Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore defies classification: it’s a road movie, a coming-of-age film, a romance, and arguably a feminist statement.
On one hand, it’s a dark study of Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), a neglected Soccoro housewife thrust into an awful situation: her husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush), is killed in a truck accident, leaving her with nothing. Forced to fend for herself and her 12-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), she turns to the only thing she knows: singing. In dark piano bars. Um, in New Mexico and Arizona. It doesn’t pan out, so she takes a job as a waitress in Tuscon, which, we are informed, is the “weird capitol of the world.” Fucking dismal. On the other hand, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a marvelously sublime but uncomfortable comedy that exploits for all it’s worth Alice’s cluelessness in her search for the American Dream. Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell throw out so much to laugh at, and I do—it’s just not clear that I’m supposed to. Hence the genius of this film, one my absolute favorites.
Like most films you watch over and over, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is loaded with great lines—far too many to even begin repeating here; this is what keeps me coming back. Early career performances by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson, Valerie Curtin, Diane Ladd, and yes, Jodie Foster are a treat! The acting is superb; in fact, Burstyn won an Oscar and Ladd was nominated for one (as was Getchell). Audrey (Foster), clearly a precursor to Taxi Driver‘s Doris, is the smartass trouble girl I always wanted to hang out with: she drinks Ripple, steals guitar cords, and refers to her mother as “Ramada Rose.” Fuck yeah! And how cool to witness the birth of Alice, the TV series? Mel (Vic Tayback) is the exact same character, and Ladd, the original Flo—she doesn’t say “Kiss my grits” but she does say “Mel, you can kiss me where the sun don’t shine!”—was reanimated as Belle after Polly Holliday left.
Alice and Tommy might be pitiful, but they’re not pitiable. For all its tragedy, the film’s ending is a positive if not happy one: Alice and Tommy make peace with where they end up. Who knows whether it ultimately works out? They’re good for now. They can always start over—in Monterey or anywhere else. If there were such a thing as American neorealism, this film qualifies (except maybe for the fact that these are professional actors).
I’ve seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore hundreds of times, usually edited for late night TV. I can see it a hundred times more. It never gets old. I recommend the unedited original version.
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