"I'm not a waitress, I'm a singer."
By this point in his career Scorsese had probably established himself as a director firmly planted within the crim genre, with ‘Who’s That Knocking on My Door’, ‘Boxcar Bertha’ and ‘Mean Streets’ all being based around criminal activity. So for his next project to be a comedic drama with nothing to do with gangsters of street thugs, it must have been quite a surprise at the time and critics were presumably eager to see what he could do with this different genre.
A widow (Ellen Burstyn) travels with her pre-teen sun across the southwestern Unites States in search of a better life where she hopes to pursue the singing career she'd abandoned when she married.
So long story short I wasn’t really sure of what to expect from this, I had a mild assumption that given that Scorsese would return to the crime genre very soon maybe his foray into romantic-comedy-drama didn’t go too well. But I was actually pleasantly surprised, not only that but I was more impressed that even at this relatively early stage in his career, his directorial style is still planted all over this. The film is full of numerous euphoric and uplifting moments but under Scorsese’s direction it is also permeated with gritty realism.
Another surprising element is just how well the film has aged. While it is aesthetically planted within the heartland of 1970s America it carries universal themes that almost anyone can relate to. Not only that but the film provides a unique take on the American dream, told from the perspective of a single mother as she tries to navigate the harsh world around her. For mainstream 1970s American cinema this is an unusual find, to gain such a unique perspective of the very heartland of America is undoubtedly commendable.
Ellen Burstyn (probably best known for playing Linda Blair’s mother in the iconic horror masterpiece ‘The Exorcist’) went on to win the Academy Award for best Actress for this role and I would say it was well deserved. She is the heart and soul of this film with a performance that is brimming with humour and joy but also bear enough dramatic depth and substance to make you really care for her plight and her character. There’s also such an honesty to it, a performance that you ease into and gradually accept as it moves along, like a real person you slowly grow more attached to her with the more time you spend with her. You become invested within her journey and though it is occasionally painful to experience there are enough joyous and perceptive moments to make give you hope that none of this is actually in vain, there really is hope for a better life elsewhere.
The contrast between the harrowing and the hilarious is a testament to Scorsese’s ability as a filmmaker, the way in which he accomplishes both comedy and tragedy so effectively and efficiently are deeply impressive. The almost painful moments of realism are handled with as much seriousness as one could hope for, with the entire atmosphere shifting to accommodate an emotional reaction. But then just when you think the scene is done Scorsese flips the scenario and takes things to comedic exaggeration not to the point where they feel out of place or inconsistent, but just so that the audience can revel in the good times.
Another aspect that helps make this feel very much like a true Scorsese movie is the inclusion of Harvey Keitel, in his third collaboration with the director, who appears as a suave suiter that brings a sense of smoothness to the role but also some trademark grit and violence. Once again it acts as a unique take on an archetypal role.
It’s not quite a perfect film though, as I said earlier the performance of Burstyn gradually improves in appreciation as the film progresses, but the film as a whole is much the same. It gets off to a rocky start with a somewhat unnecessary and clichéd scene depicting a younger Alice and establishing her goals and ambitions, for a film that did everything else in such a unique way that opening in particular feels very uninspired. As well as that there are a few moments in which the film feels uneven, I was talking earlier about the contrast of comedy and tragedy that is peppered throughout, and while it works most of the time occasionally the switch can be somewhat jarring.
Tender and heartfelt but also realistic and harsh when it needs to be, ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’ is a unique and underrated addition in Scorsese’s filmography.