#FeministClassics: ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’

I first saw this film as a teenager. I wasn’t super excited when my dad pitched this movie to me. I had seen Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and though I had liked both of them, I found them to be fairly male oriented films. The female characters seemed secondary. My dad countered, telling me that it wasn’t really Scorsese’s film. It was Actress Ellen Burstyn’s.

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Ellen Burstyn had just finished making a little picture called The Exorcist and after seeing dailies, Warner Brothers told Burstyn they wanted to make another picture with her. They sent her several scripts, but in each of them, the woman wasn’t the protagonist. Her agent found the script for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Burstyn ended up bringing everyone on board, from producers to Director Martin Scorsese.

If you’re not familiar, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore follows Alice (Ellen Burstyn), a woman in her mid-thirties whose semi-neglectful husband dies suddenly. This leaves Alice with no money and her eleven year-old smart ass son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter III), to take care of. She decides to get back to Monterey, California, where she grew up. But since she has very little money, she stops along the way to save up, meets a couple of men, makes a few mistakes, and in the process finds out who she is and what she wants.

Here are just a few reasons Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a feminist classic:

The Cast

As I mentioned, this film belongs to Ellen Burstyn. She really was the driving force behind getting it made and in watching her performance, you can see she put a lot of her personal experiences into it. Also, she won the Oscar that year, though she wasn’t there to accept the award. Since she was in a Broadway show at the time, Scorsese accepted the award on her behalf, thanking everyone she had to told him to thank, including himself.

Alfred Lutter III made his feature debut in this film playing Burstyn’s eleven year-old son, Tommy. I’ve talked about him once before in my post on The Bad News Bears. He was only in four films before he retired from acting at the age of fifteen. Still, Lutter made quite the impression, in this film especially. He seemed like a real kid and he could be both hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time.

Funny side story: On the drive to set one day, Martin Scorsese was riding with Alfred. Alfred told Marty a story over and over, asking if he understood. By the time they got to set, Marty was completely annoyed but also thought it was hilarious – so much so that he put it in the movie (seen in the gif below).

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Poor Ellen Burstyn. #IStillDontUnderstandThisStory

Kris Kristofferson was relatively new to film when he played David, Burstyn’s love interest. Scorsese tried to put him at ease, telling him to ignore the script and say the lines in the way that felt most natural to him. He was understated and (even with that crazy beard) incredibly sexy. You just can’t NOT like him.

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A man’s MAN if I ever saw one. #SWOON

Harvey Keitel wasn’t in much of the film, but he certainly made an impression during his few scenes. Keitel played a man Alice meets while working as a singer, but he reveals himself to be CRAY. When I first saw this film, he scared the shit out of me. He still kinda does…

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Keitel is TERRIFYING, amiright?

Diane Ladd was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Alice’s co-worker, Flo. When her character is first shown onscreen, she kind of seems like a bitch. The best part is that Flo and Alice’s relationship very organically becomes a friendship and their scenes together maybe mean more than Alice’s scenes with David.

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That hair THOUGH. #1970sStyle

Special mentions:

Two young, very talented actresses. The first is a twelve year-old Jodie Foster. She played Audrey, Tommy’s friend. As with Keitel, her part is not a big one, but she makes a major impression.

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Oh, the 70’s…#shorthairdontcare

The second is actress Laura Dern, who was just seven years-old. She, of course, is Diane Ladd’s daughter and so, was in a scene in the diner, eating an ice cream cone.

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Does your eye spy little Laura Dern?

The Script

The script was written by Robert Getchell, who also wrote Mommie Dearest and This Boy’s Life. This is where the feminist aspect comes in. Although, of course, Robert Getchell is a man, this story was told from a female point of view. It was making a statement about what it was like to be a woman at that time and exploring how we define our happiness as human beings.

There was a major controversy over how to end the film. Burstyn believed the film was about Alice standing on her own two feet without a man by her side. The studio wanted David and Alice to get married at the end. They needed to find a compromise. So, Kris said, “Jeez, if he loves this girl – if I did – I’d just say pack your fuckin’ bags. I’ll go with you” (Kristofferson, Second Chances Doc). I  actually really loved the ending because it wasn’t saying that you needed a man to make you happy. Alice stood up for the things she wanted and she ended up getting all of them, including David.

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Her face THOUGH. 

The Direction

Even though Scorsese was a hired hand on this film, he made it his own. He told Burstyn from the get-go that he didn’t know much about women, but that he was eager to learn. He was only 34 years old when he directed the film, but already he was experienced. He had already made Mean Streets, which is what got him the meeting with Burstyn in the first place and as my dad reminded me, he was an assistant director on Woodstock.

It was Scorsese’s idea to start the film with a semi-fantasy sequence which was shot on the old Colombia Pictures lot. It was weird and interesting and kind of gritty, much like the film itself. As a film buff himself, Scorsese saw the film as a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis vehicle. Without his direction, I believe the film would have been more of just a straight melodrama. He added humor, sensitivity and humanity to the story.

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Scorsese on set with Burstyn and Kristofferson

It’s funny, sad, and brilliant in its simplicity.

