Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
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Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) was a film that spoke to the generation of women who were trying to find their own place in the world in the midst of the "Sexual Revolution." The story was of a wife and mother whose marriage and life has fallen into a rut. When her trucker husband is killed in an accident, she is left with a twelve-year-old son to raise. She decides to sell everything and drive across country, intent on following her childhood dream of becoming a singer.
It was an idea that particularly resonated with the film's star, Ellen Burstyn (who would win an Academy Award for Best Actress for the film): "I was shooting The Exorcist (1973), Warner Brothers was the studio and John Kelly was the executive," said Burstyn (in an interview for The Guardian, November 5, 2000). "John was looking in the dailies every day back in Los Angeles, we were in New York and Washington - and he decided that he wanted to do another film with me, so he started sending me scripts. Now at that time, 1973, it was early in the woman's movement, and we were all just waking up and having a look at the pattern of our lives and wanting it to be different. With that in mind, and what was happening to me and my own consciousness, as I looked at the scripts they all reflected the 'old position' of women. They were either victims, dutiful wives or prostitutes, or ...well, that was pretty much it. I wanted to make a different kind of film. A film from a woman's point of view, but a woman that I recognized, that I knew. And not just myself, but my friends, what we were all going through at the time. So my agent found Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, the script by Bob Getchell [who would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay]. When I read it I liked it a lot. I sent it to Warner Brothers and they agreed to do it. Then they asked who I wanted to direct it. I said that I didn't know, but I wanted somebody new and young and exciting. I called Francis Coppola and asked who was young and exciting and he said to look at a movie called Mean Streets (1973), which hadn't been released yet. So I looked at it and I felt that it was exactly what the script of Alice needed, because Alice was a wonderful script and well written, but for my taste it was a little slick. You know - in a good way, in a kind of Doris Day-Rock Hudson kind of way. I wanted something a bit more gritty."
When Burstyn met Scorsese, she told him how much she admired Mean Streets and asked him if he knew anything about women. Scorsese replied, "No, but I'd like to learn." Burstyn said they went to work and it was "one of the best experiences I've ever had." Scorsese felt as Burstyn did, that the film should have something to say. "I wanted to see if Ellen had the same ideas I had about the script. And she did and I had similar ideas to what she had. [...] It's a picture about emotions and feelings and relationships and people in chaos. Which is something very personal to me and to Ellen at the time. We felt like charting all that and showing the differences and showing people making terrible mistakes ruining their lives and then realizing it and trying to push back when everything is crumbling - without getting into soap opera. We opened ourselves up to a lot of experimentation."
One problem Scorsese ran into on his first studio film was the child welfare worker on the set who objected to the lines said by the little girl playing young Alice [Mia Bendixsen]. "The worst thing with the welfare worker [was] that thing with the little girl in the beginning of the film," recalled the director in Martin Scorsese: Interviews (edited by Peter Brunette). "We'd built that set for $85,000 and the whole key to the scene was where she says, "Blow it out your ass." That line. And "Jesus Christ," she says. We have the kid walking down the road, she's eight years old, and she says her line. The welfare worker comes over and says, "She can't say those lines." I said, "Lady, we just built this whole set. What do you mean, "'She can't say those lines?'" She said, "It's nothing to get upset about," I said, "Nothing to get upset about! We didn't build this set overnight. They've been building it for months. I've been fighting the studio to get this set. It's the last day of shooting. You mean we can't use the goddamn kid to say the line?" She said, "Well, I don't care what you've done, you can't use the kid to say the line." She got furious and walked off. So we had the kid say other things. But luckily, we had taken one take where the kid actually said it and that's what we used."
Scorsese's casting director had gone through 300 boys and Scorsese hadn't liked any of them until he found Alfred Lutter: "Sandy Weintraub told me there was one kid I had to see," said Scorsese (in Martin Scorsese: Interviews). "She had asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up and he said, "A stand-up comic." I met the kid in my hotel room and he was kind of quiet and shy. I looked at Sandy and said, "What, are you kidding me?" She said, "Believe me. Maybe he's a little nervous in here. Get him together with Ellen; it should be something crazy that happens." Sure enough, he came into the room and I would tell Ellen to throw little improvs in every now and then to throw the kids off. Usually, when we were improvising with the kids, they would either freeze and look down or go right back to the script. But this kid, you couldn't shut him up. With this kid, she had to hang on. She kept looking at me. We kept giving each other looks and writing down things. "Fine, see you later, Alfred. Fine, thank you." I said, "That's it, thank God." Lutter made a few more films after Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and played Tommy in the pilot for the television show, but got out of acting. He later became CIO of a computer information systems company in Southern California.
Rounding out the cast was Diane Ladd who played Alice's fellow waitress, Flo, the role that Polly Holliday would play in the television series. Ladd would be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film. Ironically, when Holliday left the show, Ladd replaced her, playing a waitress named Belle. Vic Tayback played Mel, the diner owner in both the film and the series, which lasted for nine seasons. Kris Kristofferson and Harvey Keitel played Alice's love interests. Jodie Foster had a small role and Laura Dern (Diane Ladd's daughter) had an uncredited role of a little girl eating an ice cream cone. The diner itself still exists as Mel's Diner in Phoenix, Arizona.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore was a hit with critics. Vincent Canby in The New York Times called it, "fine, moving, frequently hilarious tale of Alice's first lurching steps toward some kind of self-awareness and self-sufficiency." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "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."
Producers: Audrey Maas, David Susskind
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Robert Getchell
Cinematography: Kent L. Wakeford
Film Editing: Marcia Lucas
Cast: Ellen Burstyn (Alice Hyatt), Alfred Lutter (Tommy), Billy Green Bush (Donald), Lelia Goldoni (Bea), Ola Moore (Old Woman), Harry Northup (Joe & Jim's Bartender), Martin Brinton (Lenny), Dean Casper (Chicken), Murray Moston (Jacobs), Harvey Keitel (Ben), Lane Bradbury (Rita), Diane Ladd (Flo), Vic Tayback (Mel), Valerie Curtin (Vera), Kris Kristofferson (David), Jodie Foster (Audrey).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Ellen Burstyn: NFT Interview . The Guardian, November 5, 2000
Martin Scorsese: Interviews edited by Peter Brunette
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore film review by Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, December 1, 1974
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore film review by Vincent Canby, The New York Times, January 30, 1975