still echoing in her ears.
Fresh from The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn won the Oscar for this funny and touching, yet still
Scorsese-realistic movie. Not only that, but a hit television sitcom was spun off from the hijinks
at Mel's Cafe. Try doing that with Taxi Driver.
Housewife Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) suddenly finds herself on her own with little
job experience and the responsibility of raising her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter). They take off in her
old station wagon and she does her best to find singing engagements in bars. After a frightening
experience with a married man (Harvey Keitel), Alice and Tommy run out of options and she takes a
waitressing position at Mel's diner. Mel (Vic Tayback) and Flo (Diane Ladd) are hard people to
understand, and Alice is put in the awkward position of having another man court her from the other
side of Mel's counter - David (Kris Kristofferson), a local farmer. This isn't the glorious future
The main thing to communicate about Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is simply how satisfying
it is. The basic idea sounds like a feminist tract, but the film rejects any notion of carrying out
a thesis mission. Alice Hyatt and the people she meets symbolize nothing and remain
individuals wrapped up in individual lives with different goals. Unlike the dark Paul Schrader world
that would soon monopolize Scorsese's professional imagination, Alice moves in a neutral landscape
where personalities rule and happiness is possible. She begins as a suffering wife trying to make
sense of a nightmare marriage. She's strong enough to hold up her end of the relationship, but then
(as Scorsese says) God comes down and deals her a new hand. Out of disaster she's given a chance to
start anew. Once again, character is the determining factor.
Robert Getchell and Martin Scorsese have the sense to know that characters become more real when set
loose from confining genre regulations and predetermined concepts. Alice has the positive energy
needed to hit the highway with her demanding son. She's willing to make a go of her singing career,
even when it means using very un-feminist means, mainly, crying in front of a sympathetic bar owner
to get him to hire her against his best interest. That's the film's strongest aspect, that it refuses to
define its characters within the scheme of some "-ism" or another. Complainers get upset because Alice
eventually "abandons her dreams" at the end to become yet another man's wife. They don't seem bothered when
Alice very handily resorts to tears and a helpless act to get what she needs.
Other 'feminist' movies bend their stories to political demands. The author's rage comes through so
strongly in Diary of a Mad Housewife that it's a miracle Carrie Snodgress can keep her
character together. As good a picture as it is, Diary now seems an eccentric relic of another
time. The dud Stand Up and Be Counted has women empowering themselves in trite scenes against
stereotyped male chauvinists. It's totally forgotten, and I haven't heard its theme song I Am Woman
played anywhere for years now.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore isn't a rigged deck like the rather good An Unmarried
Woman. Alice's husband isn't a whiney weenie and she doesn't have the luxury of pursuing a trendy
creative career, while being confronted with intriguing romantic choices. Alice has to figure
out how to put Spaghetti-os on the table and how to keep from losing her kid to the youth
authorities. And it's not easy out there when the men one meets could be dangerously unstable, as
with Harvey Keitel's Ben Eberhardt.
The early 70s is now considered a time of maturity in American movies, when interesting work like
Alice departed from formulas and moved in new directions. That assessment ignores
the ten ordinary or inferior pictures that were made for every exceptional artistic effort, but it's
very true in reference to this show. The structure throws one for a complete loop. Scorsese's
studio-recreated prologue that represents Alice's idyllic Monterey childhood still seems completely
out of whack with the rest of the show; it connects only intellectually with Alice's later stubbornness
about returning to Monterey and seems the wish of a director to do a completely
stylized sequence in case his career should suddenly evaporate. 1
Scorsese's brand of edgy tension is based on character and therefore never goes out of style - it
can't be dulled by copycats as has happened with the million permutations of Taxi Driver:
Spare us, O Lord,
from Abel Ferrara. We feel Alice's terror over Ben Eberhardt (and his scorpion logic) and escape
with her to the next town on the map. Interestingly, we keep expecting PLOT to re-intervene. In any
self-respecting old-fashioned movie with a formally structured script, it would be essential for
Keitel's Ben to make an unwelcome return at the last minute to threaten Alice's new relationship
with Kris Kristofferson's David. The movie could then find a marketing niche, as a warm
character study that's also a nail-biting thriller!
Alice keeps us interested by going against our expectations, giving us real-life drama instead of
"drama" drama. In real life, heroism is putting up with impossible personalities. Hyperactive son Tommy
is a test for Job that Alice passes with flying colors - she even manages to make their relationship
magical (the water fight) while sharing her problems with the little guy.
Alice is determined to be a singer but suddenly announces that she's settling for being a waitress.
We don't see her make the decision. Just as in real life, the decision made itself and she has to
deal with it, the first step being breaking the news to her son. Waiting tables is a humiliating
trial at first and a brutalizing comedown for the girl who dreamed of singing for a career. Then
Alice begins to understand or at least cope with her eccentric co-workers - the Mel/Flo/Vera combo
of crazies that launched the tamed-down TV series - and begins her adjustment to a new life. There's
no justice in any of this. It's not a feminist fantasy, either.
