Film Review Of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)

Copyright © by Joe Valdez, 10/5/07

Joe's website: http://thisdistractedglobe.com/


  In Socorro, New Mexico, 35-year-old Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is a nervous housewife who referees battles between her husband and their smart mouthed, 11-year-old son Tommy (Alfred Lutter), who lays on the floor between speakers blasting Mott the Hoople. To push Dad’s buttons further, Tommy puts salt in the sugar bowl and is chased out of the house. But fate intervenes, and Alice and Tommy find themselves on their own.

  Alice packs her son into a station wagon and sets out for her childhood home of Monterey, where she made a living as a singer before she met her husband. Their first stop is Phoenix, where Alice gets a perm, buys some new outfits and impresses a sympathetic bar owner with her audition at the piano. She later gives in to the advances of a 28-year-old bar patron (Harvey Keitel) and when that relationship goes bad - real bad - has to flee town with Tommy.

  With $90 to her name, Alice stops in rustic Tucson, where the only job she can find is at Mel & Ruby’s Café. Her fellow waitresses – the kooky Vera (Valerie Curtin) and brassy, devil-tongued Flo (Diane Ladd) – get on her nerves, but Alice toughs it out, earning the respect of fry cook and owner Mel (Vic Tayback).

  She attracts the attention of a customer, a divorced rancher named David (Kris Kristofferson), who Tommy takes a liking to. Alice wants nothing more to do with men, having sworn she’ll get her son to Monterey before the start of the school year. But the more time she spends with David, the more they open up, and Alice has to decide what she wants to do with her life. Stay, or move on.

  Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore began as a spec screenplay by Robert Getchell. Warner Brothers chairman John Calley offered it to Ellen Burstyn - who was finishing The Exorcist for the studio - to not only star in, but direct as well. Burstyn didn’t feel she was ready to act and direct at the same time, and asked Francis Coppola who he would recommend.

  Coppola told her to look at a movie called Mean Streets. Burstyn did, and was impressed that it didn’t have “a polished, movie, Hollywood reality”. She wanted to do the same thing for the single parent women she knew. Calley sent the script to the film’s director - Martin Scorsese - who loved its sense of humor, and became even more intrigued when Calley told him other people were saying Scorsese couldn’t direct women.

  Burstyn wanted a female consciousness to the film, to express the shift taking place in American society where women were starting to assert themselves as being equally valuable as men. Scorsese agreed, and was influenced by John Cassavetes, whose films were improvisational in nature, and had no plotlines. The emotions of the characters were the plotlines.

  With Burstyn in front of the camera and Scorsese behind it, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore may be the best situation comedy anyone’s made in the last thirty years. There’s never any question it’s headed toward a happy ending, but there isn’t anything you can point to – script, casting, camerawork, editing, music – that isn’t perfect.

  Encouraged by Scorsese to improvise, Burstyn, Diane Ladd and Valerie Curtin use Mel’s Café as a stage for some of the finest improvisational acting ever done. Burstyn has the brilliant ability to take tense - even tragic - domestic situations and find humor in them. Ladd and Curtin are beautiful in this. Kristofferson’s role as male lead is well written, and the actor makes a solid impression with his character’s limited screen time.

  Harvey Keitel rages through one of the most memorable character bits of his career, and Scorsese managed to fit Jodie Foster into the movie as well. She nearly steals it from the adults in her four scenes, playing a 12-year-old tomboy who asks Tommy if he wants to “get high on Ripple.” Alice advises her son that she may have been too mature for him. “I didn’t think she was mature. I thought she was nice,” he replies.

  This movie should be required viewing for screenwriters. It demonstrates that a genre film - a “rom-com” with a feel-good ending - can be based on life, not formula. Instead of telling jokes, the film shows characters behaving the way real people do. They struggle, aren’t always “nice” to each other and make mistakes. But by drawing inspiration from reality – as opposed to other movies – the film never ceases to be involving, funny, and easy to relate to.

  Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was nominated for three Academy Awards, including the performances of Ellen Burstyn - who won a deserved Oscar for Best Actress – and Diane Ladd. Alice, the sitcom based on the film, ran on CBS from 1976 to 1985. Neither Burstyn nor Scorsese were involved, but Vic Tayback reprised his role as Mel, while Ladd joined the cast briefly in season six as a new waitress.


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