There has been a lot of buzz about the attention the new Martin Scorsese flick has been getting for its lack of female roles when considering the film as the front runner for a Best Picture Academy Award. I have seen comments that Scorsese has a bad track record with portraying women in his work, conveniently forgetting Liza Minnelli in New York, New York (1977), Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull (1980), Sandra Bernhard in The King Of Comedy (1983), The Age Of Innocence (1993) with Michelle Pfeiffer or Kate Blanchett in The Aviator (2004). Let’s start with early Scorsese and Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha (1972).
One of my top female film performances is in a Scorsese project. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) with a screenplay by Robert Getchell. It stars Ellen Burstyn as a widow who travels with her young son across the Southwestern searching of a better life for both. It also features fine work by Kris Kristofferson, Diane Ladd, Valerie Curtin, Vic Tayback, Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel (all but Tayback are still with us).
The film was Scorsese’s first Hollywood studio production. And what a surprise that he chose a delicious comedy and one of the most charming and perceptive of films to take on the topic of a woman’s self-examination and independence. Scorsese plays around with comedy conventions skillfully, delivering a story that is both moving and surprisingly satisfying. I was just in love with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and with Burstyn’s performance. I have always embraced it as a call for Women’s Rights and feminism, yet Scorsese has written that his film was about Human Liberation in general.
He made this woman-centric story right after he looked at the macho world of Mean Streets proving he is a truly versatile filmmaker. Burstyn’s performance brought her an Academy Award, and so did the rich and very funny screenplay by Getchell. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is also painful and sad, but mostly amusing and frequently hilarious. The character of Alice is depicted in depth with precision and passion, a trademark of Scorsese’s films. It is a story about American women and a satisfying ode to the independence of spirit and value of self-sufficiency.
”Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was both more rehearsed and improvisational than Mean Streets. The reason was Ellen Burstyn asked me to do the picture for her.”
Burstyn got the script about a widowed would-be nightclub singer who pursues her dream upon becoming a widower from producer David Susskind. Francis Ford Coppola passed on directing but encouraged Burstyn to talk with Scorsese.
”Lelia Goldoni, is really Ellen Burstyn’s best friend so that scene where they say goodbye is from reality. That’s important. That’s why I like that scene. Dianne Ladd had the same relationship with Ellen over a period of ten years as you see in the picture. So I played on what they knew.
It’s nice when you have six hours, like in Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973), when you can get different aspects of these people. But it was a little too ambitious to try to come up with a film in which you had four or five different relationships going on with eight characters.
The first cut was 3 hours and 16 minutes. There was so much character stuff thrown out; it was a real pity. I was trying to capture a number of characters who were really very much in a state of confusion and never really settling. So, the camera is always shifting and moving around. When it does stop, they are usually scenes of stability, like in the bathroom scene between Ellen Burstyn and Diane Ladd.”
Scorsese had to appease the Warner Bros. bigwigs, demanding that the director give it a happy ending. And he does, except that the last line is the kid saying ”I can’t breathe”.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore grossed $21 million ($63 million in 2019 dollars). Besides the win for Burstyn and for Best Original Screenplay, Ladd received a nomination. The BAFTAs awarded Burstyn and Diane Ladd, with Scorsese receiving a Best Director nomination. Burstyn and Ladd repeated their BAFTAs success at the Golden Globes and Getchell was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award. At the 47th Academy Awards, Burstyn was unable to attend the ceremony because she was busy on Broadway performing Same Time, Next Year, for which she won a Tony Award.
Burstyn began her career in theatre during the late 1950s, and for her first decade she worked on stage and in television series. Burstyn is one of the few performers to have won the Triple Crown of Acting: Oscar, Tony and Emmy Awards. Her performance in the iconic The Last Picture Show (1971) brought her first Academy Award nomination (she lost to her co-star Cloris Leachman). She received her second Academy Award nomination for William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist (1973)
For the film version of Same Time, Next Year, she received a Golden Globe Award and a fourth Academy Award nomination. Burstyn has worked consistently in film, television, and theatre ever since, receiving seven more Golden Globe Award nominations, five Emmy Award nominations, with two wins, and two more Academy Award nominations for her performances in the beautiful, powerful Resurrection (1980) and the intense, unsettling, nightmarish Requiem For A Dream (2000).
Burstyn recently said that she had hoped Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore would lead to more films told from a woman’s perspective; seeing it as start to changing attitudes on how women see the world. Burstyn:
”Working with Marty and being able to achieve what I wanted in a film in terms of who would direct, who would be cast in it and how it would be done — the intention of the film, which was to tell her story from a woman’s point of view, and Marty succeeded in doing. So that was a huge change.”
But perhaps the biggest change she’s seen in Hollywood has been how women are treated. Over the past three years there seems to have been some progress in production of female-driven films and women’s voices in the wake of the #MeToo movement that brought sexual misconduct out in the open.
Burstyn has long advocated for women, and she stated that the impact of the #MeToo movement was ”…a long time coming”, but boundaries of what’s acceptable creatively still need to be worked out. Burstyn:
”… I think we have to be careful to not swing the pendulum so far the other way that everybody is afraid to make a creative move. I’ve seen that happen, where somebody is asking permission to touch someone in a scene. I think we have to know what is really acceptable without going too far in restricting them.”
In an AP interview, Burstyn claims that some behaviors, inexcusable by today’s standards, were at one time acceptable. As an example, she mentioned seeing minstrel shows at the theater as a girl in Detroit:
”It never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with that. That was perfectly, what seemed normal. Now, I realize when I hear when somebody has been caught with a photographer in blackface 40 years ago, that was a different time.”
Her career has not been without controversy. Burstyn was nominated for an Emmy for her lead role as Jean Harris in the miniseries The People vs. Jean Harris (1981). In 2006, she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress for a role credited as “Former Tarnower Steady” in HBO’s Mrs. Harris, another biopic about Jean Harris. There was outrage from the press and the public regarding the worthiness of the nomination for a role consisting of 14 seconds of screen time and 38 words of dialogue. The industry probably thought that the Television Academy was honoring Burstyn with her nomination, or that the nominating committee was confused in its recollection, or merely “threw in” her name from sheer recognition, assuming it was a worthy performance without seeing it.
The Academy initially insisted that “based on the popular vote, this is a legitimate nomination”. Burstyn’s own reaction:
“I thought it was fabulous. My next ambition is to get nominated for seven seconds, and ultimately, I want to be nominated for a picture in which I don’t even appear.”
The next year, the Academy officially announced that eligibility for a Primetime Emmy Award in any actor category required nominees to appear on-screen in at least 5% of the project. In 2013, Burstyn won an Emmy for a supporting for the underrated Political Animals and referenced the controversy in her acceptance speech.
She continues to work. This year Burstyn appeared in the peculiar Lucy In The Sky starring Natalie Portman and Jon Hamm. In 2020, she will be seen in Welcome To Pine Grove!, a geezer comedy with James Caan, Ann-Margret (another trouper), Christopher Lloyd, Jane Curtin and Loretta Devine.