My Favorite Films:
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
The elegant 50s-style opening credits with satin background, female voice and dreamy fonts juxtapose the hardships of modern women. We meet one such woman, Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), stuck in a cycle of being afraid of her husband Donald (Billy Green Bush), as she and her son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), live like scared mice, trying only to please the stoic Donald. The Wizard of Oz parody showing us young Alice was funny and it let us know that Alice (who even at a young age would say something like “blow it out your ass”) was going to be a different kind of protagonist. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and Tommy marches to a different beat, escaping by drowning out his existence with high doses of Mott The Hoople.
TRYING TO PLEASE DONALD
Tommy and Alice are fun, silly and cool. Unlike Donald who is a robot, incapable of feeling. It’s Donald’s dominant way or no way. A throwback to the 1950s, but with none of the charm. It was hilarious how Donald covered himself in “Coca-Cola” worker clothing, even when at home. A detached husband and father, a cog in the machine, Donald is full of dramatic irony (condemning the kid for too much sugar, then piling sugar into his own coffee.) Dad was not able to even laugh at being had by poor Tommy who only put salt in the sugar bowl, to stave off the boredom of Socorro.
Alice tries like crazy to please Donald but he’s a lump. He won’t offer any real conversation. Alice supplies Donald’s side of the dinner-time convo, asking questions he never did or does. She is not fulfilled, Donald barely likes the lamb she prepared and Alice is so lost she didn’t realize (or forgot) that Tommy doesn’t even like lamb. This miserable status-quo is heartbreaking for the viewer and untenable for Alice. In bed that night she finally breaks down. Donald, to our surprise, finally shows a little crack in the armor and is able to at least offer physical closeness to try to reach and comfort Alice, but he can do little more than that. Alice, Donald and Tommy are living in despair. Alice being the good protagonist she is, once again tries to solve her doldrums by having a dress fixed up.
Alice confides in her best friend Bea (Leila Goldoni). Alice suggests she could live without Donald — (tempting fate). Suddenly, Donald is killed in a bloody highway accident. I can’t believe Coke sponsored this scene with the incredibly blood-soaked wreck. Alice got her wish. She is going to be forced over the threshold of adventure, fending for herself and Tommy. Alice turns to music for comfort. The scene of Alice sitting at the piano and playing with the curtains blowing showed her complete happiness in this state. The camera and staging were elegant. Then we go outside to see that Tommy is there, looking lost.
There’s nothing as satisfying as getting rid of something you don’t need and making money on it. A yard sale is a trope in movies but it works here so well because we’re seeing a physical portrayal of Alice moving on. She’s principled, but she has heart which costs her. E.g., giving a shawl away for free, to a poor old lady. Alice’s emotional choices donʼt satisfy her financial needs. Her choice of Donald was poor as well. Letting go of the past (through the yard sale) is a powerful part of story because we know that while they are trying to start over, Alice still is not responsible. She has many things going against her, including her own misguided choices.
Saying goodbye to Bea was touching and sweet. The simple act of Bea giving her painters hat to Alice (which we see later) was a beautiful choice on the part of the storytellers.
Tommy and Alice hit the road. Elton John on the radio, eating snacks, crossing into new territory. Freedom. Excitement. Rebirth. We’re rooting for Alice and Tommy. The Alice/ Tommy relationship is engaging and hilarious. They are more like friends than mother and son; they call each other “Dummy” and bicker.
TOMMY: “Mom Iʼm bored!”
ALICE: “Well so am I, what do you want from me, card tricks!?”
Alice is human and eventually she loses patience with Tommy (after he tells her several times, “I feel a puke coming on.”) These are heartbreaking scenes and the fights/discussions about minutiae with Tommy allow us to really grasp each detail of what they are up against.
ALICE LOOKS FOR A JOB IN PHOENIX
Alice needs to find a way to support herself and Tommy. She takes a chance at her dream from nearly 20 years ago: to be a singer. Alice has confidence in herself even if she doesn’t believe it yet. Alice was interrupted from her earlier dream by the Donald nightmare, and we want to see her get back to her joy. The cinematography by Kent Wakeford, is gorgeous throughout the film, but especially here when we follow Alice, backlit when she first enters the bar.
