Illusion Versus Reality in Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
My Summer of Classics continues with a deep dive into Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
The central conflict of Martin Scorsese’s 1974 drama, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is a conflict between illusion and reality. The film is about the fictional life we create for ourselves as a protective case against harsh reality. It’s not just Alice who does this, we all do it to some extent. Life can be hard and re-framing negatives to positives can be helpful even as a self-deception. For Alice, the self-deceptions multiply in order to justify the choices she made in her life.
Alice’s first illusion comes in the form of the opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Scorsese decides at this moment to start the film as if it were an MGM musical from the golden age of such musicals. The scene is set on a very obvious Hollywood back-lot. The scene is lit in a rose color, evoking the rose colored glasses through which we often see our past. It’s never stated that this is Alice’s fantasy of what life was like for her as a child in Monterey but it doesn’t need to be spelled out. The style of the scene, the set, the idyll, they all communicate what needs to be communicated as we smash cut to Alice’s real life.
That real life is nearly 30 years from Alice’s fantasy childhood. Stuck in a dead-end marriage in Soccoro, New Mexico, having abandoned her dream of becoming a singer, Alice is now a housewife and mother. The illusion is that this is the life she wants. Anything that defies that notion, such as her husband’s violent temper, are hand waved away by Alice as she searches for a way to make fiction a reality. She wants her husband to love her and desire her because that fits the illusion that she abandoned her dream for. Her illusion of a happy marriage justifies the choice that she made to defer her dream.
When Alice’s husband dies in a car accident a new illusion emerges to take the place of the one that she’s leaving behind. This illusion involves trying to live her dream as a professional singer. While staying in Tucson to make some money for the drive to Monterey, the planned destination of Alice and her son, Tommy, Alice finds work singing in a bar. It makes her happy and she dreams of bigger things as a singer. Realistically, a woman in her mid-30s, singing in a bar, is not going to be the next Barbra Streisand. Nevertheless, that’s the illusion she creates for herself, success in the music industry, to justify the choice she’s made to be in this place at this time.
The other, far more harsh illusion, comes in the form of Harvey Keitel as a young man who comes to the bar to flirt with Alice. He’s notably younger than Alice and this initially causes her to reject him. Eventually however, Alice gives in to the illusion that this much younger man wants to be with her. Reality comes crashing in when Keitel’s wife comes to Alice’s hotel and asks her to stop sleeping with her husband. Even more harshly, Keitel’s character shows up and has a violent altercation with his wife while warning Alice that she could be next if she defies him. Another illusion shattered, Alice and Tommy flee for Phoenix.
In Phoenix the illusion of Alice’s ideal life comes full circle. Alice convinces Tommy that they are stopping in Phoenix only long enough to get money to go on to Monterey. Monterey was the setting of the opening scene, the faux-idyllic MGM style backdrop. That fake set with its fake family and rose colored lighting. The Monterey Alice wants to go to doesn’t really exist and likely never really did. It’s yet another illusion she creates to justify the decisions she’s made. This illusion has Alice taking a temporary job as a waitress at a diner and beginning a romance with a handsome local played by Kris Kristofferson.
Here’s where I take a cynical tact. As much as I would like to buy into the romantic happy ending of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, I simply can’t. I believe that Alice’s relationship with David is yet another illusion, one only beginning to take shape as the movie ends. The key to this thesis is a scene set on David’s ranch where Alice is throwing Tommy a birthday party. The segment culminates in a violent encounter between a defiant Tommy and a deeply frustrated David. Alice immediately breaks off the relationship and leaves.
This scene reveals David as yet another in a long line of abusers. These frustrated, angry, and brutal men, have defined Alice’s life and she’s shaped her world around them to an unfortunate degree. While she may find some comfort in David, the scene I described sets up my doomsday scenario, David versus Tommy. The volatile relationship between David and Tommy is not going to get better with time. Tommy is 11 years old as we join this story and it’s hard to believe he will become less defiant and rebellious in his teenage years.
Alice will need to create a whole new illusion of harmony to escape from what will likely be a tumultuous home life. That’s a cynical reading but I believe it is a fair one. The point of this article is not to call out Alice for continuously deluding herself or for her creating false realities. The real heart of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is that Alice reflects that most human quality, hope. Alice hopes for the best, tries to see the best of what life has to offer and makes the best of the bad.
The beautiful aching heart of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is what makes the film so resonant, so memorable. Ellen Burstyn invests Alice with such lovely vulnerability, intelligence and desire that you don’t pity her, you hope for her. Alice is a remarkably sympathetic character even as she seems to create these false realities to cover her anxieties. We recognize in Alice our own tendency to try to see the best of bad situations and because of that, Alice becomes part of us all.