Back in 1974, Roger Ebert raved about Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by claiming it was “one of the most perceptive, funny, occasionally painful portraits of an American woman I’ve seen.” Ebert was not alone in his praise for the film, which had the good fortune to be among the first Hollywood productions that responded to the early 70s Women’s Lib movement by putting an independent single mother as its central focus.
By contemporary standards, however, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is neither perceptive nor funny, but it is more than occasionally painful due to the significant problems in its screenplay and the full-throttle acting by its star, Ellen Burstyn – not to mention the shaky direction of Martin Scorsese, making his first studio film after building a reputation for gritty urban indie drama.
The eponymous Alice is a thirtysomething housewife in a small New Mexico town whose domestic life is anchored to her boorish truck driver husband and smart aleck 12-year-old son. When her husband dies, the financially strapped Alice decides to pack up and move back to her hometown in Monterey, Calif. But with her finances running low, Alice pulls over into Phoenix, where she decides to revive a pre-marriage career path to become a singer. Without trying very hard, she gets a job at a seedy bar, but a disastrous affair with a married man (Harvey Keitel, badly miscast via the director’s cronyism) forces Alice and her son to flee. They wind up in Tucson, where she takes a job as a waitress at Mel’s Cafe. In Tucson, she falls in love with a rancher (Kris Kristofferson) while her son finds a best friend in a tomboyish girl (Jodie Foster) with her own domestic heartaches.
The core problem to the film is the patent phoniness of Robert Getchell’s screenplay. Despite the skyrocketing divorce rate of the early 1970s, Getchell and his Paramount Pictures benefactors could not have a divorced woman as a central character – which would have made more sense in this setting, considering the soured and near-violent relationship between Alice and her mate. The idea of Alice looking for work as a supper club-style singer in the seedy dive bars of Phoenix’s working class neighborhoods is also astonishing, especially with the speed that she lands her first gig. Had the film pushed straight into Mel’s Diner, there would have been more honesty to the production.
It also doesn’t help that Alice doesn’t exist as a real person. She is more of a series of nonstop acting exercises for Ellen Burstyn, who invests 110 percent into scenes that require her to plumb the emotional depths of anguish, impatience, sarcasm, desperation and romantic infatuation. It is a hi-fi performance in a lo-fi setting, and her overkill ensured her the Academy Award (which was certainly not deserved, especially in view of the more subtle work by competitors Faye Dunaway in Chinatown and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence).
As for Scorsese, the poor guy tries hard to add artistic flourishes to several scenes, but he is clearly out of his element in the Southwest settings and with a woman at the core of his focus. Coming after the visceral thrust of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a flaccid affair.
But there are some saving graces: young Jodie Foster is a refreshingly off-kilter presence who invested a nothing role with a sense of style, casually stealing scenes from co-star Alfred Lutter as Alice’s dismal son. And Diane Ladd’s waitress Flo is a burst of vulgar energy, giving the film a rude personality that saved it from total stagnation. Rather than Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, the film should have been Flo Lives Here, as sassy Ladd is the real star of this show.