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Why It's Essential: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore ('75)
SYNOPSIS

Alice Hyatt lives a life of daily drudgery in New Mexico caring for her gruff, neglectful husband and their precocious eleven-year-old son Tommy. When her husband is killed in an accident, Alice decides to take Tommy on the road to her native Monterey, California, to pursue her long-delayed childhood dream of becoming a professional singer. Short on cash, she stops in Phoenix, gets a job singing in a cheap nightclub, and falls into a relationship with Ben, a man who seems to be kind and romantic at first but turns out to be married and violently abusive. Alice grabs Tommy and flees to Tucson, where she's forced to take work as a waitress in a diner. She meets a sensitive, divorced rancher, David, and finds herself faced with the choice of a new relationship or continuing on toward her dream.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Producers: Audrey Maas, David Susskind
Screenplay: Robert Getchell
Cinematography: Kent L. Wakeford
Editing: Marcia Lucas
Production Design: Toby Carr Rafelson
Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Hyatt), Alfred Lutter III (Tommy), Diane Ladd (Flo), Harvey Keitel (Ben), Kris Kristofferson (David), Jodie Foster (Audrey).
C-112m. Letterboxed.

Why ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE is Essential

To get any kind of handle on what makes Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) essential, it's probably necessary to jettison all notions of it as a feminist statement. Almost immediately upon its release, people began arguing about its ideological value. It's a measure of both the film's flaws and complexities that some saw it as a positive, upbeat study of a woman's evolution from domesticity to independence while others attacked it for being a retrograde "woman's picture" and not so different from a studio-era melodrama in which feminine happiness can only be achieved through a man. Some reviewers even went so far as noting that Doris Day in her comedies of the late 50s and early 60s actually exhibited more spunk and personal resolve than Alice Hyatt does in this picture (and they may even have a point).

Director Martin Scorsese has insisted many times that Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was never meant to be a feminist tract but, as he put it, "a human picture," although it would be easy to take exception to the idea that somehow "feminist" and "human" are mutually exclusively and that the former term could never be quite as universal as the latter. From statements made by Ellen Burstyn, the star and prime mover of this project, there was at least some sense that what they were working toward was an awareness of what it takes to no longer be "an auxiliary person." Nevertheless, Scorsese had a fairly solid point when he told one interviewer, "It was a film about self-responsibility and also about how people make the same mistakes again and again."

Perhaps a good way into Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, one that doesn't skirt the thornier issues it poses but still allows for great enjoyment of its gifts, came from critic Roger Ebert: "The movie has been both attacked and defended on feminist grounds, but I think it belongs somewhere outside ideology, maybe in the area of contemporary myth and romance. There are scenes in which we take Alice and her journey perfectly seriously, there are scenes of harrowing reality, and then there are other scenes (including some hilarious passages in a restaurant where she waits on tables) where Scorsese edges into slight, cheerful exaggeration. There are times, indeed, when the movie seems less about Alice than it does about the speculations and daydreams of a lot of women about her age, who identify with the liberation of other women, but are unsure on the subject of themselves."

There are also times when the movie seems to be charting a journey through increasingly more acceptable men. (Despite Burstyn's central role in getting the picture made and the positioning of several women in key production capacities, it was, after all, written by one man, directed by another, and developed within the confines of a male-dominated industry.) Alice's evolution, then, becomes not so much about how to live without anyone than about how to have love and companionship that also accounts for her needs and feelings. The story moves her through an unhappy marriage with a sullen and neglectful husband to a sexually charged relationship with a man who appears passionate and attentive but turns out to be violent and possessive. She then becomes involved with a more balanced man, one who has his own issues that may raise some problems down the road but is still gentle, caring, and genuinely interested in what she has to say. Ultimately, however, the male-female relationship at the core of this movie is not between Alice and her lovers but between her and her son, and after the somewhat compromised climax of her relationship with her new boyfriend David, the story ends with mother and son walking off into the sunset, as it were, facing an uncertain and perhaps disappointing future but armed with a bit more strength and understanding than they started with.

There are other ways to look at Alice that yield viewing pleasure as well as value in terms of film history. For one, it's a glimpse into the early development of one of our most influential and important directors. Scorsese has said he learned much on Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore about different styles of acting, particularly the "New York school" typified by Actors Studio players like Burstyn and Diane Ladd, incorporating improvisation into the script and aiming for raw and real emotions. One can also see his characteristic style already at work here in his first Hollywood picture (its box office success moving him from New York indie to bankable director). The opening sequence--skewered by many critics for its hyper-stylization and glaring opposition to the realism of the main story--is like a trial run for his take on the studio-bound Hollywood genre film in New York, New York (1977). In fact, Alice offers up many fascinating observations of Scorsese's exploration of genre, combining as it does the conventions of the 1960s road movie, the 1950s romantic comedy, and women's melodramas of the studio era.

And perhaps feminism isn't so beside the point after all because, however important the influences of director, writer, and studio executives were, this is ultimately Ellen Burstyn's picture. After struggling in the industry for two decades, she had broken through at forty years old with acclaimed performances in The Last Picture Show (1971), The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), and The Exorcist (1973). With Alice, she was finally accorded a healthy measure of control, and she used it to push through a project that allowed her to exercise every muscle of her Method acting style while confronting personal issues that coincided strongly with those of the character she was portraying. She also used her power to take a chance on a new and exciting young director whose career might have been different without this chance to prove himself in the commercial arena. What she and Scorsese collaborated on back in 1974 still has the ability to entertain and move audiences with its warmth and wit, offering a concise and well-detailed portrait of its era; it looks back at a time when women still could not easily maneuver through the world without the backing of a man, and gets us to think about--and argue about--many issues that remain mostly unresolved to this day.

by Rob Nixon




















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