I would consider myself a Robert Altman fan, although I’ve seen relatively little of his work. I’ve seen Popeye, Short Cuts, MASH, and The Player (with Short Cuts always being my favorite, if for nothing else than Lilly Tomlin and Tom Waits’ scenes together). I took a chance recently and picked up the Criterion Collection release of Altman’s 1977 film 3 Women, based on my respect for him, Shelley Duvall, and Sissy Spacek. What I ended up getting was an amazing film full of atmosphere, imagery, a perfect score, and some performances that blew me away. I, without a doubt, now consider my favorite Altman film to be 3 Women.
On the surface 3 Women is about…3 different women. One is a child-like girl that is afraid of the world around her, while trying to find a stronger personality to latch onto and ultimately reshape herself into a more comfortable skin (Sissy Spacek delivering a wide-eyed, vacant performance that puts Carrie to shame as Pinky). Another is a woman who is ultimately sad, lonely, and striving to present an unrealistic self image to everyone around her with unlimited bravado (Shelley Duvall giving her best performance I’ve seen as the overconfident, constantly in-denial Millie). Lastly, there is an older woman who is lost in silence, only expressing herself through her metaphorical, gender-specific artwork, which appears throughout the film to add extra layers to her character that she couldn’t provide via dialogue (Janice Rule, providing more depth with her face and body language than most modern female characters could dream of as Willie).
Beyond that surface, these 3 women represent different aspects of a single woman. They deal with life and sometimes adopt aspects of each other’s personalities, while trying to find happiness against the few aloof males in their world. There are 3 men in the film that get more than a few words (or a complete sentence) of dialogue. There is the young doctor at the spa where Pinky and Millie work, who can barely make eye contact with the women around him, let alone give anything close to a care about their lives and traits. The central male character, Edgar (Robert Fortier), is the father of Willie’s baby, yet can’t be bothered to do anything but drink and try to sleep with our other 2 female leads. Finally, there is Pinky’s father, Mr. Rose (John Cromwell), who can barely be kept awake long enough to receive any information from the women around him, unless of course, he is getting intimate with his wife.
The story revolves around naïve Pinky coming to the barren deserts of California from Texas. She gets a job in a spa for ailing old people where Millie works (the opening shots of Pinky staring dead eyed at the young women leading the elderly people around the pool, like walking with their inevitable fates, set up the tone of the film perfectly). She forms an undeserved attachment and kinship with Millie immediately, which evolves into an unhealthy and disturbing obsession. As Pinky forces her way into Millie’s life, we come in contact with Willie, who owns both the bar and apartments where our two characters live, along with her husband that becomes the settling desire for the two younger women. As Pinky and Millie battle for the false identity they both want, Willie’s pregnancy comes to a conclusion, changing the dynamic of the women as well as freeing them from their male suppressors.
Throughout the film, Gerald Busby‘s score gives the film a lighthearted whimsy, with an underlying sense of terror and malice. This isn’t a simple personality theft tale, or a righteous woman empowerment story. The final product is a bit of both rolled into one, with a melancholy existential account of womanhood and life seeping through the whole affair. Pinky is meek and unable to grow up or take the world around her seriously (she always finds a way to play or act silly). Her character is the most mysterious due to never learning much of her back story or why she ended up here. Millie is obsessed with being an “ideal” woman according to magazines and catalogues. She is so busy rambling on about anything that might make her appear more sophisticated and popular than she actually is that she doesn’t seem to realize she is largely ignored by everyone around her, save for Pinky. Willie we know the least about, but her murals convey all we need to know about her views and provide a sort of commentary over the scenes shown (they are usually panned towards before or after a scene that reflects the sentiment expressed in the work to great effect, without ever getting too overbearing or overused).
