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ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE - Not "Just a Women's Film," [Ugh!]

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (Martin Scorsese, 1974); Screening on 9 August 2022

In search of better and more complicated roles for women, Ellen Burstyn, already twice nominated for an Academy Award for her roles in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and THE EXORCIST, was thrilled to come across a script about a single mom traveling across the country to Monterey, CA to pursue her dream of making it as a singer. The acclaimed actress brought the property that would become ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE to Warner Brothers for financial backing, and selected the then mostly unknown young director Martin Scorsese, whose third film, MEAN STREETS, was still yet to be released.

It was a beautiful collaboration. Burstyn nabbed her first Oscar win, and Scorsese’s first studio film also became his first commercial success.

Some critics saw Scorsese’s pivot from working independently (WHOSE THAT KNOCKING ON MY DOOR, BOXCAR BERTHA, MEAN STREETS) as a sign of capitulation. An early review in the New York Times by Stephen Farber criticized Scorsese for reviving the conventions of pop romance to pander and please, and for creating a “stylistic schizophrenia” that blended gritty realism and expressionist techniques, not quite indie and not quite Hollywood.

Most critics praised (or tried to praise) the film for its rare portrayal of a strong, complicated woman– unusual for a Hollywood film. Vincent Canby, also writing for the New York Times, in a somewhat backhanded way, complimented the film for creating a great role for a woman that allowed her to “extend her range without resorting to the easy melodramatics of madness, alcoholism, nymphomania or some other anti-social sport.”

In contrast, Farber claimed that “[C]rites have described ALICE as a far more radical and controversial feminist film than it actually is. In many ways, the new film is less sophisticated than the romantic comedies of the thirties and forties that starred Rosalind Rusell, Jean Arthur, and Katharine Hepburn. Although those movies may have ended with an affirmation of marriage, they concerned professional women– journalists, advertising executives, actresses, sometimes even lawyers or psychiatrists – who could survive quite effectively on their own.” [*even* lawyers or psychiatrists! As if a 1970’s working class single mom’s efforts to seek a better life for herself and her son is somehow less brave and bold than an unmarried woman’s office aspirations!]

As for the director’s uncanny blend of aesthetic choices, such as combining a naturalist inclination to shoot on location with an expressionist moving camera, subsequent films like TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL proved Scorsese’s “inconsistent directoral vision” to be one of the most recognizable, well known, and successful signature styles of one of America’s greatest cinephile auteurs.

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