Director / Screenplay: Robert Altman / Editing: Dennis Hill / DP: Charles Rosher / Music: Gerald Busby
Cast: Shelley Duvall / Sissy Spacek / Janice Rule / Robert Fortier / Ruth Nelson / John Cromwell / Sierra Pecheur
There’s Something in the Water…
The late Robert Altman (1925 – 2006) was a mercurial director in an almost literal sense, proving impossible to pin-down to a given genre, though his collegiate, improvisational style of film-making was similar to that of Mike Leigh, Cassavetes and others. A ‘typical’ Altman film would generally feature a large ensemble-cast, picking their way through the maze, by following a serpentine thread of narrative. Often, dialogue would be improvised on-set, or in pre-production rehearsals, with actors given the space to ‘find’ their characters, in dimensions beyond the written word.
In this fashion, Altman would carve out a long career as a Writer-Director, marked with the occasional ‘dry-spell’ when his brand of film-making fell out-of-favour or sympathetic studio executives had departed. It would be fair to say that, with the notable exception of M*A*S*H (1970), The Player (1992) and Gosford Park (2001), his filmography acquired more prestige on the festival circuit, than hard cash in-theatres.
Today, Altman remains under-appreciated for the volume & diversity of work produced, with some titles still unreleased for home video. Some of them, if contemporary reviews are to be believed, arguably don’t deserve the attention (I’m looking at you, HealtH (1980)) but his reputation rehabilitates with every year that passes and a full retrospective would seem inevitable; if only as a way for studios such as the now Disney-owned 20th Century Fox (one of his biggest patrons), to generate revenue from such a wide – though murky – filmography. He has transcended any original commercial disappointment and entered the pantheon as an Auteur. Like I said, inevitable.
So to 3 Women. In its distilled form, it might be described by the following, pithy epithet:
One woman becomes two. Two becomes three. Three becomes one…
Ah, if only it were that simple…
It begins with Pinky Rose’s first day working at a health spa. From behind an office window, she stares out to the hydrotherapy pool beyond. Gerald Busby’s eerie, atonal score is quick to lend an air of unease to proceedings, with a sinuous, clarinet figure at-odds with a doomy bass. We’re being told, through the off-beat score, that something’s wrong and for the score to show its hand so early, is unorthodox. As viewers, we’re conditioned to be drip-fed our mysteries in measured stages, but Altman’s getting right into it here and perhaps that’s why it feels so disconcerting. Pinky’s attention is drawn by the sight of Millie, one of her new colleagues, at work in the pool, shepherding elderly patients with obvious care. Her immediate, greedy stare as she drinks-in Millie, is all the clue we need…
Millie’s played by Shelley Duvall; an actress with an interesting start to a career. In one of the extras on this Arrow release, she describes in an interview, how her artist-boyfriend at the time, came to Altman’s attention thanks to mutual friends. Keen to sell one or two of his pictures to this mysterious prospect, Duvall took along thirty or so to Altman’s office and left, not with a sale, but with the offer of a part in a movie; such is the way of Fate. It’s easy to see why Altman might’ve been interested in promoting this gangly, distinctive girl with a breezy, unaffected air as his career-long muse. For her part, Duvall found her calling as an actress thanks to this lucky break, though it’s noticeable that, despite a subsequently long career, she headlined for just one other director: opposite Jack Nicholson in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980): and THAT, right before the part she was born to play: Olive Oyl in Altman’s own misfiring Popeye (1980), opposite Robin Williams.
In 3 Women, Duvall’s Millie is a richly-composted character. Outwardly, she’s a blank-canvas of a personality, onto which she has grafted an artifice, comprised of consumer / fashion / lifestyle advice gleaned from magazines and the Neiman-Marcus catalogue. It’s compensation for her lack of natural conversation; a deficiency manifest in her interactions with colleagues, as she talks at them, never with them. Had she the social skills, Millie would be an accepted member of the gang. As it is, she’s excluded from every group & fraternity in the film. Even when she’s sitting at lunch with the others, the conversation is all one-way. While we’re on the subject of dialogue, it’s worth mentioning the straightforward exchanges between the two women whilst at the spa. Millie might be comfortable talking ten-to-the-dozen, but when it comes to the job, her speech is concise, almost rote, as if she’s had to induct new colleagues more than once…
Yet it’s Millie’s stream of consciousness that attracts Pinky: a young woman with an unformed, childish character. Pinky might be working at the spa, but it’s a lowly position that evidently requires no references: which is just as well, as it seems unlikely that she’d ever be able to produce them. When she thinks no-one can see her, Pinky will blow bubbles into her Coke or fool around with a wheelchair. Even when entrusted with a little responsibility, she’s quick to shrug it off and bend the rules. Pinky spots a small ad, posted by Millie, calling for a new flatmate: she wastes no time in snatching it from the pin-board, looking for all the world like a cat with the cream. What could go wrong?
