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 genuinely mesmerizing discourse on identity theft came to him in a dream. There is little reason to doubt this 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 almost everyone, she is either invisible or insufferable, Millie blithely floats around 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 overdetermined, 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 beneficial 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
With the introduction of the almost spectral character of Willie, 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 personality transference of their own.

What gets me about 3 Women is that no matter how unusual the characters and how off-rhythm their interactions are, 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 weirdly, it's that very quality that makes them come across more genuinely. It's as though you're 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 even 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 glummest, saddest-looking sexist eye candy you've ever seen. In each scene, her every glance seems to transmit her wish to be anywhere else but there. 
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 pleasing effect.

The recurring motifs of water, mirrors, and other reflective surfaces give 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.

What I've always related to in 3 Women is how it so poetically speaks to the need to connect and the essential 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, after all these years, it remains, hands-down, my favorite of his many excellent films.
Pinky- "I had a bad dream."
Millie- "Dreams can't hurt you."

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 


  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!

    4. I just now re-stumbled across your page on this film again and noticed that I had ALREADY left a note to you adding my two cents and THEN noticed your lovely response to it! Refreshing and it has been a pleasure, and, as you so graciously stated 'due to my long, faithful association with the film.' My, do you ever state your thoughts beautifully! I blushed when I read that. Thank you, too!

  6. 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!

  7. This is one of those rare situations when rewatching a movie is just as better as the first time. I love it and it makes me admire Altman SO MUCH because speaking about a dream is difficult already but he did more than that, he brouhgt a dream to life, in a sense that some scenes (that twins scene, for example) seems to talk to me in a subconscious level so much that I can see it affects me but I might never know why this happens. Your review is on point (I think it's my favorite of yours) and just like the movie it effortlessly conveys so much meaning (And you seem enthusiastic yet professional. I should take notes). I think I understand better how this movie was created and how it ~got me good~!

    I watched it becuse of Sissy (I was in a Sissy high a couple of years ago) but the cast is amazing (I didn't understand Janice's character at first but now I just can't do without her), and speaking of Sissy she's just great here (too bad I don't see people praising her acting in this movie as she deserves). I respect her so much, she is just like a chameleon, it's incredible what she can do in the universe of just one character. Her curious-and-quirky nature fits Pinky like a glove, still she's not like any other of her curious-and-quirky roles. What an actress!
    But this is definitely Shelley's show and that Cannes' Best Actress wasn't enough to do her justice. Millie is just as human as it can get in a movie, this to me is the best example of how far can an actor go in the right role (along with Jill Clayburgh in "An Unmarried Woman", sorry to bring her up again - By the way, she got her own Cannes' Best Actress the following year) It's just perfect and makes me want to act, to bring characters to life with this level of reality. I don't think we had a character like Millie ever since.

    "Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits. Perhaps we flow into each other, stream through each other, boundlessly and magnificently."I loved this quote because it's just how I feel about the movie. It's not like they really changed, they all had these 3 women inside them all the time, I think that's what made their transformations so belieavable. Pinky came to town because she rebelled, so she had that edgy-and-independent personality inside her. Millie started as a pretentious girl, but she was like that because she cared too much with people, so much that she had to protect herself from criticism. It's just like Chaka Khan used to sing "I'm every woman, It's all in me". Their interactions were just too real so it allowed them to let their real nature flow into each other, and once Millie allowed herself to be weak, Pinky had teh chance to become the dominant. AMAZING.

    Well, to finish this coment, I don't think I'll come back until next year (it's getting kinda busy here) so I hope you have an amazing holliday season, and may 2017 bring you lots of joy and laughs (and good movies, of course). Thank you for discussing movies with us! :)

    1. Hi Joao Paulo
      You convey very eloquently all the things you get out of this remarkable film. It really seems to speak to you on so many levels, and you do a terrific job of guiding us through just what it is you respond to.
      I tend to be so fond of Duvall that I give Spacek short shrift (but I make up for it in writing about "Carrie"!) so I'm glad you give a shout out to her excellent work. In many ways her character wouldn't have worked in less capable hands.
      I really enjoyed reading your comments, feeling that Altman's collaborative vision was particularly satisfying for you. A very thoughtful, rave review you give this film!
      Thanks for commenting, and I wish you all the best of the holiday season and in the coming year. I've enjoyed reading your youthful perspective on so many of the films I grew up with.

