Martin Scorsese once again changed tack after the critical success of Mean Streets (1973) to make a much less testosterone-driven film and instead a melodrama of the Douglas Sirk variety; what some critics read as a very 70s feminist movie. But as I will explore here, this film is not as feminist as some critics have indicated. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) there is none of his immigrant community that is the driving force of Mean Streets or other films, be it GoodFellas (1990) or Gangs of New York (2002), but instead a response to contemporary issues that are universal, yet at the same time very American. In this respects it makes this film more challenging and less personal.
The bright light of Arizona, the location for Alice, couldn’t be a more striking contrast to the New York setting of Mean Streets. It is the story of a suburban housewife (brilliantly acted by Ellen Burstyn), fed up with her domestic life and locked in a fairly loveless and stormy marriage.. Suddenly she is widowed, and after her husband’s funeral and the sale of her house, she decides to travel by station wagon to Monterey, California with her precocious 11 year-old son (Alfred Lutter) and all she owns to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. She passes through Phoenix where she is offered a singing job in a bar. She then meets Ben (Harvey Keitel) who pays her attention and showers her with affection. It soon becomes apparent that Ben is not all he seems: he’s married and violent. This is not the environment that Alice wants to bring up her son in and so once again she moves on moving from motel to motel. When she arrives in Tucson she takes on a job as a waitress to make money and finds camaraderie among the women at the diner. Here she meets a rancher, David (Kris Kristofferson), but she is wary of moving into another relationship.
In the late 60s and early 70s feminism was the new humanist clarion call; everywhere women were demanding that as 50% of the population that they should have equality with men and took to the streets in protest. Through the 70s, movies were reacting to the zeitgeist from Alice to an An Unmarried Woman (1977) and even in comedies such as Nine to Five (1980). Martin Scorsese seems an unlikely contender to be the voice of women, but he did this well in Alice. (Scorsese’s film, for which Burstyn won an Oscar, was the basis for long-running US TV series Alice, which ran between 1976 – 1985.) Alice is an engaging drama throughout and the film is at its best in the diner, particularly with the friendship between Alice and her brassy co-worker Flo (Diane Ladd). All the performances are outstanding, proving that Scorsese can draw the best out of his performers, the script by Robert Getchell is rich and the photography, by Kent L Wakeford is bright and well shot. But really the story is quite dark and cynical and surrounded by a largely working-class milieu; although we cannot talk about class in America in the same way we do in the UK. The conclusion (without giving too much away) doesn’t really give any conclusions but it does offer hope, albeit with caution.
Let us look at how Burstyn’s Alice is portrayed and where it fits in a feminist sense. We first see her as the bored housewife: sort of happy but dissatisfied, rolling along and accepting her lot. She has a child, an 11-year-old who is old enough to be opinionated and affected by his mother’s actions, he is precocious and on the verge of adolescence, but still needy of his mother. Alice and the boy clearly have a close bonded relationship. When her husband is killed she is forced to make a new life for herself. Alice then finds a bond and safety amongst her co-workers at the diner. In this previously alien world she finds, asides from her son the most positive force in her life and a support network. When she meets Keitel’s Ben we meet someone familiar to a Scorsese film and in a sense he is like his pimp character in Scorsese’s next film, Taxi Driver (1976), pretending to be both cool and charming and yet still coming across as somewhat sleazy with his scorpion pendant around his neck. Alice herself is continually pursuing a change in her life in order to gain some self–respect, but her constant moving is preventing her from making that change. In the end she meets potential stability in Kristofferson’s character and she has to ditch her own baggage to make this work, otherwise she will find herself once again in a troubled relationship that she will struggle to get out of. Kristofferson’s rancher is bearded, rugged and very macho, as well as being emotionally mature – making him a solid male figure in her life that she and society clearly deem she needs. The end is left deliberately open – that she has the potential for stability with a good man. This is where I take issue with the feminist argument – she is equal and secure, but not liberated. Throughout Alice is trying to be liberated and in the end settles for an equal partnership. It would seem the choices laid out for her are no different from those in the western: saloon singer or rancher’s wife and for Scorsese maybe the Arizona western setting was deliberate.
Burstyn had just finished working on her other great film, The Exorcist, when she received the script for Alice. She was attracted to the strong female role, having herself become interested in the women’s movement, and knew it would make for a strong film. She approached Francis Ford Coppola and asked him if he could suggest a suitable director. He nominated Scorsese, who had not yet finished Mean Streets. Burstyn later recalled that the production was a happy one and was one of the best filmmaking experiences of her life, applauding Scorsese for his vision as a filmmaker in the process. Burstyn and Scorsese were at pains not to make the film soapy and they did this effectively; a story like this could easily have become a melodrama. Like Mean Streets, Alice uses popular music to good effect, such as the scene in which Alice and her son are listening to Elton John singing Daniel over the radio. Other tunes include those by Mott the Hoople and T-Rex. This film is very much of that the kind of American film that emerged in the 70s, but disappear by the 80s. It began with such films as The Last Picture Show (1971), that dealt with real people’s lives and concerns and very much connected with their American settings, which Alice joins as one of the best dramas of its type.