Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
December 6, 2018
1 Hr., 52 Mins.
lice has always wanted to be a singer. When she was a little girl, lost in her thoughts, she would convince herself that her timbre was even stronger than the same-named singer and actress Alice Faye, whom she idolized growing up. During sleepy childhood evenings, she’d sing along with the latter’s standard, 1943’s “You’ll Never Know,” as it played on the radio, and she’d wonder to herself what the woman crooning
through the crummy speaker had that she didn’t.
With the onset of adulthood, however, the dream dissipated. Though she had a career as a club singer of sorts in her early days of singlehood, eventually she married a guy named Donald (Billy “Green” Bush) whom she likes to say won her over because he was a good kisser. She’d settle down with him in a bummer of a New Mexican town called Socorro, and have a son (Alfred Lutter).
In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), we briefly see the hopeful kid singing along with Alice Faye. But we get to know our titular heroine better as a 35-year-old homemaker (Ellen Burstyn). Sometimes Alice wishes she could be that kid again. A singing career gets farther away by the hour. The son, Tommy, is now a rambunctious, bespectacled pre-teen; the husband has a bad temper that sometimes morphs into outright aggression. Alice feels like she’s plateaued. At one point early in the movie, she sticks her head out the front door and screams, with aggravated bitterness, to no one in particular, “I hate Socorro!”
Toward the end of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’s first act, though, a life-altering tragedy strikes. Donald, a delivery-truck driver, is killed in a car accident. The mourning period is brutal and torrential; Alice crumples into fits of tears often. But after a while, possibility overtakes the sadness. What exactly should Alice do now? Should she stay in this town she hates and get a job she doesn’t care for? Or should she hit restart?
Figuring what the hell, she goes with the latter option, in part because the money her late husband left behind was almost completely spent on his funeral. After putting on a skimpily attended garage sale, Alice sells the house and, kid in tow, sets off for Monterey, California, her hometown. She’s going to try to resume her singing career. She’s going to try to give her son what she bills, for the sake of purpose and peace of mind, a better life.
So begins a jaunt with no conclusive climaxes or conclusions. Simply is it, as written by Robert Getchell and directed by Martin Scorsese, a portrayal of an American woman set adrift after losing grip of the perceived American dream. The goal-oriented wandering first lands us in Phoenix, where Alice, ever-frazzled, fleetingly nabs a just-OK singing residency in a seamy pub and where she gets briefly romantically involved with a guy who turns out not to be so nice (Harvey Keitel). When that falls through, she stops in Tucson. She grudgingly gets a waitressing job at a pinchbeck but popular place called Mel’s Diner, starts romancing a woolly rancher named David (Kris Kristofferson), and becomes good friends with one of her co-workers (Diane Ladd). It is here that Alice considers sticking around, but understandably are ideas of settling down again pretty scary in themselves.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was Scorsese’s first studio production; previous forays Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) and Boxcar Bertha (1972) had been independent. Still at the beginning of an era in his career where he had little autonomy — though that would come soon enough — it was Burstyn who first approached the nascent him. Amid the production of 1973’s The Exorcist, Warner Bros. executives expressed interest in making another movie with the actress. Nosing around for material opportune for adaptation, her agent came upon Getchell’s script, which Burstyn liked. Later, the actress would call the director Francis Ford Coppola, inquiring if he knew of any upstarts who could effectively helm the material. He told her Scorsese. (At the time, the latter had just completed Mean Streets, his great 1973 crime drama, which Burstyn then saw and enjoyed.)
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is still a peculiarity in Scorsese’s career. It's one of few to be led by a woman; it's among his few comedies. But there is a worn comfortability to his directing that suggests he’d made this sort of decorous, character-driven, low-key sort of drama before. It's a surprise that the film he made shortly afterward, 1976’s Taxi Driver, would prove such a despairing, sometimes-explosive ode to alienation: the hopefulness-cum-melancholia of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore leaves one with a fuzzy though not one-dimensionally so feeling. It sees the beauty in survival, and in making the most out of less-than-pleasurable circumstances.
The movie is a quasi-anachronistic version of the women’s picture of the yesteryear, a subgenre that bloomed particularly in the 1930s and ‘40s. Winks to Old Hollywood are made from the jump. The opening credits are presented in obsolescent cursive. The first scene, during which we briefly look inside young Alice’s life at the beginning of the movie, is photographed in halcyon, fictive-looking The Wizard of Oz (1939)-style sepia. The rest of the movie is more indirectly paeanistic, but we can picture this film starring someone like Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck had it been made a handful of decades earlier. In its overarching themes — motherhood, reinvention, classism — does it especially resemble films like Stella Dallas (1937) or Mildred Pierce (1945), only significantly wound-down and, of course, more headily naturalistic.
Whether the film works is dependent on how much we like Alice and Burstyn’s portrayal of her. The actress is in every scene, and Alice herself can come across as vinegary in her commitment to being real with herself. But we know we want to go on this journey with Alice at the outset. She is sanguine but realistic; tough but not hardened; loving but not codding.
She knows she’s not, say, Diana Ross — she never will be — but she’s not going to stop singing just because she isn’t preternaturally gifted. (She’s good enough to play in a bar, and that’s what counts.) As she floats from place to place, we understand that it's not because she’s desultory but because she’s acutely aware that she cannot again give up on her held-back ambitions so quickly in the name of comfort and routine. I found her relationship with Tommy veritably touching, and not just because their rapport is situation-comedy-level snappy: there is a mutual dedication to being unsparingly honest with one another that enhances an idea of a lived-in relationship. (Their car rides, and their early days in Phoenix, are masterfully edged in equally there laugh-out-loud humor and worry.)
Burstyn’s performance in The Exorcist, which would overwhelm audiences with its terror and intensity the year before Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore came out, was a demonstration of the physical, corporeally on-edge performance. Her portrayal in this movie, vulnerable and shaded, allows her to be quieter, and persuasively dig into her character’s minutiae and neuroses.
One of the things I like best about the movie is its reluctance to be decisive. Although it is suggested that Alice will stay in Tucson (something that feels less unambiguous now, since a sitcom based on the series, Alice, ran from 1976 to 1985) and that she will try to let a serious relationship David materialize, there is no compulsory happy ending or mawkish final developments in the story. It begins as one chapter ends; it ends as another begins — as cyclical as a life. A