Saturday, November 21, 2009

3 WOMEN 1977

Films that invite repeat viewings are my favorite. If the complexities of plot and character are authentic (and not simply incomprehensibility posing as profundity), each viewing unearths new pleasures and a deeper understanding of the film’s themes.
Robert Altman’s 3 Women is such a film, and it is, quite literally, a dream.
Shelley Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux
Sissy Spacek as Pinky Rose
Janice Rule as Willie Hart
Altman claimed that much of the basic structure of this truly mesmerizing discourse on identity theft came to him in a dream, and there is little reason to doubt the assertion given that 3 Women unfolds in the same shifting rhythms and fluid, non-linear logic of a dream half-remembered.
Altman regular Shelley Duvall plays Millie Lammoreaux, the Palm Springs femme non-fatale of the Purple Sage Apartments: a garishly mauve modernist complex that looks to have sprouted out of the ground like a cactus flower in the flat, arid landscape of the desert. Millie is an attendant at a spa for the elderly and fancies herself an irresistible man-trap.

Oblivious to the fact that to most everyone she is either invisible or insufferable, Millie floats on a lemon-colored cloud of delusion fueled by romantic longing and women’s magazine clichés.
The lone dissenting voice is that of Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), the childlike, slightly spooky new spa employee who sees in Millie, “The most perfect person I’ve ever met.”
If Millie’s personality is over determined, Pinky’s is as unformed as an infant’s (she has so little in the way of history or possessions that she could be a visitor from another planet). But since she is the only person to ever reflect back to Millie her own image of herself, the two enter into a mutually advantageous roommate/friendship relationship that has the “worldly” Millie giving the unrefined Pinky lessons in life. Lessons she learns all too well, as it turns out.
Lemon Satin and Tickled Pink
Millie's apartment is an overwhelming medley of sunshiny yellow and white, it gives the impression of living inside an egg

The 3rd woman of the title is Willie (Janice Rule), the enormously pregnant, mostly silent artist who spends all of her time painting cryptic, luridly violent murals of anthropomorphic reptile people.

Willie is married to the hyper-macho Edgar (Robert Fortier), a swaggering, womanizing, former TV stunt double (“He knows Hugh O’Brian!”) with whom she shares ownership of The Purple Sage Apartments and the town’s lone hot-spot, Dodge City: a run-down, western-themed bar/ghost town where off-duty cops come to drink beer, shoot guns and ride dirt bikes.
Robert Fortier as Edgar Hart
It’s with the introduction of the almost spectral character of Willie that 3 Women begins to take shape as something grounded increasingly less in reality, yet something more chilling and unsettling than fantasy. As the ad copy on the poster read: “1 woman became 2, 2 women became 3, 3 women became 1.”

This one is a true original. There is something so fascinating in Altman’s use of magic realism in exploring the twin phenomenon of personality and identity as things both contagious and fluid. He creates unique characters and a world that is real but jarringly off-kilter (not in that self-conscious, Cohen Brothers way, mercifully), and in the finely observed details, 3 Women is often heartbreakingly funny while being downright eerie.
Craig Richard Nelson (A Wedding) and Sierra Pecheur portray Dr. Maas and Ms. Bunweill, the unrelentingly practical-minded operators of the health spa. Displaying inverse traditional male and female characteristics, the pair appear to have undergone a personalty transference of their own.

What gets me about 3 Women is that no matter how unusual the characters, how off-rhythm their interactions, everything feels as if it comes from an emotional and human truth. The characters may be amplifications...their traits and behavior given a surreal, dreamy oddness...but in a weird way, it's that very quality that makes them come across more genuinely. It's as if you are watching people who have had their most hidden, inner selves, moved to the surface.
For example, no one has probably ever met a person as rabidly devoted to the "Cosmo Philosophy" of femininity or those loopy "Kraft Kitchen" home economist credos as Millie in real-life (at least I hope not); but her embodiment and complete faith in the "how to catch a man" propaganda women have been fed for generations, makes her character less an object of ridicule than someone we recognize and perhaps empathize with.
The "fixin's" for one of Millie's characteristically  indigestible socio-gastronomical nightmares

