Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore-1974
Starring-Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd
Scott’s Review #1,075
Reviewed October 27, 2020
Deserving of the Best Actress statuette she won for her role, Ellen Burstyn carries the film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) from start to finish with drama and comedy. I can’t watch any performance of Burstyn’s without smarting at how she lost the same award years later after her frighteningly good performance in Requiem for a Dream released in 2000. She was defeated by Julia Roberts, who gave an adequate though unexceptional performance in Erin Brockovich (2000). But, I digress.
A character study Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, tells the powerful story of a woman (Burstyn) forced to begin a new life and forge her own path after her husband is killed in a car accident. She is thirty-five years old and wary of middle age approaching as she pursues a singing career. She is joined by her young son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), and faces fear and loneliness as the pair embarks on a journey throughout the southwestern United States. She dates, fights, and does a soul-search, finally landing a job as a waitress at a roadside diner.
On paper, this film could have been reduced to television movie status as the premise sounds kind of corny and sentimental. Shocking to me is that Martin Scorsese directed it. Best known for male-driven mobster pictures like Goodfellas (1993), Gangs of New York (2002), and The Irishman (2019), an introspective female journey film doesn’t seem like his thing. A fun fact is that he agreed to direct at Burstyn’s urging as she wouldn’t have starred in it otherwise. The actress surmised that the script needed more darkness and grit, which it contains without losing its heart.
A strange yet lovely photographed scene kicks off the picture and seems to be an homage to The Wizard of Oz (1939). With a dusty, golden backdrop, a young Alice looks like Dorothy with an idyllic life. Suddenly, Alice’s mother bellows her to come home for dinner. She responds with salty language. The scene feels out of place based on the rest of the film but looks good.
Burstyn made me care about Alice from the first scene containing adult Alice. Alice is a good person. She is hard-working and strives to please her husband, hoping he will enjoy the delicious dinner she has prepared for him. He barely grunts at the meal and has a tumultuous relationship with Tommy, who Alice spoils. This plot point returns later in the film. Alice is not a doormat, however, as she provides humor and comic relief during tense moments. She also shares a warm friendship with her neighbor. We do not know what the husband’s demons are (depression?). He and Alice share an emotional moment in bed one night before he dies the next day.
With her marriage behind her and limited financial means, Alice and Tommy take to the road. I adore the relationship between the two. Tommy is not always easy to parent, exhausting his mother with typical young adult nonsense. It’s easy to forget that he has lost his father and has no direction. Their relationship is complicated but there is much love.
The juiciness comes when Alice finally lands a singing gig at a seedy lounge bar and meets the maniacal Ben, played flawlessly by Harvey Keitel. At first, he is charming and attentive, wooing her like she’s never been wooed before. When she learns he is married he turns psycho and she is forced to leave town. The meat of the film comes when Alice begins working at the diner and meets her new friend, Flo (Diane Ladd), and her new love David (Kris Kristofferson). After some trials and tribulations, Alice realizes her life is not so bad.
As much as there are dramatic elements Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not soap opera or overwrought. The scenes and situations bristle with energy and authenticity and this is thanks to the great acting and fluid direction. My favorite scenes occur at the diner. With greasy, blue plate specials and dishes piled with ham, eggs, and hash browns, the working-class extras are perfectly positioned around the diner. In the background, they lend a feeling of rush, chaos, and family traditions. The diner scenes are where Alice bonds the most with Flo and David and are delicious.
Turned into a popular television sitcom in the late 1970s named Alice, a lighter, wholesome production, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is a progressive story about a woman on her own and getting it done, mustering courage no matter what life throws at her. It’s an inspiring story for both women and men.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress-Ellen Burstyn (won), Best Supporting Actress-Diane Ladd, Best Original Screenplay