The early 1970s were a great time for American movies, but one segment of the Hollywood population wasn't benefiting: actresses. The scarcity of roles for women was such that in 1975 there was speculation that Marilyn Hassett might necessarily be nominated for the best actress Oscar for her role in The Other Side of the Mountain; there were hardly five other lead performances by a woman that year. Remember that movie? Remember her? Louise Fletcher took the statue home in the end, for a performance in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest that in any other year would have been a supporting role.
So it was that Ellen Burstyn, following her performance as Regan's frantic mother in The Exorcist in '73, couldn't find work. Couldn't find work, that is, unless she was willing to play a caretaker for the leading man, a weak accessory to the leading man, in need of his protection, or a whore. In interviews at the time she said that she realized that the same was true in her own life: She made her husband's life easier, accessorized it, but wasn't this her life she was leading?
From her frustration was born Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, one of the great films of the '70s in which a woman's story is told. This woman is one who is suddenly widowed and finds that she has no resources with which to care for herself and her adolescent son (Alfred Lutter), and who makes the brave decision to follow her dream of becoming a singer in Monterey. Whether or not she makes it is a fact I won't reveal, but I can say that, en route, she makes a stop at a diner where she takes a waitress job and where she meets a man (Kris Kristofferson) who may or may not be willing to accept her on equal terms.
The fact that the film inspired a hit TV sitcom (Alice) is a testament both to the wise-cracking, energetic, head-on candor with which Robert Getchell's screenplay treats the issue of then-contemporary American womanhood and to the colorful supporting characters with which he populates the sun-blasted, Southwestern greasy spoon where Alice lands her waitress job. Burstyn's best actress Oscar was a vindication for actresses everywhere, but as her crude co-worker Flo, Diane Ladd comes close to stealing the show; watching her hold court at Mel's Diner, trading foul-mouthed insults with truckers and keeping the owner in his place, the question isn't will this be adapted for television? so much as how soon? (Ladd lost her Oscar to Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express.)
Director Martin Scorsese called Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore his "studio picture," and at heart the film is indeed the melodrama that that comment implies. What bolsters the film is not just Scorsese's still-developing sense of the cinematic (Alice was his fourth feature, and his camera here is perpetually in motion), but the vitality that the film - and the intelligent performances - conveys. Despite all the advances women have made since its 1974 debut, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore remains essentially pertinent and eminently enjoyable. It was the sleeper hit of its year, and watching it today it's still too easy to see why.
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore is now available on DVD with commentary from the principals and a making-of short.
And she ain't happy about it!