Ellen Burstyn in her Academy-Award winning role as Alice Hyatt, a widow forced to remake her life as a waitress in Arizona
It strikes me that I haven’t written any articles about 1970’s movies. With this in mind, I’ve perused that decade for films that focus on a theme we’re all familiar with at the beginning of January: New beginnings. I settled on Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.
Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) is a hopeless romantic. Since childhood, she has dreamed of getting into show business as a singer. But she was somehow sidelined by life. At age 35, she is married to a boorish, indifferent husband and has an irritatingly precocious 11-year son.
Life hands Alice a second chance when her husband is killed in a traffic accident. Alice and her boy leave their home in New Mexico, and Alice finds work as a saloon singer at a piano bar. However, an unfortunate interlude with an abusive boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) forces both mother and son to flee to Tucson…and Alice ends up as a waitress at the local diner.
This isn’t exactly the endpoint that Alice dreamed of. The work is hectic. The customers are rough. And an abrasive coworker named Flo (Diane Lane) doesn’t exactly endear herself to Alice when she announces: “Everybody, listen, we got us a new girl. It’s her first day on the job….And everybody can see that she has big tits on her. But hands off–let the girl do her work. If there’s going to be any grab-assing around here, grab mine!”
Nevertheless, it looks as if Alice may have another chance at romance. A local rancher (Kris Kristofferson) who frequents the diner is looking at her with cow eyes. Will things work out this time, or is Alice once again searching for love in all the wrong places?
In researching Alice, I read reviews that came out when the film was released in 1974. I found it interesting that many critics of the time felt wrote that Alice Hyatt’s odyssey was an expression of feminism and women’s lib. From a 2017 viewpoint, I don’t find this to be true. Yes, Alice leaves her former married self to go out on her own. Yes, she achieves a certain amount of self-understanding that she didn’t have at the beginning of this story. However, the fact is that she dumps the ashes of one relationship, only to run into the arms of another lover at movie’s end. Although the boyfriend is certainly an improvement over the dead husband, he has some of the same domineering qualities. Not so sure that this meets anyone’s definition of women’s lib.
One thing that we can all agree on is that in addition to great supporting performances from Harvey Keitel, Diane Ladd, the little boy who plays the maddening but lovable son, and so many others, Ellen Burstyn really makes this film. Her Alice is vulnerable, adventurous, tough, perseverant, and frustratingly adolescent, all at once. There are times that we want to grab her and shake her, and others where all we can do is cheer her on. The character is truly multi-dimensional, and it takes a fine actress to pull all of this off.
Most of us know director Martin Scorsese for his dark crime films like Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995) and The Departed (2006). Although he has more than once ventured outside of this genre, his films are typically dark, serious, and splattered with more than a little blood. Alice is probably Scorsese’s sunniest film to date. Even so, there are some violent moments, like the scene where Keitel’s Jekyll-and-Hyde character assaults and scares the living daylights out of Alice.
A television spin-off of Alice, starring Linda Lavin, ran from 1975 to 1984.
You can purchase a DVD copy of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by clicking onto the following link:
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Pluses: Great performances by Ellen Burstyn, Diane Ladd, Alfred Lutter (Alice’s son), and Harvey Keitel. Gritty, realistic atmosphere. Evocative music that supports film’s plot line (Selections include All The Way to Memphis by Mott the Hoople, You’ll Never Know sung by Alice Faye, Daniel sung by Elton John).
Minus: Kris Kristofferson not as memorable as the other players; a minor quibble.
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Alfred Lutter, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Bush, Diane Ladd, Valerie Curtin, Lelia Goldoni, Vic Tayback, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Murray Moston.
Director: Martin Scorsese
Length: 112 minutes
“Martin Scorsese.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 1 January 2017. Web. 2 January 2017