Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
R2 - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (26th March 2017).
The Film

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974)

Alice Hyatt (played by Ellen Burstyn) is living a hard life. She is in an unhappy marriage with husband Donald (played by Billy Green Bush), a truck driver who is uncaring, abusive, and always getting into a shouting match with the 11 year old son Tommy (played by Alfred Lutter) who uncaringly listens to rock music loudly and plays pranks on Donald to make him angrier. But things get worse for Alice’s household when she gets a call that Donald was killed in an accident. With no prospects or relatives in New Mexico she decides to drive back with Tommy to her hometown of Monterey, California in hopes of restarting her singing career which she abandoned long ago.

With an extremely limited budget, they are forced to make a few stops along the way in Arizona where Alice could make some extra cash performing songs at local restaurants. Things do not go well as there are very little opportunities for a mid-30s single mother to sing anywhere in Tuscon or Phoenix widely. During their stay, Alice must take the odd job as a café waitress to make ends meet living from motel to motel. Along the way they meet an interesting array of folks - the suave Ben (played by Harvey Keitel) who has a hot blooded interest in Alice, the sharp and witty head waitress Flo (played by Diane Ladd), the shy and weirdly awkward waitress Vera (played by Valerie Curtain), Audrey (played by Jodie Foster) the tomboy who befriends Tommy, and David (played by Kris Kristofferson) who tries to help comfort Alice on her transition in life. But with a journey filled with love and humor, there are also encounters with sadness and violence.

Ellen Burstyn was looking for an opportunity to make a film with a strong female lead and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was the perfect script as it featured a struggling single mother character going through every imaginable emotional tumble, which was something she identified with as a single mother herself. Wanting a “new” director to give a spin on the subject she was introduced to Martin Scorsese who made a big break with “Mean Streets” in 1973 which was a film dominated by male characters in a gritty film. Scorsese was willing to film something different from “Mean Streets” and was eager to make the film which would be backed by major studio Warner Brothers. Far from the neighborhoods of New York, the film was shot out west in the desert environment on a one month shooting schedule.

Scorsese brings the sense of realness with the handheld camera work and visceral images, especially with confrontational scenes, but one of the most impressive is the artificial opening of the film - starting off with credits like a Douglas Sirk melodrama and a sequence on a farm that is a blatant homage to “The Wizard of Oz” with the young Alice singing, and in the 1.33:1 standard ratio to boot. The film can seemingly be an homage entirely to “Oz” with the opening scene being the reality and the later part of the film dubbed “21 years later” as the journey to return home - not Kansas but Monterey. The people that she encounters tests her courage and her mental state to keep things together, and even the occasional singing by Alice’s character is like that of Dorothy in the musical version. So is Tommy supposed to be Toto? Cinematic references are all about, but the real stars of the film are in the acting.

Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of Alice is near autobiographical considering her real life situation mirroring the single mother Alice on a journey of discovery, and the dynamic between Alice and her son Tommy is real and sometimes uncomfortable. Tommy is still a kid at 11 but has seen abusive behavior from Donald along with bad language which he frequently uses. He’s frank with his mother and the mother is frank with him. Sometimes Alice is the one acting childish like when she buys a new dress and shows it off or the time she starts splashing water at him. Alfred Lutter plays the character extremely well as borderline annoying 11 year old to adults mixed with a kid with a slightly adult mentality. The scenes they share together are pure gold in both laughter and with emotional depth. But to counter that it is Alice’s mental state of being brought up with the old fashioned “Man of the Household” necessity that severely punishes her. She clearly doesn’t need a man in her life to a modern audience’s perspective. She doesn’t need Donald as he is obviously an asshole, but she still cries when she receives the call that he died. It’s obvious that she is crying because she did in fact love him because he was the man in her life - good or bad as it was. Ben was also an asshole for cheating on his wife and showing quite a scary side during the confrontation scene destroying Alice and Tommy’s motel room and threatening them. David is the only man that is seemingly a knight compared to what was seen, but even he has a “man” (or plainly, an asshole) side to him as seen in the birthday party scene where he hits Tommy after a verbal argument. It’s an issue that plagues many women from various generations and cultures worldwide with a mental image that a woman must have a man in the life to have a successful relationship. There are many single women out there in the world raising children without the aid of a man and rather than appreciating the hard work they are doing, they are criticized. “Why is she not married?” “Where did the man go?” “Why doesn’t she get married again?” Rather the points that should be mentioned are “It must be tough working and taking care of a child at the same time” and “How does she do it?” instead.

For the supporting characters, the women also stand out very highly. Diane Ladd as Flo is a no-nonsense tough gal that would take on anyone that tries anything. While her character becomes an instant enemy for Alice at first, she eventually becomes her best friend and becomes her main confidant. Valerie Curtain’s character of Vera is a character that is on a whole other level. Her head is always somewhere else and you never know what she is going to say next. Jodie Foster’s early casting prior to her groundbreaking turn in Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” is yet another stellar minor performance, with her adult sounding dialogue being a bit of a shocker but it gives a few laughs too.

With the ending, there were some discussions on changing it on the side of Warner Brothers. Originally she was to eventually leave town and make it to Monterey with Tommy for a happy ending. Warner felt that if she didn’t have “a man” that it would not be a happy ending and they wanted her to get married for a happy ending. For Scorsese and Burstyn, Alice getting married would not be a happy ending but a straight up compromise of the male dominated society. A last minute choice was made with the David character deciding to leave his ranch completely to make the journey with them. His character throwing away everything to help her make her dream come true was the better compromised ending and made much more sense to the studio as well.