At first, all looks sound. Millies drives her new flatmate over to a strange themed bar in the desert, called ‘Dodge City’, that’s owned by Edgar, the landlord of Millie’s apartment complex. An ex-stuntman on a TV-western serial, Edgar’s played by Robert Fortier, an old friend of Altman’s and is portrayed as a cliche’d cowboy figure, prone to macho posturing to impress the ladies as much as bolster a fragile ego.
Edgar’s married to the ‘third woman’ – a heavily pregnant Willie, played by New York stage actress Janice Rule. In the original plan, Willie’s part was rounded-out and blessed with dialogue but as actress & director both evolved the part, Willie ended-up portrayed as a mute; a decision which only amplified her striking look (a cross between The Wicked Witch of the West and prime Stevie Nicks). Then there’s the surreal mural Willie’s painting in an empty swimming pool (there’s a finished one too, adorning the pool back at the apartments). These were actually the work of surreal artist Bodhi Wind and depict a trio of hybrid ‘ape-women’ fleeing a lone (and priapic) ‘ape-man’. In the event, Altman would shoot the mural in a variety of styles, using its suggestive imagery to lend a sense of ‘pre-determinism’ to the fateful arc this trio of women find themselves on, whether they like it or not…
Behind the bar is a dirt-bike track and pistol range. There’s also a long-abandoned ‘Crazy Golf’ course but, these days, all the bar’s clientele (cops, it seems) are interested in, are riding their bikes and shooting their guns. That’s all Edgar seems interested in as well: macho pursuits for macho men, with Willie ignored & marginalised and the bar itself, run as an open-house. Millie & Pinky order tall glasses of beer and Millie’s astonished to see her new friend add salt to hers, to increase the froth in its foamy head, before downing it in-one. This is the first sight that Pinky’s shown of her ‘playful’ side and it shocks Millie; not the act itself, so much as the uncouth tone she’s forced to witness: it affronts her idea of decorum.
Things improve when the girls reach Millie’s apartment; decorated as it is, is a riot of primrose yellow; perhaps another idea suggested by a magazine, given how Millie’s wardrobe at this point all seems co-ordinated. There’s one telling scene, where she dresses in a weird ‘designer’ poolside robe, just to mix with her casual neighbours down by the pool. On seeing her, poised to make what Millie hopes will be a regal entrance, one of the girls mutters ‘Don’t look now, but it’s Thoroughly Modern Millie.’
Millie might be an insufferable joke amongst her neighbours, but no-one’s putting her straight. It’s more fun to see her struggle…
At first, Pinky tries to settle-in. She wields her trusty sewing machine to spruce-up clothes donated by Millie, in an effort at expanding her limited wardrobe. But Altman is soon exploring how this convivial bubble might burst. The unravelling commences when the ever-curious Pinky finds the key to Millie’s locked diary and begins devouring its pages whenever Millie goes out on ‘dates’, which brings me to another point: Millie’s criteria for potential boyfriends, seems only to revolve around how ‘cute’ they look, with no regard to other qualities. Whether it’s clothes, the shallow assemblage of ‘showpiece’ dinners or the company she keeps, Millie’s only concerned with how things look on the surface, with no consideration for anything deeper. She’s a woman with hidden shallows…
Thus far, everyone seems to be disappointing each other. Pinky is diminished in Millie’s eyes, not only because of her unschooled manners, but because at one point, she reveals her real name to be Mildred and that she adopted Pinky, only because she hated it so much; a revelation that prompts the following, terse exchange:
Millie: ‘How come you didn’t tell me your name was Mildred?’
Pinky: ‘’Cos I hate it!’
Millie: ‘Well, what do you think my name is?’
Pinky: ‘Milly? Oh…’
Millie: ‘Oh, yeah…’
On the other hand, Millie is disappointing Pinky, with her prissy house rules and the early admission that she enjoys an ‘active’ social life, though there’s no evidence for that in the film. Why disappointing? Because it seems as though Pinky wants Millie for herself… Willie, on the other hand, although seen only fleetingly, is heavily pregnant so MUST be disappointing Edgar in some way, as why else would he be spending the entire movie away from her and even at one point, returning from an evening’s drinking with Millie? Is she so desperate for company now, that she’s betraying her other friend? Apparently. Stung by this shocking turn of events, Pinky throws herself off the balcony and into the apartment complex’s pool (thankfully not empty). Nonetheless, she bangs her head and falls into a coma…
Still with me?
