Alice Hyatt, a recently widowed mother with a 10 year old son, is on the cusp of starting anew. Her journey out west is an odyssey of sorts – to re-ignite the singing career she abandoned when she got married. The plot is formed from a series of vignettes as she heads out west to Monterey, California, her childhood home. On the way while in Phoenix, Arizona, she attempts to secure work as a singer in a seedy lounge to earn some extra cash. It’s one of many obstacles to come.
The story is anchored by Ellen Burstyn’s flawless achievement. She commands our attention by the sheer sincerity of her portrayal. Ellen Burstyn is positively endearing as the single mother who so desperately wants to forge a successful, independent, and fulfilling life. We are drawn to this woman because she makes us care. Her vulnerability is displayed in a particularly amusing early scene. Weary from lack of success, she breaks down crying to the manager of a dive bar. She desperately wants a job singing in his establishment. She begins to list all of the hardships that have affected her. “I don’t even have a piano in here” he maintains. She continues with one setback after another. The more she lists, the more he repeats that same phrase. It’s a poignant scene, brilliantly juggling hilarity with despair.
Her character is honest, compelling and at times even deserving of the pitfalls that befall her. The latitude she gives her young brat of a son can be a source of frustration. “How did I get such a smart-ass kid?“ she grumbles. “You got pregnant,“ he deadpans. She meets David, played with an understated skill by Kris Kristofferson. He appears to be a bright light in her dreary existence. Or is he? The disrespectful interactions of her son threaten to bring latent resentments to a head. Ellen Burstyn’s engaging presence is at the heart of every scene, whether inadvertently getting involved with a married man or having to settle for working as a waitress in a humble diner. Interestingly the diner scenes, which constitute a very small part of the overall events, would subsequently form the basis of the long running TV series Alice that screenwriter Robert Getchell would go on to create 2 years later.
Robert Getchell’s script was nominated for an Oscar and it’s ingenious in the way it fashions everyday difficulties into an intimately engaging saga. Coming at the end of 1974, the film touches on themes popularized by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique published a decade before but still very much a part of the ongoing women‘s movement at the time. At first Martin Scorsese might seem like an odd choice to direct this ode to female independence. Scorsese wrings real drama from the simplicity of this woman’s drive to succeed against increasingly insurmountable odds. But this is not some weepy women‘s picture. Scorsese brings grittiness to a narrative that could have slipped into treacle. His direction is self assured. What could have been heavy-handed is rendered as a genuine portrait of a person in crisis. There is an utter commonality to the proceedings. It speaks to both men and women. There isn’t a false note in the entire 112 minutes. What truly makes the drama powerful is the magnitude of Ellen Burstyn’s Academy Award winning performance. Alice Hyatt is a testament to the human spirit. It’s clear why Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore remains one of the enduring classics of 70s cinema. It just gets better with age.