Martin Scorsese’s worst movie is too bad a movie to deserve being called a Martin Scorsese movie. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was an early, unsure effort, but that does not excuse its cloying dialogue, its misplaced heart warming, and unexcited take on women’s liberation. An appropriate description would be the anti-Scorsese movie.
The opening is set in an idyllic past and stylized like the sepia-tinted start of The Wizard of Oz. This time the girl is not named Dorothy but Alice and she lives in Monterey, not Kansas. Like Dorothy, she too has dreams and will travel on an odyssey of self-discovery. But, fast-forward into her late 30s and the harsh realities of life come into effect, killing the movie-like dream (Scorsese puts her childhood on a cinema screen to highlight the film-like nature of her dreams). She is seen in New Mexico as the silently suffering housewife of Donald (Billy Green Bush) a surly truck driver and unstable child (Alfred Lutter).
But even then, the family tries to maintain a phony ideal. Donald insists on grace before dinner only to later explode into fits of rage. Reality (Alice mocking her husband in front of her friends or their joyless conversations in bed), however, are quirkier than the front. But Alice insists, telling her friend that her husband just “gets loud.” She can’t even recognize that what he is is “abusive”.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore celebrates the propensity for letting go, running away, and doing your own thing, but can’t let go of awkward sentiment. Alice breaks down when she hears that Donald is killed in an accident, (how are we supposed to feel?) and embraces her friend for a weepy good-bye when she takes off for Monterey with her son Tommy to pursue a singing career. Curiously, Tommy senses our confusion and comments that his mother doesn’t look too sad over the death of his father. It’s clear that Donald’s death launched her road to independence and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore has more traits of the director of No Direction Home than what the surface would indicate.
Much of this is badly dated, the outbursts more so than the occasional melodrama. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore should not be mistaken for anything more than a capsule and Scorsese was not yet Scorsese. There are, however, ineffectual signs of what was to come.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a window to a movement that would evolve farther than Scorsese’s eye could see in 1974 and a breakthrough vehicle for Ellen Burstyn, one of the greatest actresses of a generation. We’ve seen characters like her Alice Hyatt before, but Burstyn’s performance is to be admired for rising above the trashiness of the material. She is a woman that endures becoming a widow, a single mother, and a long and hard road to her dreams…and a lot of scummy men.
If superficially this seems an atypical effort from Scorsese, take a look at his alumni Harvey Keitel’s appearance as a giddy Southwesterner 13 years his junior. But after winning Alice’s tepid affection and his true explosive colors emerge, he becomes more like the Harvey Keitel we have come to know and we realize that he was probably lying about his age anyway. For more liaisons to Scorsese’s mean streets look at the way he shoots the alleyways of Tucson. Leave it to Scorsese to make a Tucson look like the back alleys of Brooklyn.
David (Kris Kristofferson), the rancher Alice meets at the diner where she takes a job as a waitress, is in many ways the highlighter to all that is wrong with the movie. At first he seems like the ideal man with a paternal instinct, sense of humor, and is understanding. But his human flaws become apparent. He is short-tempered, selfish, and myopic. Not that Tommy is an easy child to like. A lack of positive role models has turned him into an attention seeking brat. What truly offends is Alice’s submission to his command. Here is a woman we have seen fight off dirt bags and rejection, all in pursuit of her dream. She leaves David when she realizes his relationship with Tommy will make a life together unfeasible, and all it takes is a self-serving talk about finding happiness in your own backyard from him and she allows herself to be scooped back up in his arms. This is not only a sign of a woman’s picture made by a man, but also of a woman’s picture made by a novice male director.