Despite having an impressive filmography Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) remains Martin Scorsese’s first and only film starring a female protagonist, but regardless of the gender of its central character, it is very much a story about finding one’s identity in the chaotic world and the evolution of relationships between certain individuals. It is a film that is often lost between Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976) both of which have a male protagonist, and compared to Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the films are violent and bloody, aimed at shocking the viewer and pulling them into a dark, grim world. However, it can be argued that Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is by far the most significant of the three because it marks Scorsese’s first Hollywood studio production, and also reflects the director’s use of the moving restless camera.
On paper it sounds like an unlikely film for the director to direct, a “woman’s picture” which concerns a thirty five year old mother called Alice (Ellen Burstyn) who ends up single after the death of her husband, and left to raise her eleven year old son Tommy (Alfred Lutter III). Alice and her son decide to leave Socorro, New Mexico to her home town of Monterrey, California, the only place she has ever felt happy. She plans on it being a fresh start, an an opportunity for her to become a professional singer but of course life doesn’t go exactly the way it’s planned.
To call Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore a “woman’s picture” is naive and rather insulting, because it’s a story which many can identify with regardless of their gender, and even Scorsese has declared that the film is more than just a picture for women. “Some people have said that Alice is a movie about women’s liberation, but I think that’s the wrong emphasis. It’s about human liberation.”
The film’s inception from page to screen is an interesting story, originally the role of Alice was offered to Shirley MacLaine who turned it down, and the script fell into the hands of Ellen Burstyn who was still filming The Exorcist. The story interested Burstyn as she was keen to do a film “from a woman’s point of view, but a woman that I recognized, that I knew.” The actress sent the script on to Warner Brothers who agreed to do it and they also asked who Burstyn wanted to direct it. She was keen to have a director who was new and young and exciting.
Originally she approached Francis Coppola who recommended Scorsese and instructed her to watch Mean Streets. Burstyn was impressed and admits that the gritty approach of the director was what Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore needed, as “[it] was a wonderful script and well written, but for my taste it was a little slick. You know – in a good way, in a kind of Doris Day–Rock Hudson kind of way. I wanted something a bit more gritty.”
The young director brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the film set, and allowed the actors freedom to improvise during shooting. In her autobiography, Burstyn credited the great results with how “everyone on the set gets turned on by the enormous creative energy of Martin Scorsese.” In fact, some of the film’s key and most memorable scenes were mostly improvised, for example the scene where Alice opens up to David (Kris Kristofferson) confessing about how she always dreamed of a life in showbiz and used to do a comedy act as a child with her brother, was improvised. It is personally Burstyn’s favourite scene and she details how it is “the most real and the best example of what Marty’s kind of directing can do.” It’s a beautiful, tender scene which seems to tap into something very human, and we get an insight into this character through the use of her own words.
Scorsese set out to ensure his film had a message, as discussed in an interview he sees the film as “a picture about emotions and feelings and relationships and people in chaos. We felt like charting all that and showing the differences and showing people making terrible mistakes ruining their lives and then realizing it and trying to push back when everything is crumbling – without getting into soap opera. We opened ourselves up to a lot of experimentation.”
He was very interested in exploring into the complexities of human relationships and the original runtime of the film was three hours, however with the assistance of editor Marcia Lucas (who worked on American Graffiti), they managed to trim the film down to a runtime of 116 minutes. However, none of that exploration into relationships is sacrificed. Throughout, Alice’s journey she develops relationships with multiple different people along the way, some are brief like the relationship with bad boy Ben (Harvey Keitel) but other relationships such as the one with fellow waitress Flo (Diane Ladd) and farmer David have the potential to be long lasting and beneficial.
Scorsese manages to capture the idea that every interaction we have with others is meaningful in some way and help to shape our personality and outlook on life. So, to put it rather bluntly Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is not just a woman’s picture, it is something so much more, it’s an exploration into human nature and the bond we share between others. It may be Scorsese’s only film to feature a female protagonist but it’s a very strong film, which deserves to be recognised as one of the director’s best pieces.