Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress and the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance, and the film won the BAFTA Award for Best Film.
When Socorro, New Mexico, housewife Alice Hyatt's uncaring husband Donald is killed in an accident, she decides to have a garage sale, pack what's left of her meager belongings and take her precocious son Tommy to her childhood hometown of Monterey, California, where she hopes to pursue the singing career she abandoned when she married.
Their financial situation forces them to take temporary lodgings in Phoenix, Arizona, where she finds work as a lounge singer in a seedy bar. There she meets the considerably younger and seemingly available Ben, who uses his charm to lure her into a sexual relationship that comes to a sudden end when his wife Rita confronts Alice. Ben breaks into Alice's apartment while Rita is there and physically assaults her for interfering with his extramarital affair. When Alice tells Ben to calm down, he threatens her also and further smashes up the apartment. Fearing for their safety, Alice and Tommy quickly leave town.
Having spent most of the little money she earned on a new wardrobe, Alice is forced to delay her journey to the West Coast and accept a job as a waitress in Tucson so she can accumulate more cash. At the local diner owned by Mel, she eventually bonds with her fellow servers—independent, no-nonsense, outspoken Flo and quiet, timid, incompetent Vera—and meets divorced local rancher David, who soon realizes the way to Alice's heart is through Tommy.
Still emotionally wounded from the difficult relationship she had with her uncommunicative husband and the frightening encounter she had with Ben, Alice is hesitant to get involved with another man so quickly. However, she finds out that David is a good influence on Tommy, who has befriended wisecracking, shoplifting, wine-guzzling Audrey, a slightly older girl forced to fend for herself while her mother makes a living as a prostitute.
Alice and David warily fall in love, but their relationship is threatened when Alice objects to his discipline of the perpetually bratty Tommy. The two reconcile, and David offers to sell his ranch and move to Monterey so Alice can try to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming another Alice Faye. In the end, Alice decides to stay in Tucson, coming to the conclusion that she can become a singer anywhere.Ellen Burstyn as Alice Hyatt, a woman in her thirties who once worked as a singer
Mia Bendixsen as 8-year-old Alice
Alfred Lutter as Tommy Hyatt, Alice's talkative preteen son
Kris Kristofferson as David, a regular customer of Mel's diner
Billy "Green" Bush as Donald, a truck driver, Alice's husband
Diane Ladd as Florence Jean Castleberry, a hardened, sharp-tongued waitress
Valerie Curtin as Vera, a shy, awkward waitress
Lelia Goldoni as Bea, Alice's friend and neighbor in Socorro
Lane Bradbury as Rita
Vic Tayback as Mel Sharples, a short-order cook who owns his own diner
Jodie Foster as Audrey, a tomboyish girl with delinquent tendencies
Harvey Keitel as Ben, a hot-tempered man who assembles gun ammunition for a living
Murray Moston as Jacobs
Harry Northup as Joe & Jim's bartender
Director Martin Scorsese cameoed as a customer while Diane Ladd's daughter, future actress Laura Dern, appears as the little girl eating ice cream from a cone in the diner.
The part of Alice was originally offered to Shirley MacLaine. However, MacLaine turned down the role. MacLaine admitted in a 2005 interview that she regretted turning down the role.
Ellen Burstyn was still in the midst of filming The Exorcist when Warner Bros. executives expressed interest in working with her on another project. Burstyn later recalled, "It was early in the woman's movement, and we were all just waking up and having a look at the pattern of our lives and wanting it to be different… I wanted to make a different kind of film. A film from a woman's point of view, but a woman that I recognized, that I knew. And not just myself, but my friends, what we were all going through at the time. So my agent found Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore… When I read it I liked it a lot. I sent it to Warner Brothers and they agreed to do it. Then they asked who I wanted to direct it. I said that I didn't know, but I wanted somebody new and young and exciting. I called Francis Coppola and asked who was young and exciting and he said 'Go look at a movie called Mean Streets and see what you think.' It hadn't been released yet, so I booked a screening to look at it and I felt that it was exactly what…Alice needed, because [it] was a wonderful script and well written, but for my taste it was a little slick. You know – in a good way, in a kind of Doris Day–Rock Hudson kind of way. I wanted something a bit more gritty."
