Getting a new release from the BFI following their recent Scorsese celebration, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is one of the most atypical films from his filmography. Released between the potently male Mean Streets’ exploration of guilt, loyalty and ambition and the none-more-dark Taxi Driver, it’s a light drama that focuses on a female character as the lead. So coming at a time when Scorsese was vividly exploring violence of both the emotional and physical kind, it stands out.
Ellen Burstyn, following the trauma of The Exorcist, stars as Alice. When her truck-driver husband is killed, Alice decides to leave the unsatisfactory memory of him behind and, selling off much of their belongings, packs up what is left and heads off with her wiseass young son Tommy back to the town she grew up in, Monterey in California, and a second attempt at a singing career. But money's tight and that journey finds Alice and Tommy waylaid along their route in Arizona so Alice can find work, coming into contact with a number of people (including Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel) and possibly a second chance at love with divorced rancher Kris Kristofferson. Meanwhile Tommy strikes up a friendship with the slightly older Audrey (Jodie Foster) and Alice has to decide whether where life has lead her to might be the place she’s meant to be.
This is Burstyn’s picture, driven by her desire to make a film for and truly about women. Her collaboration with Scorsese pays dividends. The script fights itself over how to present women, modern expectations scrapping with the traditional structure and elements in the writing which leads to a somewhat uneven journey for Alice. But Scorsese’s approach, whilst informed by cinema history, was resolutely modern at the time. It’s immeasurably helpful to the film as it gives Alice an edge, and genuine verisimilitude, it would otherwise lack. The film acknowledges that push and pull, referencing classic melodramas from Hollywood whilst trying to bring that influence into the style of contemporary films of the day, and in that it's mostly successful.
Scorsese trusts the actors and gives them space, and from Alice and Tommy’s genuine relationship to the other characters they meet along the way, it feels just as real as his depictions of ruthless gangsters. It’s an example if one was needed that Scorsese is certainly capable of putting more than machismo and violence onscreen and a reminder of what a singularly talented filmmaker he is. Burstyn’s Alice is really the motor that runs the film and her warm, multi-layered performance deservedly won the Best Actress Oscar. It’s a bright, funny, heartfelt film with everyone involved at the top of their game.
ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE / SCREENPLAY: ROBERTGETCHELL / STARRING: ELLEN BURSTYN, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON, DIANE LADD, JODIE FOSTER / RELEASE DATE: 27TH MARCH