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Catherine Savard
Catherine Savard

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Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Death of a Marriage

Ellen Burnstyn and Kris Kristofferson give a memorable performance in this tale of a woman's journey to finding herself and a better life.   

A friend of mine committed suicide a few days ago. My friend struggled with depression and anxiety. She was also someone who struggled a lot in her marriage. Her marriage broke down a few years ago. The marital breakdown was a source of much pain and distress for her, especially since it involved a messy custody situation with her young children. For my friend, there was no cloud with a silver lining as there was in the two films displayed recently on Saturday Night at the Movies: there was just the cloud.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore - branches cropped.jpg

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was the first offering on SNATM on TVO. I had never seen this film with Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson before. I didn’t know quite what to expect. The opening scenes shot through some kind of a rose-coloured lens filter gave me the definite impression of being in Kansas with the “Wizard of Oz”. “Dorothy”, however, is singing a different kind of song and has a foul mouth with a sassy attitude that is quite disconcerting if we are supposed to be in the Land of Oz. Dorothy is a little bit less than innocent as she starts her long journey down the yellow brick road.

The rose-tinted glasses soon fall off as we are zapped back from Alice ’ less than idyllic childhood days to present day reality. Alice is now a grown woman, married with one child. Her childhood fantasies to become a singer have remained just that; a fantasy belonging to her youth.

Pop music is pretty important to Alice . Because pop music is important to Alice , it also becomes pretty important to this film. As Alice moves through the mundane realities of her everyday life, music is always playing in the background writing a subtext to the action of the film. It seems like the radio is always on providing some kind of escape or outlet for Alice ’ true emotional state. Much the same thing seems to be happening in parallel for the young Tommy, except that his choice in music is completely different.

Everything changes when Alice gets a call telling her that her husband has been killed in a trucking accident. Alice has just been lamenting with a friend and neighbour about the state of her marriage and the inadequacies of her sex life. She has just finished saying that she thinks she would be just as happy without a man around. Alice adds the qualifier that maybe if her lover was someone like, say, Robert Redford, a different kind of man from the run of the mill variety, it might just possibly be worth it, but she doubts even that possibility.

Upon hearing the news that her husband is dead, Alice sobs, “God forgive me!” But what is there to forgive, Alice ? Sure, Alice had been having a little fun at her husband’s expense. Mostly, I think what we are supposed to see in Alice ’ words is longing for fulfillment that she has not found in her marriage. It wasn’t a perfect marriage. Perhaps it was a poor excuse for a marriage. But then it was over. Alice finds that she has to start over again. This time she has to rely on herself to make her way in life. Her child, Tommy, is depending on her.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore-Ellen Burstyn.jpgAlice undergoes a makeover in order to try to find a job as a singer. Most everything about Alice gets overhauled from this point forward; her understanding of herself, the way she relates to her son, and the way she relates to men.

Alice “finds herself” in a most unlikely place: in the toilet of a highway diner. Alice has a pivotal conversation with her fellow waitress, the foul-mouthed Flo (played by Diane Ladd in an Oscar nominated performance). Alice and Flo have a little heart to heart talk in the bathroom while things descend into a state of chaos in the diner. Flo gets into a serious pep talk mode, encouraging Alice to believe in herself and take responsibility for her life. Flo pulls out an odd little cross made out of safety pins and says, “Sometimes, that’s what’s holding me together. You just need to figure out what you really want and then let the devil take the high road.”

Hmm. I wonder what Flo meant by that? It must work because the film quickly works its way to a happy ending after that point!?!? What Flo seems to be steering Alice towards is an uncompromising pursuit of self-actualization through pursuing personal goals; if Alice wants to be a singer, then she should just go out and do it and the rest of the world will have to fall into line in deference to the supreme good of self-actualization.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore- Kris Kristofferson.jpgWhat actually happens is that the principal players learn something about the art of compromise in order to have a chance to live together and work out happiness in the co-operative situation of family life. David is willing to give up his ranch in order to be with Alice . Alice is willing to give up going to Memphis to make it “big” as a singer. Once she has made up her mind to accept David’s proposal, Alice sees that she can be a singer anywhere. Tommy comes to understand that you can have a fight with someone (namely David) and still love them. Tommy decides that accepting the risk of living with David is worth it, even if he doesn’t share his taste in music.

Hmm. So where does that safety pin cross thing come in? Maybe I missed something. It looks to me like Flo has devised her own kind of secularized religious relic. Her cross is something that Flo has put together herself. Flo appears to have assigned a meaning to this symbol that reflects her individualized outlook on life. Flo’s “cross” only works because it reminds Flo that she herself has to be her own “Saviour” and that she holds things together by her own efforts accompanied by a few lucky breaks – a little bit of a different ideology than was upheld by people who first started wearing crosses around their necks.

Ironically, Alice seems to find resolution by travelling in the opposite direction, a direction that has more in common with the original meaning of the cross of Jesus. It is through giving up on something that she wanted (dying to herself, in a sense: see the original context for this idea) that Alice gains the possibility of a new life. Instead of losing her identity through entering this relationship with David, paradoxically Alice finds herself. Alice even has the possibility of experiencing the fulfillment of realizing her dream of being a singer, but in a different context. But none of it will happen unless Alice is willing to make the compromise, take the risk of love, and lay down her autonomy.

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Posted on Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 10:46AM by Registered CommenterCatherine Savard | CommentsPost a Comment