Shelley Duvall gives one of the best performances of the 70s, and certainly what I consider the best of her career. She can take a character comprised almost exclusively of derisible (if not absurd) characteristics and finds the humanity within. Though audiences are encouraged to laugh at Millie’s ever-thwarted attempts at maintaining an air of sophisticated insouciance at all times (try as she might she can’t seem to prevent her flowing skirts from getting caught in her car door) one can’t help but feel empathy for her poignant quest to mean something to herself.
Sissy Spacek, an actress able to project earthiness or other-worldliness at will, is remarkable in a role that requires her to be an enigma, but not a blank slate. Her ability to convey a childlike innocence without coming across as mentally challenged is attributable to Spacek's questioning, She seems to be taking information in like a computer. I love her transformation(s). She has inhabited three distinct women by the film's conclusion.
There's something a little terrifying in the kind of woman Pinky "becomes" after her accident
Janice Rule really surprised me in 3 Women, because prior to this film I had only ever seen her in the truly atrocious Dean Martin Matt Helm film, The Ambushers -1967  (it's a Matt Helm film, did I really need to add the "atrocious" part?). If you ever want to see the definition of "reluctant sexpot," check out that film. Rule, decked out in a comic assortment of skimpy, mod outfits, is the most glum, sad-looking sexist eye-candy you've ever seen. In each scene she looks as though she wishes she were  anywhere else.
Given that as a first impression, I was pleased to see her in what appears a more comfortable environment as the most puzzling member of Altman's trio. The same solemn sadness so distracting in The Ambushers is present here, but to infinitely more satisfying effect.

The recurring motifs of water, mirrors and other reflective surfaces gives 3 Women a hallucinatory quality well-served by its haunting score and the flat, dried-out Palm Springs locations. The expansive emptiness of the land takes on the look of  Dali-esque dream landscapes.
3 Women
Pinky- "I wonder what it's like to be you think they know which one they are?"
"Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits. Perhaps we flow into each other, stream through each other, boundlessly and magnificently."  Ingmar Bergman  Fanny and Alexander 1979

For years Woody Allen has been knocking himself out superficially channeling Ingmar Bergman, and here Robert Altman hits a bullseye his first time out with this incontestably American nod to Bergman’s Persona.

I suppose what I've always related to in 3 Women is how it so poetically speaks to the need to connect and the basic, human desire to be acknowledged. Looking at the film through the eyes of the college kid I was when the film was released, I'm aware of what I shared with Millie: pretentiousness, the need for self-invention (or re-invention). Also, what I shared with Pinky: a fear of growing up and a wish to remain childlike; a longing to care for and be cared for by someone.
Watching the film now as an adult, I find myself  stunned by the keenness of its observations and touched by how gently Altman treats these damaged characters. Ultimately, I find 3 Women to be one of Altman’s most humane works and, it remains after all these years, hands-down my favorite of all of his many excellent films.
Pinky- "I had a bad dream."
Millie- "Dreams can't hurt you."

Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. You love all the same movies as me! Ken Russell, Robert Altman, Man Who Fell to have all of my favorites!!

  2. Hi Lydiapurple
    You are obviously a person of remarkable discernment and taste! :-)

    Joking aside, Russell, Altman, Roeg...they really took chances and seem to really love film. They're the best!

  3. What a perceptive analysis! I agree that Duvall gives one of the best performances of the decade. I feel like a clod as I've never really noticed the reflective motifs, but it makes absolute sense.

  4. Thanks, Jeremy! I could well imagine that this would be a film you'd like. It seems to be one of those movies that speaks to people in different ways, but everyone seems to agree on Duvall's performance. Thanks for the kind comments and for taking the time to share your thoughts!

  5. This film is also one of my favourites, Ken. It's true as you say that there are new dimensions to be found each time you see the film.

