**½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Ellen Burstyn, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Green Bush, Diane Ladd
screenplay by Robert Getchell
directed by Martin Scorsese
by Bill Chambers The zeitgeist made Martin Scorsese and his mentor John Cassavetes artistically simpatico in 1974, when the two helmed "women's pictures" independent of each other's counsel. It was the beginning of women's lib, and Warner hoped to corner the market via Ellen Burstyn and her pet project Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, while it would seem that with his brilliant A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes just wanted to say something hopeful about marriage to counter the prevailing propaganda. Both pictures were demonized in certain feminist circles for yoking their heroines to knights in tarnished armour, but in the case of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, they were preaching to the compromised.
Hindsight is 20/20, but it's hard to see from a retrospective position why John Calley, the head of the studio, thought Scorsese so right for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore that he resorted to courting him with reverse psychology ("They're saying you can't direct women"), though it may have been less prescience than an assumption on Calley's part that "from the director of Mean Streets" would destigmatize the picture. I also have a hunch that Mean Streets' hypermasculinity, in combination with Scorsese's relative inexperience, led Calley to presume he was getting a mole out of the bargain, an ally in his ongoing clashes with Burstyn over how far to carry the film's illustration of the American woman's newfound entitlement to bachelorhood: Calley's narrow concept of a "happy ending" was the leading man and lady puckering up for a fade-out smooch. I guess he never saw the numbers for Gone with the Wind, whose grosses, once adjusted for inflation, have yet to be surpassed by any movie in history.
Scorsese invokes Gone with the Wind (and Sirk, and Duel in the Sun--anything from the cinema of painted sunsets) in an expressionistic prologue that lobbies, in its facetious way, for the integrity of the melodramas of yore. (He even uses the old-fashioned Warner shield and frames the sequence at 1.33:1.) Against a lushly artificial farm backdrop designated Monterey, CA, "Alice: a young girl" (Mia Bendixsen) prances along a dirt trail, ignoring her mother's threats to come inside; "I can sing better than Alice Faye," Alice tells herself, "and if anybody doesn't like it, they can blow it out their ass." If you ever want to know what a Scorsese movie is about, look to the opening scene--he's a master of the thesis in a brushstroke, and here Scorsese treats the past as literally gauzy, allowing the truth to seep through a romanticization. Exposing the human tendency to rose-tint the younger self, he also preconditions us to empathize with the grown-up Alice, irrespective of gender.
Recently-widowed Alice Hyatt (Burstyn) tells her 11-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter, bravely encouraged to act his age), that they're relocating to her hometown of Monterey, which she describes in such Shangri-la terms that it's obvious they'll never get there. Docking in Phoenix, Alice talks her way into a gig as a nightclub singer--thus resuming premarital aspirations of fame and fortune--and allows herself to be courted by volatile cowpoke Ben (Harvey Keitel, cast as something other than a Scorsese proxy for a change--an indication, perhaps, of a shift in the filmmaker's identification to Robert De Niro), sending her and Tommy ricocheting to Tucson. There Alice, feeling defeated, settles for a waitress job at Mel and Ruby's Diner; troubled Tommy befriends a tomboy enabler (Jodie Foster); and divorced rancher David (Kris Kristofferson) finds himself drawn to this gruesome twosome.
Interestingly, "Alice", the TV series based on Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, wasn't as quick to pair off Alice with a man: The show (in which the brassier Linda Lavin replaces Burstyn), created by the film's own screenwriter, Robert Getchell, ditched David altogether and spent at least the first four of its nine seasons on the air acclimating Alice to widowhood, single-parenthood, and life as a struggling chanteuse. But television has the luxury of running on the spot--features do not. The moment Getchell introduced David into the script, he dared Hollywood executives to call his bluff. Seventies integrity be damned, the studio picture has proven itself immutable time and again. (I'm loath to admit it, but I had difficulty accepting the ending of Disney's Under the Tuscan Sun (and the middle, and the beginning--but that's another story) because there was nobody there to kiss the heroine. It's Pavlovian.) And in their chagrined execution of Alice and David's mutual declaration of love, the filmmakers gave Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore a blemish that compels your gaze the more you try to examine different spots on the canvas. Fortunately, Scorsese seizes an opportunity justified by narrative symmetry for a postscript that turns the sign for a cheap motel--named, a-ha, the Monterey--into a subversive symbol of diminished returns.
Warner's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD presentation of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is definitive. For whatever reason, the film has always challenged telecine operators, and prior to this slick remaster, viewers could expect washed-out colours, soft definition, and an abundance of print debris. Best of all, as per the theatrical experience, the aforementioned prologue is now windowboxed--effectively downplaying the MOW modesty of the picture thereafter. The 1.0 Dolby mono audio is, on the other hand, a digital reincarnation of the same adequate soundtrack that has graced every previous version.
Extras include a partial and partially screen-specific commentary (53 mins.) compiled from the separately-recorded insights of Scorsese, Burstyn, Kristofferson, and an unlisted Diane Ladd (better known as Flo, Alice's obnoxious co-worker), who ironically dominates the track. Though all participants contribute a valuable anecdote or two, Ladd upstages her fellow commentators with a nakedly personal account of the death of her firstborn and the destructive impact it had on her marriage to actor Bruce Dern. (Ladd and Burstyn--fresh from a failed marriage, herself--jointly consider the movie autobiographical.) In Automat's otherwise largely-redundant "Second Chances" (21 mins.), Kristofferson digs a little deeper into how "Marty" shaped his process and the still-luminous Burstyn confesses to being so frightened by Keitel that she sobbed uncontrollably in the aftermath of his (staged, natch) violent outburst. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore's awful trailer rounds out the platter. Originally published: March 21, 2005.