Why 'Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore' Deserves Our Attention
The conversation around Martin Scorsese's The Irishman has grown exponentially since its release on Netflix. One debate that has been sparked concerns Anna Paquin's character and her lack of dialogue, which has become a discussion about Scorsese's treatment of female characters in general. What some of his critics seem to forget is that Scorsese made a feminist film very early on in his career; 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore stars Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt, a former singer. When her husband dies suddenly, she and her son move away from their home in New Mexico to start a new chapter in California, but after some complications, they end up in Arizona where Alice begins work as a waitress.
Burstyn won an Academy Award for her role in this film, and as you can see on the faces of her fellow nominees (Diahann Carroll, Faye Dunaway, Valerie Perrine, & Gena Rowlands) when her name was read, it was a shocker of a win. But it isn't really that shocking, because her performance is superb. Alice as a character is extremely well written (by screenwriter Robert Getchell), with a realistic range of characteristics. She can be witty, she can be tough, she can be vulnerable, and Burstyn plays with all of those to the point where Alice feels like someone you know. When the movie ends, you miss her.
Speaking of realism, that is what makes this film incredibly strong. The characters talk and interact the way real people would. At times it feels like Scorsese's strength in documentary filmmaking bleeds into this particular narrative and makes you feel like you're simply watching a real woman live her life. There is a scene with Alice and her son Tommy (Alfred Lutter) where they get into a lighthearted "water fight." This type of scene has nothing to do with the plot itself but gives so much insight into the relationship between these two people. It is because of these grounded moments that Alice's world feels so tangible.
When Burstyn met with Scorsese to possibly direct this film after seeing Mean Streets (1973). She told him she wanted the movie told from a woman's point of view and asked if he knew anything about women. He replied, "I'd like to learn." And clearly, he did. According to Burstyn, she wanted a project that reflected the mental awakening the women's movement had triggered in society. She wanted a story that showed women as they truly were. Alice is in an extremely vulnerable place and life is forcibly changed. Yet, she maintains strength in herself. When she attempts to get a job singing and is asked to turn around so the boss can "look at her" she says, "Look at my face, I don't sing with my ass." Despite the immense pain she feels inside, she is determined to get her life together for the sake of her son, and herself. And any mother can relate to that.
There is also an emphasis on the importance of female friendship. When Alice gets a job at a diner, she finds a friend in a fellow waitress, Flo (Diane Ladd). Near the end of the film, there is a beautiful scene in which Alice breaks down to Flo in the bathroom. She confesses that she doesn't know how to live without a man to take care of her. In a humorous but touching conversation, Flo tells her, "The first thing you gotta do is figure out what you want. Once you figure it out, you just jump in there with both feet and let the devil take the hindmost."
Burstyn is the standout of the film, but there's something to be said for the supporting actors in the film as well. Ladd received a deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination. She's quick-witted and serves as the mama bear of the diner, not taking anything from anyone, even the owner, Mel. Jodie Foster appears as Audrey, a rebellious tomboy who befriends Tommy. Her role here is perhaps an even stronger performance than her role in 1976's Taxi Driver. Frequent Scorsese collaborator Harvey Keitel plays Ben, Alice's first romance after her husband's death, and Kris Kristofferson plays David, the man she ends up with. Even though some of these characters are not present through much of the film, they are all well developed. They contribute to Alice's world and to the ups and downs that any person might actually experience.
In 1976, the TV series Alice was created, based on Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and ran for 9 seasons. Despite this and Burstyn's Oscar win, the film has not received the attention much of Scorsese's filmography does. For women who are fans of Scorsese, this movie is an absolute delight to discover. Unfortunately, it is his only female-led film to date (although a project starring Meryl Streep and Sharon Stone is apparently wrapped), which is unfortunate. But nevertheless, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is a high point of Scorsese's career which should be celebrated more than it currently is.