At its core, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is about human beings – all imperfect, all trying to figure out what’s going to make them happy. Beyond the style and music, the film hasn’t aged a day and I think that’s ultimately because it’s about human beings. It’s not a big story, but it hits on an emotional level. Burstyn’s contributions were major – she wanted to make sure this film was told through the eyes of a woman.

The film went on to be adapted to a very successful tv sitcom which ran from 1976-1985. With great performances and a legendary director, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is well worth the watch. IMHO, it’s a film which doesn’t get praised often enough, probably because Scorsese has gone on to direct so many classics.

My challenge to you: watch the film and try to tell the “Shoot the Dog” story to someone. I don’t know why. That just sounds fun.

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I feel so bad for Alice here…

Vintage trailer below:

#FeministClassics: ‘The Heiress’

Olivia de Havilland, who you might know as Melanie from Gone with the Wind, recently celebrated her 100th birthday. The occasion reminded me of a movie I saw a few years back at The TCM Classic Film Festival – William Wyler’s 1949 classic The Heiress. 

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Black & White + Rain + Love Scene = Perfection

Turner Classic Movies, celebrating Olivia as their star of the month this July, had the film on their digital counterpart, available to stream. I expected to be able to get other things done while the movie was on, but that proved impossible. I was too caught up in the drama and the emotions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film, The Heiress follows Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), a young, introverted heiress lacking proper social skills by 19th century societal standards. At a party, she meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), a poor, but handsome man who woos Catherine with great tenacity. Catherine falls for him easily, having not been paid attention to very often, if at all. Catherine’s father (Ralph Richardson) disapproves of the union because he believes Morris’s intentions dishonorable. Simply put, her father believes Morris only wants her for her money. Catherine wishes to give up her inheritance if it means Morris and her can be together. So I don’t ruin its ending, let’s just say, drama ensues!

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Catherine, I feel you! #AwkwardGirlProblems

A little background on the film itself – the film was adapted from a stage play which was adapted from a Henry James novel called Washington Square. De Havilland saw the play and knew she had to play Catherine in a film adaptation. She approached director William Wyler and then sought the film rights.

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De Havilland and Clift on set with Director William Wyler

Clift was originally not wanted for the role of Morris as it was thought that he would appear too modern to be a 19th century gentleman. Clift and de Havilland apparently didn’t see eye to eye on their acting techniques either. Clift believed Olivia came to set knowing her lines and nothing else. He believed she put everything into the direction she was given which he didn’t believe to be “real acting.” Olivia respected Clift, but thought that everything he did acting-wise was for himself. Still, she said it helped her give the best possible performance as Catherine is supposed to feel isolated.

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Montgomery Clift, DON’T COME ANY CLOSER!

I remember seeing this film at the festival at the end of a very long day. I was ready for bed and honestly thought I might fall asleep in it. As it turned out though, the film was so mesmerizing I was overcome by a second wind. Much of that was due to Olivia’s performance – she was so incredibly understated and nuanced. A less talented actress could have made Catherine seem wooden or boring. Olivia makes you feel for her – you can see the thoughts behind her expressive face. The scenes between Clift and De Havilland at the party are some of my favorites because they so remind me of how I feel at parties.

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I would’ve probably kicked him a few times too. #AwkwardGirlProblems

Taking place in the late 19th century, it’s fascinating to examine the gender roles. This film almost feels like the anti-Pride and Prejudice. In Pride and Prejudice, you have a poor, but intelligent woman rejecting the concept of marriage without love, even if it means security. Whereas, in The Heiress, you have a wealthy, but naive girl rejecting the idea of a life without love, even if the person doesn’t necessarily want her for her.

The most gut-wrenching bit of the film for me is when Catherine’s father and aunt tell her they believe Morris only wants her for her money. Moreover, her father tells her she has nothing else that anyone could love her for. I was so angry on Catherine’s behalf. Just because a girl is introverted and slightly awkward and can’t play the piano, she’s not worthy of love? Absolutely ridiculous! But the idea that the two people Catherine is closest to see her as nothing is emotionally terrifying. It made me think about how much of our sense of self is built on the validation of the people around us.

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Catherine’s father = Father of the Year #NOT

The film is absolutely beautiful – the cinematography, the music, the costumes. However, at its core, the film is a classic because it is still relevant. It questions societal norms, especially in regards to an unmarried woman. Olivia’s performance is stunning and by the end, unsettling. She won her second Academy Award for the role. Her speech captures her essence – it doesn’t seem that Gone with the Wind‘s ‘Melanie’ is far from who the real Olivia is.

Also, small BTS story – When Catherine climbs the stairs, dejected in the second half of the movie, Wyler began to get frustrated. Olivia, who was known for her professionalism, ended up throwing the suitcase she had been carrying at Wyler. Wyler, seeing it was empty, told the crew to fill it up so that when she walked up the stairs, she’d feel the full weight of Catherine’s despair. And I’ve got to say, it kind of worked!

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Just an independent woman doing her thing!

The film was apparently going to be remade in 1993 by Director Mike Nichols and Tom Cruise. However, after screening the film, they didn’t believe it could be improved upon. A remake was finally made in 1997 with Jennifer Jason Leigh, though, of course, it didn’t surpass the success and critical acclaim of the original.

The vintage trailer for The Heiress is below.

WARNING: do not plan to get anything done while watching this film. IT WON’T HAPPEN.