One of the most intense scenes of the film occurs when Millie brings Edgar home one night. It shows what seems to be the norm for the constantly drunk Edgar, but also shows the pain and desperation inside of Millie. She wants so bad to be accepted and desired by a man that she is willing to take Edgar just to kill some of her loneliness. Pinky is there and trying to stop Millie from doing this, but Millie is set on getting some human contact and blows up at Pinky. This leads Pinky to a suicide attempt that briefly leaves her in a coma. This is a catalyst for shifts in all the women’s personalities. Willie saves Pinky’s life and sees Edgar in bed with Millie. Millie changes her priorities and focuses her attention and need of redemption on Pinky. And Pinky gets to be reborn in a sense and start herself over from scratch.
The climax of the film starts when Pinky has a vivid and trippy dream. Altman blends Willie’s paintings, the characters, and certain foreshadowing together in a montage while the colors glide between black & white, blue, and full color. The effects imitating the fish tank water used as a lens to view one woman’s point of view (POV) of another throughout the film (also giving the feeling that the woman being looked at is in a metaphorical state of drowning). It’s an incredible sequence that apparently snaps Pinky out of her Millie phase (she had been copying Millie’s personality and threatening to take it over, as if she were The Talented Ms. Spacek), reverting back to the scared child she began as. Pinky wakes and tells Millie about her bad dream, causing a shift in Millie’s personality also. Instead of reclaiming her old identity when Pinky releases her hold on it, Millie turns into a protective mother figure focusing all of her energy on Pinky’s needs.
At this point, a drunken Edgar lets himself into their apartment to further drown his own sorrows. He informs the two that Willie is currently having her baby (and it is just hers, as he seems to want no part of it), alone. With her newfound sense of motherhood raging, Millie grabs Pinky and rushes off to help Willie deliver the baby. The following scene plays out with Millie delivering Willie’s baby (it comes out stillborn) while Pinky watches in frozen horror, unable to go get a doctor to help. Altman keeps the camera in between the two parties, never getting too close to either. You watch Willie and Millie struggling with the birth from outside of the house’s doorway, with cuts to Pinky standing still in front of Millie’s car from about the same distance. It is a rough scene to watch and the events shown permanently scar the 3 women (Duvall’s performance at the end of this scene is terrifying and brutal).
The film ends by showing a new dynamic between the three of them. Pinky has reverted farther back into adolescence, with Millie fully embracing the role of Pinky’s mother (including sporting a very “mom” haircut and looking much older and adult than in the rest of the film), and Willie taking the role of grandmother, due to her age and failure of having her own child. It is also implied that they shot and killed Edgar, possibly burying him under a pile of tires outside of the house they live in together behind the bar. This isn’t a triumphant ending where the females free themselves of their male tormentors and live happily ever after. They all seem really subdued and almost zombie-like, as if the events of the film were too much on them and they don’t truly grasp what they are doing anymore. But it seems to be enough for them, for now.
3 Women is a really powerful film, led by three wonderful performances that really fuel the whole thing. Altman lets the actors find the right moments in the scenes (there was little to no script in place when they started filming) and worries himself with the technical aspects of the shots (while still conveying plenty of feeling and emotion in the ways he does this). He does some wonderful sweeping camera work that glides along almost aimlessly like the characters in the world he is showing. He also adds some subtle touches that add some humor and depth if you’re paying attention (I specifically liked the detail of Millie’s dress getting caught in her car door and hanging out a little whenever she drives anywhere). It is a slow burn of a film that builds your expectations towards a certain kind of story, only to subvert those expectations and take the film in a completely different direction. This shows how certain events in life can completely change anything we might have wanted or planned out for ourselves.
I highly recommend this film to anyone that is a fan of Altman’s or of character studies in general. The Criterion release of this is actually pretty bare when it comes to special features, but it does contain a really interesting commentary with Altman as well as some trailers and TV spots, showing the really odd and vague way the film was marketed (then again, I suppose odd and vague are accurate for this film). This is indeed an art house film and being released the same year as giants like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (as well as awards sweepers Annie Hall, Julia, and The Goodbye Girl) it seemed to get a bit lost in the shuffle. While it may not be chock full of extra goodies like some Criterion releases, I’m really happy to add it to my collection.