Evidently, Pinky’s in this state for long enough that Millie ends-up on first-name terms with the hospital receptionist; a loyal diligence driven by guilt as much as genuine remorse. In-time (and despite hectoring from Millie’s boss, Ms. Bunweill (a riff on Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)), Millie succeeds in tracking-down Pinky’s folks, back home in Texas. An elderly, home-spun pair, they remind me of the couple in Grant Wood’s painting American Gothic, being austere and almost anachronistic to the era in which they find themselves; certainly they look older than Pinky’s parents ought to look and more like adoptive Grandparents. Then again, Millie will sneak a look into their bedroom and find them engaged in love-making; Millie finds this shocking on two counts: first, that in her bubble-headed solipsism, she can’t conceive of anyone over the age of, say, fifty making love and second, that these fogeys are getting more action than SHE IS!
Pinky eventually emerges from her coma and, though she recognises Millie, she reacts violently when faced with her parents. No explanation is given, though the likeliest, is that Altman was paying homage to Bergman’s personality-swap psycho-drama Persona (1966). That Pinky appears to have undergone a genuine personality-swap, is born-out when we see her back at the bar, shooting guns with Edgar and his cronies. Or, when she paints her toenails in-bed, takes-over Millie’s diary for herself, uses her Social Security number and even forms conversations with those who’d previously ignored her flatmate. In one fell swoop, Pinky’s gone from being merely annoying to being dangerously unstable: no wonder Millie looks overwhelmed at seeing Pinky steal her own life.
It’s an impressive feat for Spacek to have pulled off. Cast by Altman as a result of seeing her in dailies from the set of Carrie (1976), Spacek does well throughout the film, at conveying Pinky’s initial weirdness before revealing this unsuppressed side to her character.
The film’s turning point comes, when Pinky experiences a nightmare; Altman himself would later cite his regret at the inclusion of this dreamlike montage of sloshing water & Willie’s mural, but the end result, after business revolving around Edgar’s disloyalty and Willie’s delivery of a still-born child, is that the three women now form a new family unit of their own; each person having adopted a new persona, in order to run the bar in Edgar’s unexplained absence. Willie’s mural was indeed prophetic, as in their new, remade world, it seems Men are unnecessary; the dirt track and pistol range now lie silent.
At first, I wondered if the whole film had been a dream. Then I considered whether we’d been privy to a snapshot from Pinky’s comatose mind… In the end, I came down to thinking it had all been real. Bizarre, but real. There’s a curious exchange with a delivery driver, over Edgar’s fate and a final image as DP Chuck Rosher’s camera settles on a mysterious pile of tyres… A perfect, final resting place for the unexpectedly-missing Edgar.
In order to approach the film in the right spirit, it helps knowing that the original inspiration for 3 Women came from a dream experienced by Altman on the night his wife was admitted to hospital with an acute illness. Sporadically, through a fitful night, he dreamt of the film’s title, that it would star both Duvall & Spacek and that it would be set in the desert around Palm Springs. The resultant picture can therefore be explained (if there ever can be an explanation for a picture this unorthodox) as a fever-dream made real. A claustrophobic deep-dive into obsession and the lengths a person will go to, in order to either subsume their true personality or adopt a new one, when it serves their interests: whether they’re aware of that underlying drive or not. But that’s to deal it short.
From its bleached-out, desaturated look at the spa, to the lurid interior of Millie’s flat, the film looks great (esp. in this remaster). Both Duvall & Spacek carry the film with richly observed, layered & nuanced performances, that mesh with the outwardly straightforward, but tricksy plot. Supporting players are little more than caricatures here, but not out of step with the girls’ own journey. It all feels like something David Lynch might’ve made in later years, with the realisation that not everything need be explicable.
Two-thirds of the film then, is a bravura display from a Director riding high on his own legend. But the last third? About the same, minus the ‘Bravura’…
I’d love to have witnessed the reaction of 20th Century Fox’s then-studio head Alan Ladd Jr., on seeing Altman’s initial cut… In my recent review of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), I touched on how the ‘Young Turks’ had taken over Hollywood, triggering a ‘Golden Age’, in which maverick film-makers could get ‘almost anything’ made. Altman was no exception, delivering a mainstream studio picture with an oblique ending calculated to puzzle, frustrate and defeat his most ardent fans, let alone the casual, mass audience on which the studio relied.
That same year, Fox presided over the opening of Star Wars (1977) and Altman’s prospects suddenly dimmed. The bean-counters, not the lunatics, were about to retake control of the asylum and, some might argue, not before time…
I just don’t understand it. Him being so good with guns and everything.