Shelly Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Robert Altman at Cannes, 1977
3 WOMEN A-
USA (124 mi) 1977 ‘Scope d: Robert Altman
Here is the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways. Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look: the movies and the newspapers.
—Joan Didion, from the opening essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968
—Joan Didion, from the opening essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968
Another one of Altman’s difficult and enigmatic films, a mix of comic absurdity and morbid tragedy, intentionally featuring few commercial prospects, creating a uniquely original desert landscape where it’s hard to survive without learning how to adapt, where women are caught in a no man’s land of macho culture that creates female victims that don’t fit anywhere, that aren’t really appreciated or valued, even to themselves, where they have to go through some absurd Kafkaesque psychological metamorphosis just to be able to live with themselves. With this film, Altman completes his “Female Subjectivity” Trilogy, coming after That Cold Day In the Park (1969) and Images (1972). What immediately strikes one about this film is how it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen, where one can’t help but be mesmerized by the uniqueness of such a rare work of art, like the murals on display throughout, where the artist Bodhi Wind, now deceased (struck dead while stepping off a curb in London), is barely known, yet the supreme beauty of the overall artwork on display is haunting for being such an undiscovered secret. Perhaps compounding the overall sense of loss and devastation is learning what happened to these artworks, which were painted specifically for this film in cracked and decaying swimming pools that had been abandoned in the heat of the desert. After the film was completed, they were eventually demolished to make way for new housing units, where one mourns the loss as one would for a particularly effecting death. What’s equally interesting is that this film was buried in the vaults somewhere, barely seen by anyone, confounding critics at the time of its release, not released on home video for some 27 years, where the reappearance is like a rebirth, all of which is reflective of the cyclical themes of the film, where Altman’s movie actually preserves Bodhi Wind’s artworks, like a time capsule, while introducing an unfathomable mystery that goes along with the director’s own artistic imprint.
Altman’s film is about breaking down the barriers and destroying the illusions that leave women so powerless, believing in the hype, the false magazine brand of what a woman should be, how she should look or dress, how she should behave, and what is expected of her in order to be considered a success. And when her life doesn’t live up to that idealized dream, the weight of the world falls on her shoulders, plunging into a culturally imposed psychological abyss where she must rediscover her own existential self-worth. Sort of a women’s version of Waiting for Godot, where the missing qualities in the lives of everyone seen onscreen seems to be waiting for deliverance by some mythological entity or unknown force, as suggested by the demonic power of the artworks, to be fixed and made whole again, as they are such pathetic examples of miserably unhappy human beings. Using a slowly building, dreamlike narrative that accentuates delusion and abject sadness, where characters are seemingly trapped by cliché’s and the banal ordinariness of their lives, this is one of the most achingly lonely films you’ll ever see. Shot in sweltering heat out in the Southern California desert somewhere, perhaps near Palm Springs, the film targets the evils of the banal, where apathy seems the most despicable of all human conditions, where no one cares about anybody else, who they are, where they’re from, what happens to them, whether they live or die, as it’s all the same when you’re so self-absorbed that you simply don’t give a damn. Instead of the abnormal psychological neuroses from Images (1972), this film features lost souls that are courageously trying to make it through life in a way that is acceptable to them. The comic humor of the first half gives way to a more carefully observed grimness and disillusionment by the end, where the impact is like watching glass shattering, leaving one stunned, forced to witness more than one can bear, and perhaps even traumatized by the unusual turn of events. Altman fixes it so it’s hard for the viewer to find a point of entry to this film, making it difficult to identify with any of the characters, as they’re all so disoriented, absent any identifiable personalities, so it’s the situation they’re in that finally matters, where it’s all about a personal transformation, requiring a revelatory shock of some sort to catapult one out of their mindless complacency, like the apocalyptic effect achieved in Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Certainly after the passing years, there’s little else out there like this, making the viewer value the uniqueness of the experience even more.