It’s a bit of rule of threes here as she tries different venues. Bar number one, they can’t afford a singer. Bar number two, they just want to look at Alice’s butt. Then finally bar number three, Mr. Jacobs’ (Murry Moston). Alice is turned away and she breaks down and cries (we have not seen her or Tommy cry over Donald) and Jacobs melts and decides to give her a chance. He walks her to the piano for an impromptu audition.
She asks Jacobs what he wants to hear and Jacobs asks if she knows, “What’s The Use Of Getting Married” and he does most of the song for her. Alice finally admits she doesn’t know it and Jacobs hilariously scolds her, “Well then what’d you ask me for?” We’ve seen the cliche of the audition scene so many times, where someone starts off shaky then kills it. It’s rarely done as well and as seamlessly as it is done here. I loved the way Alice jumps from song to song using the key words creating an impromptu medley that is emotional and shows her depth and range as a saloon singer. She has the pain inside of her to deliver the songs now. The circling (ever closer) camera moves are perfectly edited and make this an emotionally satisfying audition. I felt like I went from watching a movie about a woman auditioning to actually sitting in the smoky bar hearing a saloon singer, sing from her guts. Alice gets the job. She has all she needs to begin. Aliceʼs early success in the new strange world is joyful for her and for us. It’s fun to see her telling Tommy she got the job, and weʼre excited to learn they are going to a motel with a kitchenette. She’s beginning to live up to her promise to get her son to a better place (Monterey.) We now have a destination, Alice has her Oz. And we are hoping they can find their way.
AT JACOBS’ BAR
Ellen Burstyn perfectly captured the nuances and specifics of a singer on the rise. Alice beams with new confidence and her songs pack a punch. Her singing comes from the heart and goes to heart. In the dark audience, men are falling in love with her, her songs, her messages. And here comes the latest enamored guy taking his chances– a smiling, clean-cut but strange looking man, Ben Eberhard (Harvey Keitel). Ben is odd. “I put gun powder into shell casings,” and he’s persistent. “I like your singing.” “Iʼm lonely.” ”Ask me to sit down.” The theme of loneliness is heralded through Ben’s entrance. We know Tommy is bored and lonely. Alice is bored and lonely… But Alice has found that her talent brings people to her– people she doesn’t want. Alice vents to Ben: “If one more man makes a pass at me in here.” Ben is coming on as sympathetic, but really just saying whatever he needs to say to connect with Alice.
AT THE MOTEL
Tommy is watching a Betty Grable movie, again harkening back to the romance of a bygone era. This gives contrast to both Alice and Tommy’s seedy motel life and Ben’s dogged unromantic pursuit of Alice.
Ben keeps steady pressure on Alice. She tells Ben she is too old for him, she tries all she can do to brush him off, but Alice is actually lonely. She doesn’t really know much about Ben– but she misses the human touch. Sheʼs flattered, and she finally lets Ben in.
Then comes the stunning scene where Tommy and Alice are in their seedy hotel trying to sleep and thereʼs a fight next door (makes me think of the moment in Big when Tom Hanks’s kid character is trying to sleep in seedy motel) and thereʼs scary noises outside. Alice (and we the audience) realize itʼs a thin wall that separates her and Tommy from danger.
MAKING TOMMY SMART
Improv guru Del Close famously said “If you’re going to play a kid, play the smartest kid in the goddamn world!” The filmmakers’ choice to make Tommy smart serves the story so well. Tommy is a great foil for Alice’s (false) happiness. Tommy knows sheʼs been “running around” with Ben. Tommy is wise about Ben and says men like him like to be called Uncle Ben. Alice’s conversation with Tommy also helps us understand timeframe for this part of the story…
TOMMY: “You’ve been running around with him for a week.”
TOMMY: “You coming home late again?”
TOMMY: “You should see the bags under your eyes.”
WE FIND OUT BEN IS MARRIED
Rita Eberhart (Lane Bradbury) shows up at Alice’s hotel. She tells Alice that Ben is her husband. Heʼs been missing work and they have a sick child. Mrs. Eberhart cries and breaks down. Alice is now dealing with a crying, breaking down person, just as Jacobs the bar owner had to deal with Alice when she was crying, looking for work. It’s a nice parallel scene. And, Alice (and we) think it is all over when Alice says to Rita: “Donʼt worry, I won’t see Ben again.”
Suddenly, Ben shows up in his true form. The scorpion. Hair mussed. Totally unleashed. Ben shakes Rita, and kicks her out the door while pulling a knife. This is a far cry from Donald’s brooding. This is a new low for Alice who is face-to-face with something she did not see coming. The thin wall protecting her and Tommy is even thinner than she thought. Alice let the wrong one in… Itʼs really disturbing to watch this scene — Harvey Keitel fills the room with noise and yelling. A shocking contrast to his smiley persistence during the strange courtship. The camera (a lot of long shots though the rooms) gives us a sense of being there. Poor Alice is left clinging to one of her nice dresses trying to hide from the scorpion. All she can do (knowing Tommy is in the next room) is weakly whimper and agree to meet up with Ben again after work.
OFF TO TUCSON
So satisfying to feel Tommy and Alice get the hell away from Ben and Phoenix. Alice shows her character by her sacrifice. She has dream singing job, but it’s not worth facing Ben’s wrath. It’s time to put the dream on hold again.
MEL AND RUBY’S DINER
The theme of being lonely is implied again when we learn that Mel (Vic Tayback) of Mel’s diner used to have a Ruby– it’s called Mel & Ruby’s but she’s gone and its never explained where she is. But, we meet Mel and waitresses, Vera (Valerie Curtin) and Flo (Diane Ladd) who are a new kind of family for Alice. Flo is an excellently portrayed version of the classic loud and rowdy truck stop waitress. Vera is the silent contrast to Flo, just doing the job. Upon taking the job, Alice doesn’t get along with Flo saying she doesn’t appreciate her personal business being blasted all over the diner. Alice stands up to Flo, proving her mettle. We also meet a handsome farmer David (Kris Kristofferson) who notices Alice. David seems to be different than most men, but Alice is a not so quick to jump in after her time with Ben.
ALICE AND TOMMY CHECK IN
Alice and Tommy, relieved to be in their new place, have a water fight. This family is small, but they are fun. They are lovable. This scene was so well done and believable. I feel like nowadays this scene would have been Alice lip-syncing to Tommy into a hair dryer. Alfred Lutter would go on to play the young Boris in Woody Allen’s Love and Death and the nerdy Ogilvie in The Bad News Bears movies.
TOMMY AND AUDREY POST-GUITAR LESSON
Tommy is getting guitar lessons now (apple did not fall far) and we meet Jodie Foster as Tommyʼs new friend Audrey. She says her real name is Doris, but she likes Audrey better. Tommy is a good kid, he doesn’t wanna get high or drink. Audrey (who is lonely too) will lead Tommy to some trouble.
DAVID AND ALICE
We get another look at the David/Alice courtship which contrasts Ben’s creepy approach. Tommy is bored running around the diner, having a terrible summer. Vera shows her sweet side and brings a scary murder mystery for Tommy to read. Fun to see Vera picked up by her dad on a motorcycle after work. The theme here is: family is what you make it. David, unlike Ben, tries to woo Alice by connecting with her kid. David knows the kid is bored and shows up with a horse. David takes Tommy horseback riding and teaches him guitar. David is not pressuring Alice, like Ben did. David actually listens and engages Alice (unlike Donald the CocaCola driver.) Where Donald delivers sugary drinks and Ben makes bullets and brandishes knives, David delivers nature, horses, music and farms. David is a fan of Kennedy, David has it going on. Alice admits at a certain level she appreciated the domineering nature of Donald. David unlike so many men in the world, could potentially bring Alice and Tommy what they need and want.
TENSION AT THE DINER
At the diner, a customer Steve pinches Floʼs ass. By and large the men of the world are mostly pigs or scary. Diane Ladd is incredible as Flo. This is not her first rodeo. Sheʼs wiser than Alice is about the men of their world. And, she knows things that Alice does not. Flo has coping skills that Alice does not. Meanwhile Mel, who is not sexually inappropriate with the women, is a hard boss. Mel does however try to bring the staff together by vouching for Alice to Flo when Flo is sure Alice does not like her. Tension in the diner is high and Mel is coming down on the waitresses and he screams at Flo to ask where Vera is. Flo lashes back and throws food and says Vera, “Went to shit and the hogs ate her!”
Alice has to laugh because thereʼs really nothing else to do but give in and accept where she is… itʼs a tension release for the diner, but a bigger tension release for Alice and for the story. Alice who wants to be in show business, must first accept that she has to be a waitress to survive and to help her kid. She must accept where she is and laugh at herself and her situation. The bigger dream is on hold but itʼs the acceptance of where she is and what Alice knows she must do that makes this turning point in the story so powerful. Alice lets go and accepts where she is at the moment. Alice embraces figuratively and literally the women around her- this new circle is complete and they even laugh at Mel together! Heʼs a big meanie but really harmless — this circle of women is strong and that is what Alice has been missing.
NEW FAMILIES FORMING
Now basking in the sun and basking in the warmth and glow of her new friendships, Alice says to Flo, “You really need someone to talk to donʼt you?” Again the theme of loneliness comes up – Alice misses her friend Bea, whose painter’s hat Alice wears all the time. Loneliness was the reason Ben offered to connect with Alice. Tommy is lonely waiting for Alice all day. David is lonely at the farm after his wife and kids have left.
AT THE RANCH
Alice and David’s first kiss is romantic without being schmaltzy, the kiss brings Alice and David together after a restrained courtship. Alice has found someone to talk to in David, they are enjoying each other completely. Living in a world of smartphones and devices, it was refreshing to watch two characters just enjoy each other and spend time together… And to watch David continue to bond with Tommy. These people are struggling to find their new status quo amidst complications. David and Tommy are going fishing, but Davidʼs truck leaks oil and the trip is cancelled. David and Alice are canoodling on the couch and poor Tommy is playing cowboy by himself. People are pushing each other too hard – Tommyʼs fingers hurt from guitar – David does not try to understand and pushes him to not quit… then spanks Tommy. David and Alice accuse each other of being selfish. Alice accuses David of being a bad father, and David accuses Alice of having no direction – not being able to make up her mind. They accuse each other of just being selfish and trying to get what they want. Alice and Tommy leave David alone again. She throws words about his wife’s exit in his face.
Alice is done with David – itʼs just her and Tommy again.
TAKING TOMMY FOR GRANTED
Alice and Tommy still have their childish, funny way of interacting. “Get in dope!” she says to Tommy when making him get in the car. Alice has failed to get Tommy to Monterey by his birthday. Surprisingly, Alice is now defending being a waitress: “Hey Iʼm supporting you with it arenʼt I?” Their fight escalates and Alice kicks Tommy out of the car, forcing him to walk home the last mile.
Alice comes home to find Tommy is missing. Panicked, she now sees the real dream, the real prize is her son. Not singing. She needs to find the balance or it will cost her everything. The muted scene of Alice crying in the car is powerful, as is Alice’s relief when Tommy turns up, having just been drinking with Audrey.
FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU WANT
Flo takes Alice for a walk through the diner (an early Scorsese one-shot). Alice confides in Flo, confessing: “I donʼt know how to live without a man.” Alice admits she loves David. Mel and Vera’s comic relief, being in the weeds without Alice or Flo, during this scene is hilarious. Vic Tayback is brilliantly funny as the all-bluster boss that no one listens to. Vera was wonderful too here, busing tables and spilling things on herself. Flo with her truck-stop wisdom, is a perfect mentor to help Alice over the final hump. Flo asks what is it that she wants. Alice says: “If I knew that…” Flo counsels, “Figure out what you want.”
DAVID COMES BACK
David comes back and has made a change. David has figured out what he wants, and he tells Alice he wants her and Tommy in his life. David says, “I know things have to be different.” Alice’s nod speaks volumes. David continues with the utterly heart-wrenching: “I think I understand you. I want to try. Please.”
What makes this final scene extra compelling, is that earlier Alice said she didn’t want to be part of any public displays. But, it’s now or never baby. Alice says, “Blow it out your ass.” And, she goes for it. Alice and David are having their fight in front of everyone. When they reconcile and kiss and the diners cheer, it’s one of the best endings of any film.
Final moment: Alice and Tommy have found their ultimate prize, each other.
NOTE: After the success of The Exorcist, Warner Brothers gave Ellen Burstyn creative control over “Alice.” Burstyn said she wanted to make a movie about a woman with real-life problems. She got the chance to hire any director and was considering Scorsese (she was impressed with his recent Mean Streets) but was hesitant to hire a male director. She asked Scorsese what he knew about women… Scorsese replied “Nothing, but I’d like to learn.”