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” was released at the end of 1974 and the critical praise was extremely high. At the 1975 Academy Awards, it was nominated for 3 awards. Diane Ladd was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Robert Getchell was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, while Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. In addition at the BAFTAs it won four awards - Best Film, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Screenplay, and had three other nominations for Best Director, Most Promising Newcomer (for Alfred Lutter), and Best Supporting Actress (for Lelia Goldoni). In addition to being a critical success, the film also spawned a TV sitcom from 1976 titled “Alice”. The series had the same basic premise with Alice and Tommy ending up in Arizona after her husband’s death and the usual sitcom based shenanigans happening in every episode. Alfred Lutter reprised his character of Tommy for the pilot but was replaced for the series. Diane Ladd joined the cast for one season but was a different character from that of Flo. Vic Tayback on the other hand reprised his role as the cook Mel for the series run. The series was a surprise hit with over 200 episodes aired over a 9 year span.

When people talk about favorite Martin Scorsese films, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is usually not up on the list. It is a wonderfully made film but it certainly doesn’t hold a candle to “Taxi Driver” or “Goodfellas”. Regardless, it is a film that should be watched by any Scorsese fan and by any Burstyn fan. And of course for single mothers worldwide, thank yous are in order.

Note this is a region 2 PAL format DVD which can only be played back on region 2 and region ALL capable DVD and Blu-ray players

Video

The BFI presents the film in the 1.78:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio in the PAL format, with the opening segment in windowboxed 1.33:1. The transfer comes from the standard definition master provided by Warner Brothers, which previously released the film on DVD in 2003. The film was originally shot to be projected at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio so the ratio is slightly off which is a Warner Brothers trend that continues to this day in the HD age - to transfer 1.85:1 ratios as 1.78:1 by either cropping a little or opening up the matte a little. The BFI DVD also presents the film in the slightly differing aspect ratio. While the source is the same as the previous DVD from 14 years ago, they are not identical transfers. Below are screenshots comparing the UK BFI release from 2017 and the US Warner Brothers release from 2003. The UK is first, the US is second.





















The BFI release shows slightly more information especially at the top of the screen. As for the transfer, it shows the same contrast and grain which has not been tweaked from the original source master. There are some minor dust and specs on the image and colors are a bit on the flat side with nothing looking especially bold, but it looks for fine for a standard definition master.

The runtime of the film is 107:27 which accounts for 4% speedup with the PAL transfer.

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
The original mono track is offered in lossless mono sound. The older Warner Brothers DVDs only offered a Dolby Digital track so this is an upgrade but not by much. The audio remains average on fidelity with dialogue sounding basically clear for the most part with no issues of audio errors such as hisses or pops. The music from bands such as T. Rex and Mott the Hoople sound fine but nothing compared to the original stereo albums.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for the main feature in a white font. The song lyrics are also transcribed along with all the dialogue.

Extras

Select scene audio commentary by Director Martin Scorsese, Actress Ellen Burstyn and Actor Kris Kristofferson
This commentary edits comments from each participant into a single track. Talked about are the casting choices, how Burstyn and Kristofferson were screened “Mean Streets” and both were immediately impressed, Ladd about her connection to the character as a single mother and the difficulty she had with childbirth, Burstyn on her single motherhood and her character, and much more. As this is a select-screen commentary, it lasts for about 51 minutes of the film. This commentary was recorded for and originally released on the Warner Brothers DVD release.
in English Dolby Digital 2.0

"Second Chances" featurette (19:51)
This featurette includes interviews with Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson. Much of what is discussed was covered in the commentary, but there are some additional comments such as some funny behind the scenes stories and notes on the ending. This featurette was made for and originally released on the Warner Brothers DVD release.
in PAL, in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, In English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Theatrical Trailer (2:21)
The original trailer presented here has quite a red tint to it for some reason.
in PAL, in anamorphic 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Booklet
The 16 page booklet includes essays, a contemporary review, photos, and credits. The first essay is “Where or When: The Sounds of Music in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” by author and researcher Nicolas Pillai who discusses the film and the music. the next essay is “Declaration of Independence: Alice and the New Female Consciousness” by journalist Christina Newland which discusses the female aspects of the film’s viewpoint and the reception. A review by Richard Combs is reprinted here, which was originally published in Monthly Film Bulletin in June 1975.

The BFI ports over the three extras from the older Warner Brothers DVD and adds a booklet, but adds no new video content. There are no interviews from Scorsese, no visual essay, and no mention about the “Alice” TV series, or the pilot episode featuring Lutter. In addition, the commentary on the BFI release is a little frustrating. On the original Warner Brothers release, the select-scene commentary is not an alternate audio track, but a separate extra - meaning the 58 minutes on the US NTSC release was a separate extra of a condensed version of the film. On the BFI release, the commentary is an alternate audio track to the film, so that means less than half of the 107 minute runtime is commentary-less.

Overall

“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” is a great drama filled with laughs, heartbreak, and frustration all through the viewpoint of Alice. The characters are great and the direction by Scorsese is also wonderful and it’s a shame that it is not talked about as much as the director’s other films. The BFI release does not improve very much from the older Warner Brothers release, but still comes as a recommended release.

The Film: A Video: B Audio: B Extras: C Overall: B

 


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