1 woman became 2
2 women became 3
3 women became 1
2 women became 3
3 women became 1
Whether intended or not, this seems to be the written formula for the film, neatly written out methodically like a recipe, offering guidelines for how to proceed. Yet due to the singular nature of filmmaking and art, no two directors would turn out the same product, which seems to be the fascination here, as despite our similarities, we are all uniquely different, both in our reactions to the same thing, and our levels of appreciation. Altman has written a birth to death, and rebirth movie, where Shelly Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux won the Best Actress Award at Cannes, as did Susannah York for Images (1972), and while she’s marvelous as this chatty Cathy character who talks endlessly in empty cliché’s to people who aren’t even listening, living her life out of magazine advertisements that tell her what color combinations to wear, how to decorate her apartment, what recipe’s to follow based on the amount of time needed for preparation, viewing herself as the most popular girl in town even as people really want nothing to do with her, it’s Sissy Spacek as Pinky Rose that we can’t take our eyes off of. Both performances are extensions of their earlier roles, Duvall in Nashville (1975) and Spacek in BADLANDS (1973), but she’s so unbelievably childish, seen early on blowing bubbles in her coke glass through a straw, seemingly without an idea or thought in her head, an empty vessel waiting to be filled, where she latches onto Millie, thinking she is the most wonderful person in the world, telling her “You’re the most perfect person I ever met.” What she brings to this film is pure innocence, surprised by everything as if she’s never seen anything before. Despite the title, the film is mostly about the involvement of these two women who become increasingly dependent upon one another, until later in the film they merge into something altogether different. Pinky comes into the film with no history, no foundation, where we know nothing about her, where she appears to be a blank slate, while Millie acts as our tour guide throughout the film, as she loves to explain the rules and guidelines of the world as she sees it, talking to complete strangers about her active social life as if she’s known them all her life, where her delusions are constantly exposed, even as she can’t see them. So while Pinky’s yearning to be like her, attached to her like a following shadow, Millie wants everybody to respect her and pay attention to her, but nobody else likes her or could care less about her, which is simply heartbreaking throughout.
One constant throughout the film is water, a rare and valuable commodity in the desert, but it’s given a near mythological depiction through the constantly recurring artworks which seem to move in and out of our consciousness, like the flowing of water, accentuated by opening and closing sequences shot through a wave machine, which may symbolically reflect amniotic fluid, the initial body of water that gives warmth and life to a growing fetus. Appropriately, an early shot shows extremely old and frail people at a rehabilitation health spa being led by young girls into a heated exercise pool of mineral water, where they may as well be returning to the birth water of their origins. It is at this spa that Millie and Pinky meet, where Pinky is the newcomer that needs to be trained, where there is a pair of identical twins, Polly and Peggy (Leslie Ann and Patricia Ann Hudson) working there as well, where Pinky, who is initially fascinated beyond belief (“I wonder what it’s like to be twins…do you think they know which one they are?”), is warned, “We don’t like the twins,” a thought lingering throughout that is never explained. The twins, however, are attractive young girls that live in their own zone and aren’t the least bit helpful, having no use for anyone else, where they seem to have nothing to give, even to themselves, much like the couple running the spa, where Sierra Pecheur as Nurse Bunweil runs a tight ship, barking out orders and instructions, getting on everybody’s ass, much like Nurse Ratched from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST (1975). The owners don’t seem the least bit concerned by their patients, but are more suspicious of government inspectors getting a look at their financial records, trusting no one, where all that matters to them is making money, as most likely they are cooking the books. This sense of blindness is accentuated by Millie’s cheerful façade, where she pretends to be something she’s not, continually ingratiating herself to others, whether it’s neighbors or coworkers, where she doesn’t have lunch at her own job site, but goes to the hospital across the street and invents conversations with people, making herself the center of attention, which is initially darkly comic, considering no one is the least bit interested, but it’s followed by ridicule. They always seem to be whispering under their breath, talking about her, even as they ignore her. In Millie and Pinky, we have two lonely outcasts, where there’s a steady stream of meanness that flows throughout this picture, which seems somehow connected to social standing, where the most popular are easily the most dismissive of others.
Pinky moves in with Millie at the Purple Sage Apartments, owned by a former stunt cowboy Edgar (Robert Fortier) and his wife Willie (Janice Rule, wife of Ben Gazzara), a mysterious pregnant woman who paints the striking and unsettling murals, while Millie also takes Pinky along on her evening visits to Dodge City, a deserted ghost town in a Wild West motif, featuring a dilapidated bar with an Indian teepee, fake rattlesnake, gun range, and dirt bike track out back, also owned by Willie and Edgar, where Willie can be seen working alone with her paints, dressed like a gypsy. This lone bar off the side of the highway is typical of the Southwest, featuring exaggerations that don’t quite work, where Fortier, who is also a carpenter by trade, helped build the Dodge City set. Millie talks incessantly at the bar until Pinky guzzles an entire mug of beer, followed by several loud belches, where Millie is simply bewildered, staring bullets through her in disbelief. People that live in the desert are more distant, living in extreme spaciousness too vast to fill, where it offers a certain aura that the film takes advantage of. We discover the desert reminds both Millie and Pinky of Texas, where they’re both from, apparently, and Altman uses a brightly exaggerated color scheme that contrasts from the barren wasteland outside. Additionally, this comments upon their barren interior lives, where Millie proudly exclaims, “I’m known for my dinner parties,” which consists only of dehumanized packaged, processed food. Willie is the third woman who barely utters a word throughout the entire picture, played like a Silent era movie star, always conveying a certain sadness, seeing right through her alcoholic husband who also hits on young girls, as if this is a sign of male virility, where his credo is, “I'd rather face a thousand million savages than one woman who’s learned how to shoot,” (all 3 women learn how to shoot by the end), finding him a pathetic excuse for a husband, where now she can’t even speak to him. Instead she paints these dreamlike, surreal murals of reptilian female figures under the domination of an enormous male monster inside empty swimming pools. In contrast, at the Purple Sage Apartments, these same artistic paintings are seen under the bright blue color on the floor of the swimming pool where people are continually seen lounging about grilling hamburgers. Millie invents a romance with Tom, her neighbor, who himself invents a cough to keep her away, where they call her “Thoroughly Modern Millie” when she joins them decked out from head to toe in yellow, where she is the object of snide remarks and whispered snickers.