    The environment is so strange and foreign to me. All that strong sunlight and dry landscapes I usually associate with macho westerns. Instead here are three lost women wandering around trying to find something to hang on to. All of them lonely.

    I adore Shelley Duvall and to see her in her wonderfully garish 70's apartment and clothes is wonderfull! I agree, She gives an amazing performance.

    I'm also always amazed by Sissy Spacek who looks so blank and yet makes her character childish and crazy at the same time.

    1. It never struck me that the dry, arid desert surroundings of this film is western-like! That's a great observation. Yes, both Spacek and Duvall are extraordinary in this. I'm glad that so many years after it disappeared from theaters, a kind of cult has built around it and it gets the appreciation it deserves. Thanks!

    2. This is probably the very best, most concise, personal and empathic (and shortest!) review of the film I have ever read! See, I've been a lone wolf waving the 3 WOMEN flag about for more years than I'd like to admit... It was more of an undiscovered curio all the way up until it's Critereon release (FINALLY!!) on DVD back in `04. It has been a welcome and refreshing surprise to take note of just how significantly the film's over-all response and popularity have grown since the advent of the internet, whereas hardly anybody previously used to know what the hell you were on about when bringing up the picture, nowadays almost everybody does, and although I have some rather serious beefs with contemporary society and `how' we have morphed since then, this is one very proud exception to it all, in my book! Just wanted to let you know, your brief comments on the film were spot-on, and I couldn't agree any moreso than I do!

    3. So wonderful to come across another soul who fell in love with this movie back when it was virtually unknown and unseen.
      There's always talk in film circles about certain movies being ahead of their time, but the current popularity of "3 Women" truly has taken me by surprise.
      I haven't read many online articles about it, but I'm glad if my very personal take on it struck a few chords of identification with you as well.
      A remarkable film, isn't it?
      While I kind of enjoyed being a member of a small club who adored this film back in the day, it's equally gratifying to know it has at last found an appreciative audience.
      Thank you very much for your kind comment, which means a lot to me given your long, faithful association with the film!

  6. I have loved this film since I first saw it in 1977 on a gigantic screen in all its widescreen glory. There were five other people in the cavernous theater and somehow that seemed "just right". It's the only film, (though the park scenes in Antonioni's BLOWUP come close) where I wanted to step in past the frame and inhabit and absorb the terrain. I love it THAT much. I've seen this film at least 50 times since then and not one of those viewings has failed me in delivering yet another insight. It really is that deep. Recently, I've realized a perfect double bill: 3 WOMEN preceded by Frank Perry's long misunderstood THE SWIMMER. Think about it . . . swimming pools, Janice Rule, and Burt Lancaster's "journey"
    Thanks for this and so much else that you write.

    1. Hi Gregory
      You expressed your fondness for this amazing film beautifully. A movie this special does seem to inspire such a reaction.
      In addition to being pleased to hear that someone else out there revisits favored movies often, I like that you discovered the film before it became popular. It speaks to your having seen something in it audiences in 1977 failed to seize upon.
      Once again you've mentioned I film I've never seen- THE SWIMMER - and done so in a way as to make a heretofore uninteresting prospect into a must-see. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for taking the time to share your love of movies with us. We all can relate!

  7. There is a moment, which I don’t think has ever been commented on, which gives a heart breaking extra depth to Millie’s character. Although she strives for ultimate coolness (and fails, but that’s another story), at one time she risks everything she has (or thinks she has) by walking Pinkie’s redneck parents through the courtyard in front of the cool and sexy people she is constantly trying to seduce.

    1. Hi
      Nice observation! It's true, it does seem as if that is around the interesting "shift" in Millie's persona. The shift that sees her actually declining an invitation from one of the doctors at the hospital as she grieves over Pinky. Something the "old" Millie would have jumped on in a heartbeat.
      Love having my attention called to small things in the film that provide further food for thought. Thanks for reading and taking the time to add to the discussion!

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