Burstyn described her collaboration with director Martin Scorsese, making his first Hollywood studio production, as "one of the best experiences I've ever had". The director agreed with his star that the film should have a message. "It's a picture about emotions and feelings and relationships and people in chaos," he said. "We felt like charting all that and showing the differences and showing people making terrible mistakes ruining their lives and then realizing it and trying to push back when everything is crumbling – without getting into soap opera. We opened ourselves up to a lot of experimentation."
Scorsese's casting director auditioned 300 boys for the role of Tommy before they discovered Alfred Lutter. "I met the kid in my hotel room and he was kind of quiet and shy," Scorsese said. But when he paired him with Burstyn and suggested she deviate from the script, he held his own. "Usually, when we were improvising with the kids, they would either freeze and look down or go right back to the script. But this kid, you couldn't shut him up."
The film was shot on location in Amado, Tucson, and Phoenix. A Mel's Diner still exists in Phoenix.
The soundtrack includes "All the Way from Memphis" by Mott the Hoople; "Roll Away the Stone" by Leon Russell; "Daniel" by Elton John; "Jeepster" by T-Rex; and "I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton. During her lounge act, Alice sings "Where or When" by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; "When Your Lover Has Gone" by Einar Aaron Swan; "Gone with the Wind" by Allie Wrubel and Herb Magidson; and "I've Got a Crush on You" by George and Ira Gershwin. In a film clip from Coney Island, Betty Grable is heard singing "Cuddle Up a Little Closer, Lovey Mine" by Otto A. Harbach and Karl Hoschna; and in a film clip from Hello Frisco, Hello, Alice Faye performs "You'll Never Know" by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon.
Upon its 1974 release, the film was near-unanimously praised by the critics, and grossed $21,044,810 worldwide. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 88% "Fresh" rating.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it a "fine, moving, frequently hilarious tale" and observed it "is an American comedy of the sort of vitality that dazzles European film critics and we take for granted. It's full of attachments and associations to very particular times and places, even in the various regional accents of its characters. It's beautifully written…and acted, but it's not especially neatly tailored… At the center of the movie and giving it a visible sensibility is Miss Burstyn, one of the few actresses at work today…who is able to seem appealing, tough, intelligent, funny, and bereft, all at approximately the same moment. It's Miss Burstyn's movie and part of the enjoyment of the film is in the director's apparent awareness of this fact… Two other performances must be noted, those of Diane Ladd and Valerie Curtin… Their marvelous contributions in small roles are a measure of the film's quality and of Mr. Scorsese's fully realized talents as one of the best of the new American film-makers."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film "one of the most perceptive, funny, occasionally painful portraits of an American woman I've seen" and commented, "The movie has been both attacked and defended on feminist grounds, but I think it belongs somewhere outside ideology, maybe in the area of contemporary myth and romance." Ebert put the film at #3 of his list of the best films of 1975 (even though the film came out in '74).
The film did not go without its detractors, however. Variety thought the film was "a distended bore," saying it "takes a group of well-cast film players and largely wastes them on a smaller-than-life film — one of those 'little people' dramas that makes one despise little people."
TV Guide rated the film three out of four stars, calling it an "effective but uneven work" with performances that "cannot conceal the storyline's shortcomings."
Ellen Burstyn won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Diane Ladd was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress but lost to Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express, and Robert Getchell was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay but lost to Robert Towne for Chinatown.
The film won the BAFTA Award for Best Film, and BAFTA Awards went to Burstyn for Best Actress in a Leading Role, to Diane Ladd for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and to Getchell for Best Screenplay. Martin Scorsese was nominated for Best Direction but lost to Stanley Kubrick for Barry Lyndon.
Getchell was nominated for the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay, Burstyn and Ladd were nominated for Golden Globe Awards for Best Actress in a Motion Picture Drama and Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture, respectively, and Scorsese was nominated for the Palme D'Or at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.
The film inspired the sitcom Alice which was broadcast by CBS from August 1976 through July 1985. The only member of the film cast to reprise his role was Vic Tayback as Mel (though his diner was moved to Phoenix). Alfred Lutter portrayed Tommy in the pilot episode but was replaced by Philip McKeon for the series. Diane Ladd joined the show later in its run, but in a role different from that she had played in the film.
Warner Home Video released the film on Region 1 DVD on August 17, 2004. It is in anamorphic widescreen format with audio tracks in English and French and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. Bonus features include commentary by Martin Scorsese, Ellen Burstyn, and Kris Kristofferson and Second Chances, a background look at the making of the film.