Supposedly coming to Altman in a dream, where he visualized the briefest outlines of an idea, the film is shot in an impressionistic style that Altman likens to a watercolor that starts out as one thing, but eventually evolves into something else, a visual idea that can grow on you, like memory recollections, or a painting with music, where the camera is a window into this strange and mysterious world, where the seductive nature of the mural paintings lures the audience into this enchanted place. The anxiety ridden musical score by Gerald Busby, who plays the Reverend in Altman’s next film A Wedding (1978), is dissonant and atonal, perfectly reflecting the restless unease of the characters who remain in a state of constant transition from one place or time, where sudden actions can happen abruptly and feel disorienting. Altman loves to use glass or mirror reflections, doubling or tripling the images, offering a window into the soul of sadness, also a view through an aquarium, a device used later in Short Cuts (1993), at times feeling as if we are underwater. In all likelihood an extension of Images, Duvall’s entire performance is fraught with exposed flaws and vulnerabilities, where she devised much of her own quirky dialogue about tuna melts and hula lessons, made her own costumes, decorated the apartment, created her own recipes, even did her own grocery shopping for the movie scenes, but most importantly also wrote her own diary entries that Pinky devours first chance she gets. While Millie is filled with self-inflated pride, following the magazine advise, taking it all very seriously, repeating catch phrases that she thinks will make people like her, Pinky has nobody, and is so completely lost that she begins to steal Millie’s identity, pretending to be like her, initially wearing her clothes and claiming she hates tomatoes after overhearing Millie express a similar dislike in order to form a closer bond with her, eventually escalating to more, actually taking over the writing of the diary and assuming her personality, but not until after a traumatic event lands her in the hospital, where the hospital coma sequence is duplicated in Short Cuts. Even after turning on Pinky, angrily blaming her for her own shortcomings, seeing her in a coma afterwards strikes a nerve, where Millie’s standing up for Pinky is a way of standing up for herself.
The film’s journey takes a baffling turn, where afterwards Pinky becomes a version of Millie that she could only hope to achieve, becoming very sure of herself, with a newfound confidence and swagger, where all the guys Millie imagined she was with are actually lining up to be with Pinky, a change of circumstances that has her floored, seeing her turn into a mean and coldhearted person. But Millie remains her friend, even when humiliated and treated with scorn, becoming her more timid and submissive follower in passive disbelief, remembering that Pinky was the only one who actually admired her. This exchange of identities shown in an entirely different light is not altogether new, as Altman experimented with it in Images, superimposing the faces of Susannah York with a young 12-year old girl, reflected together in mirrors, and it was used to wondrous effect in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), where the evil Mrs. Gulch morphs into the Wicked Witch, not to mention Dorothy’s helpers are all transformed versions of real people she earlier encountered. But in Altman’s hands, it’s a puzzling transformation, where Pinky has a similar dream sequence, a stunning montage of previously seen footage appearing in a different light, bathed in waves, giving the appearance of being underwater, perhaps a return to the womb, where the sleeping body is immersed in an amniotic fluid, reformulating new visions of themselves, taking what they need from one another, where each is a mirror reflection of one another cast in a new light. The dissonant musical score emphasizes a sense of metamorphosis and renewal, where they are all trying to overcome this feeling of loneliness. The film suggests our DNA is so close to being exactly alike that we exaggerate our personalities in order to distinguish ourselves from one another, and God forbid we’re exactly like somebody else. Yet even when drawing what we can from each other, everybody’s personalities are their own, even identical twins, who have the capacity of feeling alone and unloved. We all react differently to the inevitability of death, or the death of a child, for instance, where humans are never actually prepared for the force of impact, where the individualized emotional recovery afterwards perhaps redefines who we are, as we are never quite the same again, reconfigured into completely different human beings. This impressionistic mosaic suggests nothing less than a rebirth completes the cycle of life, with the 3 women becoming a single composite personality, perhaps a fuller, more completely evolved species of women, where ultimately we all embody the same human spirit, as after all, this is only a dream anyway, where Millie consoles Pinky at one point after a bad dream, “Dreams can’t hurt you.”