Coming hot off her success in The Exorcist (1973), the studio granted Ellen Burstyn total creative control over this project. She had two goals: to make a film about woman with real-life problems, and to secure an up-and-coming film maker as the director. Upon selecting this script, Brian De Palma brought Francis Ford Coppola to Burstyn's attention who suggested she consider Scorsese. While impressed with Scorsese's talent after viewing Mean Streets (1973), Burstyn still hesitated to hire the director, fearing he could only direct men. When she asked Scorsese what he knew about women, Scorsese replied "Nothing, but I'd like to learn." Satisfied with his enthusiasm, Burstyn immediately hired Scorsese.
Diane Ladd's daughter Laura Dern can be seen in the final diner scene - she is the little blonde girl with glasses sitting at the end of the counter eating an ice cream cone. As Dern would recall years later, it was after the 19th take - and exactly that many cones consumed - that director Martin Scorsese informed Ladd that if her daughter could do that without throwing up, she had to be an actress.
Ellen Burstyn said she was not prepared for how frightening Harvey Keitel became in the scene where Ben threatens his wife and Alice. "I had a meltdown after shooting and cried for an hour," she said. Martin Scorsese himself, even as well as he knew Keitel, said the actor terrified him from the moment he began his very intense and rather demonic preparations for the scene.
The actual restaurant that this movie is based on is located in Phoenix, Arizona at 1747 NW Grand Ave. This restaurant was at one time known as Mel's Diner, then later on Pat's Diner. It has recently changed again, and it is again Mel's Diner (as of May 2006).
Diane Ladd played Flo in this movie. In the television series Alice (1976), the part was played by Polly Holliday. When Holliday left the series, Ladd stepped in to portray Belle, the waitress who replaced Flo at Mel's Diner. Vic Tayback reprised his role as Mel in the TV series. Alfred Lutter III played Alice's son Tommy in the pilot episode of the TV series, but was afterwards replaced by Philip McKeon.
Kris Kristofferson had his own personal emotions and experiences that came up during production. He later said he had guilty feelings because of the two kids he left behind in a broken marriage when he went off on his "quest to become what I was becoming." In the story, his character is also divorced with children he never sees.
According to Martin Scorsese, the shot of Alice and Tommy walking off together with a big sign saying "Monterey" ahead of them was not planned. It was only when cinematographer Kent L. Wakeford alerted him that it was in the shot that Scorsese became aware of it and very excited by it, instructing Wakeford not to crop it out of the frame.
Martin Scorsese said later that occasionally they would have trouble with the people who owned buildings where they were shooting but that Kris Kristofferson was always able to smooth it over and buy more time for the crew to complete its work.
According to Ellen Burstyn, Warner Bros. executives wanted to cut the opening sequence of Alice as a little girl in Monterey but Martin Scorsese told them they would have to take his name off the picture if they did.
The production presented Ellen Burstyn with a new challenge -singing. "I have the worst voice," she explained. "I can't carry a tune, but I was determined not to have Marni Nixon sing for me." She spent six months with piano and singing teachers to prepare.
Martin Scorsese told Kris Kristofferson not to worry about the acting directions in the script but to think of how he would say it himself. He said the director did everything to bolster his confidence, including telling him complimentary things other people said about him.
As is common in casting child actors, Alfred Lutter III's personality contained many of the characteristics the filmmakers sought for his character, Tommy. Martin Scorsese mentions that the pointless shoot-the-dog story was improvised into the script after a long van ride back from a location shoot during which Alfred incessantly repeated the story to Martin. Martin wanted to get that feeling of being a captive audience subject to the relentless retelling of the nonsense story into the film, so they improvised it into the script as Tommy repeating it to his mother and later to David.
Martin Scorsese said one of his favorite leading men to direct was Kris Kristofferson, since he represented the strong, silent masculine hero that Scorsese always looked up to but rarely worked with throughout his career.
