3 Women (1977) Written and Directed by Robert Altman. Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule (125 min).
Shy Pinky becomes obsessed with Millie, her co-worker at a desert health spa. Millie lives in a fantasy world, where she’s wise, capable, sexy, popular and famous for her awful dinner parties. Duvall and Spacek are riveting in Altman’s unforgettable dreamed and dreamy movie. “Altman at his peak was the Balzac of American culturescapes, capturing more absurd tumult, social topography, native ritual and pathetic self-deceit than any filmmaker of the decade.” (Michael Atkinson).
After a WWII Army stint co-piloting bombing missions over Japan, Robert Altman got into the movies by writing scripts. He shot industrial films for International Harvester, and exploitation movies like The Delinquents and The James Dean Story. Between 1957 and 1964 he worked on at least 20 tv shows, including The Alfred Hitchcock Show, Route 66, Maverick and numerous episodes of Bonanza and Combat. He did the only-anti-war episode of that inexplicably popular show 1960s tv show about “The Good War.” Altman managed to get fired from most of them for his experimentation with non-linear narrative and overlapping sound. He learned how to work quickly and make do; “I had practice working for people who don’t care about quality, and I learned how to sneak it in.”
Altman burst onto the seventies movie landscape with M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Nashville, all both critical and box office successes. After Nashville he directed Buffalo Bill and the Indians, a debunking of the Western mythos starring Paul Newman as Bill and Burt Lancaster as dime novelist Ned Buntline. The film was not a success, and the producer was so alarmed by its subversive tone that Altman was removed from Ragtime, which was to be his next project. But, Altman had a believer in the head of production at 20th Century Fox, Alan Ladd Jr. He felt he could indulge Altman’s off-beat projects while making up the financial loss on more commercial films like another of Fox’s 1977 releases, Star Wars.
Peter Biskind reports, He and “Tommy Thompson were driving to the airport when Altman said, ‘Let’s stop at Twentieth. I had a dream last night, I want to sell it to Laddie. Keep the engine running, it’ll only take a minute.’ Altman darted into Ladd’s office, made a deal for 3 Women and was back in the car in time to make the flight.” He may have dreamed the atmosphere of the film, but a screenplay was still lacking. He wrote outlines and sketches, and eventually a 40 page treatment . His vision was a film about “personality theft” but he would leave the logistics of the plot (such as they were) to evolve. The film was shot in sequence and on location in the desert resort of Palm Springs. Each night he expanded scenes from his treatment before shooting them; the dialogue was improvised in rehearsal.
3 Women begins with the arrival of Pinky, a trainee joining Millie, a therapist at the Desert Springs Geriatric and Rehabilitation Centre. She becomes devoted to her co-worker, even moving in with her, insisting, “You’re the most perfect person I’ve ever met.” The object of her affection is a curious one. The deluded Millie prattles on about the mundane details of her life, unaware that she is ridiculed by everyone except her acolyte. After a crisis in their friendship and an ambiguous suicide attempt, Pinky begins to appropriate the worst of Millie’s character traits, and the film delves even deeper into the images of twins, doubles and watery reflections. One of the fascinating aspects of the film, as Daniel O’Brien notes, “Aside from everything else, Millie’s personality is hardly worth stealing.” Shelly Duvall wrote most of her own riveting chatter, and she won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Sissy Spacek is one of our greatest working actresses. She was born on Christmas Day, 1949, in Quitman, Texas. She is a cousin of actor Rip Torn, and studied at the Actor’s Studio before entering films. She specialized early in her career in “impersonating weird teenagers” (Katz) including the girl on a vicious crime spree with Martin Sheen in Badlands, and of course the vengeful psychic Carrie. Perhaps the shrimp cocktail accident in 3 Women was meant to remind the audience of Spacek’s earlier triumph.
Duvall was born in Houston, Texas, six months before Spacek. She had no acting experience when she was discovered by Altman at a party and cast in his early film, Brewster McCloud. She has been somewhat a muse for him over the years, starring in seven Altman films, including that instance of perfect casting, Olive Oyl in Popeye. She largely withdrew from acting to produce films for her company Think Entertainment, including the wonderful series, Faerie Tale Theatre.
3 Women opened and closed in a few weeks, as had Buffalo Bill. It had only cost $1.6 million, so there was a small profit for Altman and Ladd, although the studio lost money on the distribution costs. Helene Keyssar reminds us that most movies are easy to forget. It is a symbol of the power of this film’s imagry that for over 20 years, every time I close my skirt in the car door, I think of Shelly Duvall in 3 Women.
Spacek and Duvall
(Photo from the cover of the May, 1977 Films in Review. Sources include: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, Robert Altman, Hollywood Survivor by Daniel O’Brien, Robert Altman by Gerard Plecki, Robert Altman’s America by Helene Keyssar, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz.