by Jenny Jones
3 Women is a fever dream; an eerie trip of merging and stolen identities set against the backdrop of the California desert. And it’s an apt location, for experiencing Robert Altman’s mesmerizing portrait is like viewing a mirage—the characters shift and re-form, become clearer only to lose focus.
Pinky Rose (a youthful Sissy Spacek) is an ingénue who has just moved to the golden state, taking a job at a spa for the elderly and infirm. Her trainer: Millie Lammereaux (Shelley Duvall, in a revelatory performance), an airheady single woman seemingly stuck in a 60s vortex of Breck Girl hair and entertaining in her all purple and yellow apartment, in her all purple and yellow wardrobe. (One wonders if the creators of “Breaking Bad” thought of Millie when creating the character of Marie Shrader, another character given to delusion and chromatic obsession.) Millie is all faux confidence and bluster; she chatters on incessantly about herself and her so-called social life to co-workers who have long since tuned her out. Her fellow apartment dwellers pay attention long enough to derisively refer to her as “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” But Pinky is transfixed. She watches Millie with wide-eyed fascination, slowly incorporating Millie’s mannerisms, ideas, and ultimately insinuating herself into Millie’s life completely. She considers Millie, “the most perfect person” she ever met. Millie takes Pinky under her wing, offering her a place in her apartment and taking her to her favorite bar—a Western-themed saloon complete with shooting range run by drunk lout Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier) and his pregnant partner Willie (Janice Rule)—the third of the three women.
Director: Robert Altman
Producers: Robert Altman, Scott Bushnell, Robert Eggenweiler
Writer: Robert Altman
Cinematographer: Charles Rosher Jr.
Editor: Dennis M. Hill
Music: Gerald Busby
Cast: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
US Theatrical Release: April 3, 1977
US Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox, The Criterion Collection
Willie is a mystery. Floating through the film in flowing dresses, she rarely speaks, and spends her time painting disturbing scenes of intertwined lizard people, their forked tongues out, wreaking violence on each other—most notably on the floor of the pool at the apartment. The pool water shimmers over Willie’s mural, making the lizards appear to undulate and become alive. Such images of water as well as mirrors are scattered throughout the film: the pools at the spa and apartment; the breaking of Willie’s water; Millie’s constant checking the mirror at work and home. 3 Women is all about reflections.
When Pinky jumps into this pool from the second floor balcony after being banished by Millie—the film turns, the plot twists, and the three women and their identities are up-ended, hurtling 3 Women toward a startling denouement.
I cannot think of another director whose various films veer from masterpiece to utter failure than Altman. 3 Women, though a lesser known work, is Altman at his best. His roving camera and sound exude a disquietude that permeates the picture. His collaborative movie-making style gets pitch-perfect work out of these actors, too. Shelley Duvall, who Altman discovered working at a Dallas make-up counter and went on to cast in 7 films, herself wrote all the diary entries, and the now-outlandishly kitschy recipes for pigs-in-a-blanket and cheese-from-a-can on crackers. She also received the Best Actress award at Cannes. For those who only know her from her bug-eyed performance in The Shining, this film will make you reconsider. Sissy Spacek shines in this role, and her turn from neophyte adolescent to steely-eyed identity-snatcher is unnervingly subtle and believable.
Altman thought up the idea for 3 Women in a dream, and it shows. In 3 Women he has replicated the feeling of a dream—events feel confusing yet meaningful and time feels ephemeral. The film slips into the mind an uneasy thought: How transient are our identities? Like a disquieting dream that sticks with you even after the morning comes, 3 Women crawls under your skin and stays there.