Martin Scorsese allowed the actors freedom to improvise during shooting. Ellen Burstyn credited the great results with how "everyone on the set gets turned on by the enormous creative energy of Martin Scorsese."
Ellen Burstyn wrote in her autobiography that she considered the scene between Alice and David in her kitchen, where she improvised the story of her and her brother doing an act together, "the best scene in the film; the most real and the best example of what Marty's kind of directing can do."
The scenes in the ranch house owned by David were shot in a real home. The company relocated the couple who lived there for a set time to do the shoot, but delays kept the production there longer. When the couple came home on the agreed date, they sat in the room during the shooting of the final scenes at that location. They grew more and more impatient, demanding to know why Martin Scorsese was calling for retakes and insisting what they had seen was perfectly fine. "Has anybody ever made a movie like this?" Scorsese wondered.
Martin Scorsese found the process of working on the film to be very draining and found the Ben scenes to be particularly cathartic for him. He told interviewer Tony Macklin during production, "It's my own relationship with people I'm in love with, relationship with my friends. Harvey--what he represents of me in that film, what he represents to himself. Everybody's playing this like a documentary part of themselves in this picture, and so am I."
The purpose for the highly stylized opening, according to Martin Scorsese, was to find a way to represent how Alice saw her past. "In her mind, Monterey is fantasy, pure illusion. So I shot a flashback [to the late 1940s] as if it were a Hollywood movie being made on a soundstage. Unreal. Because that's where Alice is at."
In a documentary about the making of the film, Ellen Burstyn' describes how the wind kept whipping her hair around during the scene where Alice and David are talking as he's mending fences on his ranch and kiss for the first time. "The camera operator told me I should always do love scenes in a high wind: 'It does something for you.'"
The first cut was three hours and sixteen minutes. Martin Scorsese trimmed it down to just under two hours for its release, losing entire sequences and characters. He was especially unhappy about losing so much of the Socorro sequence, which he believed would have made Alice's husband into a more fleshed-out character. He wanted this part of the movie to be about a third of the picture's running time, but preview audiences were bored with it and felt the movie really didn't get started until she and Tommy hit the road.
Ellen Burstyn often drew on her own experiences, including her relationship with her son, Jefferson, who travelled with her on location wherever she was working and was a young teen at the time of production. He plays the son of her neighbour and best friend of Tommy in the opening sequences set in Socorro, New Mexico. She would tell Martin Scorsese about conversations and incidents between her and her son, as well as things that happened off camera with Lutter, and he would include them in various scenes.
"Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" was the title of an episode of The Brady Bunch (1969) that aired on October 17, 1969, more than four years before the film came out. It was based on the 1933 song "Annie Doesn't Live Here Anymore," written by Joe Young, Johnny Burke, and Harold Spina, and popularized by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians.
When Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress, she was not able to attend the Oscars that night to accept her Oscar in person. She asked Martin Scorsese to accept the award on her behalf. She also asked Scorsese to thank himself upon accepting her Oscar.
Ellen Burstyn's Oscar® was delivered to her in a liquor box by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau at the stage door of the Broadway theater where she was working. She asked Matthau what an Oscar® really meant, and he told her, "Let's put it this way, Ellen. When you die, the newspapers will say, 'The Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn died today.'"
Vera offers Tommy a book to read: "The Bride Screamed Murder." When he holds it up to look through it, you can see that the author's name = Terry Molloy. Terry Malloy is the name of Marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront (1954).
In her autobiography, "Lessons in Becoming Myself", Ellen Burstyn lamented not taking producer credit for the project she found and brought to the studio, and for which she hired the director. "If I'd been executive producer, I would have been part of the deal when it was sold as a television series and had a piece of what John Calley told me were the 'mega millions' Warner Bros. made."
This can be seen as the opposite of the movie Men Don't Leave (1990). In "Alice" the title character's life is resurrected by her husband dying. She is able to leave an abusive marriage, pursue a dream she's always had, and become independent for the first time in her life. In "Men Don't Leave" Jessica Lange's husband dies and her life is turned completely upside down. Eventually she finds a job and moves on and survives, but her quality of life deteriorates severely after her husband's death.
