Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Many trace Scorsese’s early success back to what is often considered his first masterpiece, Mean Streets. But it’s likely that the immensely popular, well-reviewed, but less critically beloved film, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was more important in making Scorsese the great post-70s American directorial king that we now think of him as. For one, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was Scorsese first box-office hit, and, as anyone familiar with how auteurism in Hollywood work, such a hit is precisely the catalyst that allows a director bigger budgets and more creative freedom. But, on a subtler level, Alice confirmed that, apart from Scorsese’s innate technical talent, he also had great versatility and an ability to direct women and offer a film with a primary female perspective, as well as transplanting his New York personality into a foreign southern setting. But it’s not just that Alice provided a gateway for Scorsese to go on to achieve better things, because to view it as such is to undermine the value of a film that (I would argue) is as good (if not better) than anything Scorsese produced prior to Raging Bull.  

Fresh off her enormous success with The Exorcist, Ellen Burstyn was given the freedom to do any project she wanted, and what she wanted was a film that realistically depicted a modern woman struggling to make a life for herself (and her child) by herself. Upon finding the screenplay by Robert Getchell, Burstyn assumed the role of Alice, a frustrated suburban housewife living with her 11-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III) and abusive husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush). After Donald’s sudden death, Alice takes Tommy and heads for Monterey to make a life as a singer (where she once sang as a child). On the way she stops in a small town where she gets a job singing at a bar, and hooks up with Ben (Harvey Keitel), who turns out to be even scarier than her husband. Eventually she leaves, and ends up in Tucson where she gets a job as a waitress at Mel’s (Vic Tayback) Diner, where she becomes friends with the outspoken Flo (Diane Ladd), and falls in love with the dashing David (Kris Kristofferson).

One of Scorsese’s admitted influences was John Cassavetes, and two techniques Scorsese admittedly took from him was Cassavetes’ penchant for improvisation and his eschewing of overt plot and narrative in favor of the emotions of his characters in the moment. Alice, like Mean Streets, is a prime example of what made Scorsese, especially in these early years, such a fresh, dynamic force of cinematic genuineness. While the film does have a plot, and, according to Burstyn and Scorsese, it does follow the script quite closely, it is primarily centered on the emotions, actions, and reactions of the moment that are captured rather than orchestrated and staged. The genius of early Scorsese is that we’re never sure how much of what we’re seeing is written and carefully designed, and how much is improvised. Indeed, the question itself seems almost superfluous in the wake of such authenticity (whether imagined or real, Scorsese and his actors collapse the distinction).

Of course, such a feeling of realness can only be achieved when a film is comprised of creative individuals bold enough to do it. Scorsese, as a director, can only allow it, but it’s the actors that either take advantage of the opportunity or recoil from it. In that sense, Burstyn and Ladd are truly revelations of what such a style combined with explosive talent can produce. Burstyn’s character is more complex and, indeed, Alice may be the greatest female character to come out of 70s cinema. That complexity is found in her pervasive paradoxes and uncertainties. In a sense, she could be seen as a cinematic, female Hamlet, except she’s forced to act instead of over-thinking about acting. In doing so, she reveals a wealth of contradictions, including her desire to be free of men, but her insecurity in being free. Alice is a woman that wants to be both kept and protected, but appreciated and free. Burstyn capitalizes on this by convincingly being in the moment, and allowing the dynamics of her character to allow her immense emotional and tonal swings, from the hilarious to the sad, from the frightened to the playful.

Ladd is more of an example of solidly establishing the uniqueness of a character. As someone who was born, raised, and still lives in the south, I feel quite confident in saying that Ladd’s Flo is one of the most honest portrayals of female southern simplicity, attitude, confidence, and humor that I’ve ever seen in fiction (not just film). Ladd said in the selective scenes commentary that both her and Burstyn were drawing on their own lives to create these characters and moments, but the real magic in the film is how the method in the method acting utterly disappears. Alice is one of those films that managed to allow a cynical cinephile like myself to lapse into the illusion that these are real people in a documentary, rather than contrived characters in a fiction.

On that note, the young Alfred Lutter as Tommy, Alice’s son, should also be commended for his naturalness; apparently, Tommy was little else than a near 1:1 analog to how Lutter was in real life, and Burstyn admits drawing on her own relationship with her (then) 11-year-old son in hers and Lutter’s on-screen relationship. He’s superb if only as being the primary character in which Burstyn plays off of. Her other significant others are less convincing, but in different ways. Neither Bush’s Donald or Keitel’s Ben are on-screen long enough to do much other than fulfill the role of misogynistic, abusive bastards, though Keitel is riveting and frightening during his moment of eruption, especially when observed in the mirror of Burstyn’s convincing terror. Kristofferson’s David is more sympathetic, but much too static and bland when compared next to the rest of the vivacious cast. In a sense, Alice is a film that sacrifices substantial male characters for a bevy of a much rarer breed of outstanding female characters.

Ostensibly, Alice is a prime example of a zeitgeist feminist film in its portrayal of a woman going out and making it on her own without the reliance on men, but the film consistently frustrates this pigeonholing due to Alice’s indecision and desire to have a man even when she’s making it on her own. Scorsese notes in the commentary how some reacted negatively to the notion that, in the end, Alice still ends up with a man. Indeed, the notion of the ending seems unsatisfying when viewed in the context of Alice’s film-long conflict of whether to risk everything to pursue her desires, or to settle down and be protected by a strong masculine presence. In having David agree to take Alice to Monterey and abandon his farm, the entire production finds a way to have their cake and eat it too. If there’s one element that provides ample ground for negative criticism it’s this ending, but viewed in wake of the rest of the film’s brilliance, it’s difficult to harp on it too much.

It may seem in such a social, character, and actor-driven piece such as Alice, Scorsese would have less room to flex his directorial chops, but that’s hardly the case. Scorsese’s complex camera movements, dynamic editing, and muscular cinematic lexicon is thoroughly on display. Perhaps his cinematic wizardry is no more apparent than in the opening scene, which vividly alludes to The Wizard of Oz, in which a young Alice strolls through a deeply saturated, crimson-colored, Kansas-like farm setting, dreaming of being a singer (but utterly failing to produce anything like Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow). Scorsese cuts from the over-stylization of this scene to the grittiness of southern suburbia with an omni-kinetic camera. Elsewhere, a close-up of Ladd and Burstyn sunbathing in profile is ingeniously ended with a cut-back, revealing the two out back, behind the restaurant, near the dumpsters.

It may seem like a too reductive, audacious, and (at worse) ignorant proposition for me to outright state that Alice is mostly ignored by modern critics and cinephiles because it eschews the male-centric masculinity of Scorsese’s best-known efforts like Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, and GoodFellas. Yet, I struggle to think of an alternative reason that would better explain the phenomenon. Alice is Scorsese at his near best, producing vivacious scenes with an effortless power, humor, and authenticity, with a cast that’s as good as any he ever assembled. In fact, to add a cherry to the top of the film’s technical prowess (from all involved), I’d also argue that, along with GoodFellas, it’s amongst Scorsese’s most purely entertaining and enjoyable. It’s truly a prime example of how cinema can be fun and substantial at the same time—artful, without being pretentious, and entertaining without being mindless.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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