  8. This blog has caused me to become morbidly curious about this movie. Sissy Spacek can be scary as Hell on film, but she's a top-notch actress, and Shelley Duvall is one of the coolest actresses around! The names of those spa owners SCARE me, though!

    1. I never thought of it before, but those ARE some might strange names!
      This is an unusual but worthwhile movie. Hope you check it out someday. Thank you for commenting!

  9. Altman's greatest film. Between "Badlands" and this, Spacek's
    crowning achievement.

    Altman's Twin Versions of Hell: Fire (3 Women) and Ice (Quintet)

    1. Hi Barry
      A year late responding to this one! My apologies (in my defense, 2020 was a bit of a clusterfuck).
      I agree with you in finding this to be Altman's masterwork. As time goes by I like it even more than NASHVILLE.
      Between your post and the one following, Spacek has been getting a lot of overdue (and well-deserved) love for her work in this. Your "Altman's Twin Visions of Hell" reference sounds like the header to an essay/article I'd love to read.
      Thank you.

  10. Hi there, my husband stumbled across this somehow and sent it to me. My name is Ken Anderson too (it really is, this is not some kind of weird metacommentary on the themes of identity raised by this film). Anyway, thanks for your very insightful commentary on this film. I absolutely flat-out LOVE this movie. I have watched it more times than I can count, and I discover new things in it every time I watch it. It is truly a one-of-a-kind film and like a dream, it is densely symbolic and evokes a multiplicity of meanings depending on what you bring to it. The long take that opens the film is certainly characteristic of Altman's work in many ways, but it is unusual in the way that it literally and figuratively immerses us into the watery, dreamy world that we are about to experience. The film is suffused with water and birth imagery, and the opening scene for me does a brilliant job of anticipating the pivotal central scene of the film in which Sissy Spacek dives into the pool and is reborn as an entirely new persona. The repeated scenes of being immersed in warm pools evokes ideas of baptism, returning to the womb and being born/reborn, and highlights the many deep questions raised by the film about identity - how we become who we are, how do we know who we are, can we ever see ourselves as others see us, and how do we form and maintain our identities in the context of our relationships with others. Both Sissy Spacek and Shelly Duvall deliver brilliant performances. Sissy Spacek is one of my top 2 or 3 favorite actresses so I'm perhaps biased, but I think her performance is especially noteworthy. To be sure, she has the most to work with because she really plays two completely different characters in each half of the film. And if Spacek's performance is more noteworthy than Duvall's, it's only by a hair. Millie Lammoreaux is certainly one of the most memorable characters of all time, and Duvall manages to bring a great deal of humanity to the role along with the comedy. Millie is always a bit cringey, and we're always on the verge of laughing at her, yet we want to to give her a big hug and tell her she's really OK as she is and doesn't need to try so hard. And darn it, organizing your recipes by how long they take to cook sounds like a pretty good idea to me! And of course, Janice Rule is no less worthy of many ways she is the thread that holds the whole thing together. I have about as many favorite moments in the film as there are moments in this film but perhaps my single favorite is when Millie takes Pinky to "Dodge City" for the first time and Pinky gets out of the car, looks around, wide-eyed and says, "What is this place, Disneyland?"

    Anyway, did I mention that I really love this film? Thanks again for your post.

    --The other Ken Anderson

    1. Hello, Ken Anderson! Ha!
      I know there are a lot of us around, but how many with a a devotion to this particular film?
      I thoroughly enjoyed reading your insightful observations on the film, revealing the depth of your fondness for it and the particular ways it speaks to you.
      I especially like the birth/water correlatives and your affection for the characters.
      I don't know if it was intentional or coincidence, but you sent your comment on the 44th anniversary of the date "3 Women" opened in San Francisco.
      Between our twin names and that bit of "what are the odds?" curiousness, I can't think of a more appropriate way to pay tribute to a film of such elliptical charm it truly does yield new things with every revisit.
      Your incisive and witty take on Altman's film (you're right, organizing recipes by how long they take to cook IS a pretty good idea) is so well thought-out and offers new things to look out for and think about. A welcome contribution to this comments section.
      But what else could I expect from someone with such a snazzy name? Much appreciated!