The real filming location of Mel's Diner from the movie was an actual diner on Main Avenue, called, "Dukes Drive-In", which operated from 1940-1971. The owners later added a small motel, which is visible in some scenes. The motel has since been demolished.
Martin Scorsese told film scholar Richard Schickel he was attracted to the project as a way of exploring his ability to make a genre film in Hollywood. "It was something like a vehicle, like a Bette Davis vehicle or a Joan Crawford vehicle," he said. "So I felt this would be a way of embracing the genre."
Early drafts of the script contained some very different approaches to what was eventually seen on screen. There was some thought of having Alice divorce her husband and run away, but Martin Scorsese liked the idea that his death happened out of the blue--"the hand of God," he called it--that forced her to make the decision to change her life.
Martin Scorsese scheduled several weeks of rehearsal before principal photography began, allowing the actors to improvise many scenes. Robert Getchell sat in on these sessions, taking notes and incorporating the improvised material into the script.
Martin Scorsese was convinced by John Calley that working successfully on the film would show Hollywood that he could make a commercial film from someone else's script with established talents, a big budget, multiple locations, and starring a woman.
John Calley initially asked Ellen Burstyn if she wanted to direct it herself, but she didn't have the confidence. She told him she wanted someone new and exciting and called Francis Ford Coppola for a recommendation. He told her to watch Mean Streets (1973) by Martin Scorsese. Burstyn was very impressed with the picture, but she was concerned because it was very male-dominated. She set up a meeting with the young director, whom she found nervous and uncomfortable. She told him she liked his film but that she wanted this one made from a woman's point of view. "What do you know about women?" she asked. His pleasant reply--"Nothing, but I'd like to learn"--won her over.
While he was finishing work on the film, Martin Scorsese was also working on his documentary Italianamerican (1974) about his parents. Observers noted that the relationship between Scorsese and his mother in that film echoed the give-and-take between Alice and Tommy in this one.
Martin Scorsese, whose astrological sign is Scorpio, borrowed the scorpion necklace Harvey Keitel wore in the movie and wore it on set during production. He later said it was for him a symbol of the anger he was suppressing while making the film. Scorsese also said the production was "a kind of therapy for me."
The day after winning her Oscar, Ellen Burstyn received a congratulatory phone call from Jackie Gleason. In her early days, as Erica Dean (one of her many stage names), she worked on his show as a "Glea Girl," a cast of pretty faces who introduced various segments of the program. "I haven't heard from him in 20 years," she told the New York Post's Earl Wilson. Gleason had also placed a call to Best Actor winner Art Carney. Burstyn later said she really wanted to win alongside Carney, having played his daughter in Harry and Tonto (1974), the film for which he won his award and which she made just prior to this one.
Ellen Burstyn said in a contemporary interview with The New York Times: "I'm still not entirely happy about the ending, but we don't say definitely they're getting married. We say that whatever they do will have to include Alice's aspirations. I think any way we ended it would have been partly unsatisfactory because this movie is about something we're all going through right now, and nobody knows how it's all going to end."
Warner Bros. cast Ellen Burstyn after seeing the dailies for The Exorcist (1973). They sent her a number of scripts, but she felt every female in them was either a victim, the understanding wife of the hero, or some sort of sex object, but never the protagonist.
Ellen Burstyn was eager to work with Martin Scorsese because she liked the vibrant immediacy of Mean Streets and thought that edge could keep Alice from becoming too glib and facile and too much of a formula "woman's picture."
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
At the beginning of the film, Alice promises Tommy that she'll take him to Monterey, California, before his birthday; the last shot of the film shows Alice and Tommy walking down a road in Tucson towards a big sign for a shopping center called "Monterey Village". The shopping center is at the intersection of Speedway and Wilmot in Tucson.