Scorsese's casting is inspired. Billy Green Bush is perfect as the hopeless husband and John
Cassavetes graduate Lelia Goldoni (Shadows) makes an emotional impression as Alice's
neighbor. Harvey Keitel
somehow exudes trouble the moment we first see him, and in just a couple of scenes becomes a
psychotic demon. Diane Ladd creates a crude waitresses who surprises us with
her depth of feeling, quashing the idea that Alice is one of those New York movies where
rural hicks are just there for comedy relief.
Accomplished screenwriter Valerie Curtin's Vera comes the closest to comedy relief yet is
just too individualized to be a side joke. Yes, she's a barely conscious loner living in her own
world, but the screenplay respects the notion that everybody has dignity and a life happening off
the screen. Even Alice makes jokes when Vera motors off with her father, but Vera is a real person
too. After Tommy crashes into her in the cafe, she's kind enough to show him her prized pocketbook.
Alfred Lutter's Tommy gets a quick study in feminine mystery through cocky little Jodie Foster,
a little girl still all elbows and freckles yet nervy enough to forge her way through life. Scorsese
softens the social comment - Foster's the daughter of a prostitute, but a prostitute thoughtful
enough to buy music lessons for her little girl.
Scorsese gets the first really good performance from Kris Kristofferson, even though he was acceptable
in Peckinpah's Billy the Kid movie. He's ragged enough to offset the White Knight Syndrome where
third-act Lancelots show up to rescue movie heroines and provide a happy ending. That essentially
happens here as well but Getchell and Scorsese keep it up in the air. David's invaluable
asset is his ability to sense what Alice needs, and he's a real find for that reason. True, the
windup is really Alice solving her problem with how David fits into her picture of
what she wants her future to be, but it's more than credible and satisfying. When they have
their bit of drama amid the crowded tables of Mel's Diner Alice gets what she wants: A
center-stage star performance to elevate her from being "just a waitress," and a man unafraid to
meet her more than halfway. In the world of working mothers and Spaghettios, that's a blessing.
Warner's DVD of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a beauty. The sparkling transfer once
again makes me want to say that I don't remember it looking this good in the theater.
The extras are exceptional. The interview documentary is a handsome pair of relaxed and insightful
sit-downs with Burstyn and Kristofferson that very quickly sketch the uniqueness of the movie.
Both actors are charming and self-deprecating. The docu is typical of producer Jeffrey Schwarz'
best work - to the point, on-target and never padded out.
Both the docu and the commentary are tailored to the scope of the show instead of the common studio
practice of slathering a long list of fluffy content onto the back of the box. The commentary is
one of those brilliant "selective scene" jobs, which skips through the picture to place speaker
comments over the appropriate footage. It's perhaps 25 minutes long. Instead of slogging through the
entire feature saying whatever they can think of, the participants get to make the statements they
want and then exit. The idea worked great on Warner's DVD of
The Accidental Tourist and it's a
big success here too. The box mentions only Scorsese, Burstyn and Kristofferson but the commentary
also has some great passages with Diane Ladd, who explains a lot about her role and her personal
background. She even points out little Laura Dern (her daughter) in one of the diner scenes,
eating one of 19 ice cream cones she gobbled up in 19 takes.
In the extras, we find out from Burstyn that she initiated Alice and asked for
Scorsese after seeing Mean Streets. Everyone involved in the show seems to have been serious
and professional and none of their comments can be called empty flattery. They really add to the
appreciation of the film. The only curiosity about both the docu and the commentary is the omission
(unless I missed something) of any mention of Jodie Foster. I would have thought she'd be a featured
sub-topic. Savant's antennae sense something happening behind the scenes, there.
In keeping with Warner's pleasing current trend the DVD cover utilizes original release poster art. If
you are a DVD klutz like Savant and want to hear the commentary, take note to direction-arrow
UP from the "return" button on the commentary page to highlight the little reel. It took me several
minutes to figure out a problem that would probably take the average kid 2.5 seconds.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore rates:
Supplements: Commentary, docu Second Chances, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2004
1. A cross between
Gone With the Wind (split rail fence, determined heroine) and Invaders from Mars
(split rail fence, sand pit-like hilltop), the prologue is like Alice's personal version of
Scarlett O'Hara's "Tomorrow is another day, I will survive" monologue. It's also designed to look
like a Technicolor version of shots from Night of the Hunter. Scorsese was clearly
channelling Michael Powell and William Cameron Menzies here. Ordinary viewers tend to get so
heavily into the film that when they see it again at a later time, they forget that the movie
began that way. Not that it's a crime - the Monterey prologue looks great (especially on this
DVD) and seems a warm-up for the ambitious New York, New York where the whole picture is
designed with a similar heightened artificiality.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
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