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3 Women - 1977

Directed by Robert Altman

Written by Robert Altman & Patricia Resnick

Starring Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
Ruth Nelson & John Cromwell

Robert Altman's subconscious was again hard at work when he made 3 Women, to me one of his greatest ever films, and one that you can dive into, digging down deep when looking for meaning and substance. Once again we see the director's fondness for Ingmar Bergman, with this film resembling Persona even more than Images did - a film that Altman originally claimed Persona was an inspiration for. In all actuality, 3 Women was based on a dream Altman had, which he expanded into a treatment which was co-authored by Altman's personal friend Patricia Resnick, whom he'd met at the University of Southern California - marking her first screenwriting effort. The particulars of the story were kept blank however, with the actors encouraged to take their roles wherever they felt they should go. Once again Robert Altman would forge ahead by both encouraging his crew to contribute ideas and direction to a film, and letting it grow organically. I find that this method of filmmaking uncovers a great deal about what's going on in our subconscious - and indeed this is a 'dreamlike' film, despite being based fairly well on solid reality. The more you think about this film, the more you see in it.

The film starts at a health spa where the young and child-like Pinky (Sissy Spacek) gets taught the ins and outs by the confident yet unpopular Millie (Shelley Duvall). Pinky latches on to Millie, and when she notices her post a notice for a roommate, she's quick to answer and move in with her. Pinky becomes part of Millie's life, and as such Millie introduces her to artist Willie (Janice Rule) who paints massive murals and creates works of art that she punctures with firearms. She also meets Willie's husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), who has fathered the child Willie is shortly about to give birth to. The two women clash - Pinky is accident-prone and less sure of herself than Millie is, and when Millie brings Edgar home with her one night an argument ensues which leaves Pinky hurt by Millie's harsh words. She attempts suicide by diving off a railing into the pool - leaving Millie feeling guilty and grief-stricken. While Pinky is in a coma, Millie contacts her parents and brings them to see her, but Pinky wakes up and claims the two older people aren't actually her parents. In fact, Pinky's personality has dramatically changed - she's become Millie, but a tragedy is about to unfold that will draw Pinky, Millie and Willie so close together that we start to wonder if perhaps they're all the same person.

Perhaps they are the same person. We learn during the film that Pinky's real name is Mildred, which also happens to be Millie's name, and when you consider that Willie is so close to Millie that you just need to transpose one of her name's letters it starts to seem as if they all share a single name. Pinky does things such as enter Millie's social security number as her own, and keeps on accidentally using Millie's time-card to end her shift at work. When Pinky gets out of the hospital, she starts writing in Millie's diary, claiming that it's hers - and seems to think the apartment they live in is hers instead of Millie's. Also consider the fact that Edgar sleeps with all three women as if they're interchangeable. The three aren't necessarily physically one person, but within the context of the film Altman seems to be specifically equating them as consisting of the same psyche or energy. It's also interesting to note that Spacek seems to personify childhood, while Duvall's character appears to take the form of adolescence and Rule's adult woman or motherhood - three different parts of a woman's lifespan.

3 Women opened at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, and Shelley Duvall ended up winning Best Actress for her performance. Italian film Padre Padrone ended up beating it for the Palme d'Or. Duvall also won a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for her work in the film, and was nominated for a New York Film Critics Circle Award - she lost out to her costar Sissy Spacek, who took out the award for her acting in this film. They were both nominated for a National Society of Film Critics Award, and Duvall was nominated for a BAFTA. The pair obviously were real standouts in this film, and make 3 Women what it is - they appear to be living their roles, and bring to the screen two very unique characters who are extremely interesting and fun to watch. Spacek appears more child-like than I've ever seen a grown woman act, and it's incredible how Duvall maintains her confident and easy state of mind amidst the total rejection from those around her - and in spite of her need for attention and approval. When they're not ignoring her they're belittling her in hushed tones that she nevertheless can hear. Rule's is a more distant, dark and mysterious aura, and she's only very slowly introduced into the world of the more dominant two characters.

Composer Gerald Busby's film career doesn't consist of much, but he composed a haunting, somewhat spaced out and psychedelic score for this film - it wouldn't feel out of place in films such as Polanski's Repulsion or Bergman's Persona, as there's something psychologically broken about it. If I had to invent a term for it, it would be "kaleidoscopic brass", and it turns the everyday into something a little unsettling and unreal. In the meantime Altman was working with a new cinematographer again, with Charles Rosher Jr. taking up Director of Photography duties. He quickly adapts to the director's need for movement, both lateral and by zooming in and out, sometimes at speed to draw our attention to something suddenly. He captures Shelley Duvall at one point completely fractured by a reflection, and does a lot more than what Paul Lohmann was doing in Altman's last few films. The colours of 3 Women are interesting as well - with their pastel pinks, purples, yellows and blues dreamily dissolving everything into a desert landscape. There's something otherworldly about it - and matches the tone of everything else in this film.

Altman had Dennis M. Hill, who had edited his previous 4 films, do the editing duties on this. Familiar names abound, such as Chris McLaughlin in the sound department, and you can readily assume that this director had a very steady and stable team of people assisting him in making these films. If you were creative, this was the perfect place to be as far as moviemaking specialties is concerned. Artist Bodhi Wind painted the amazing and visually striking murals - unfortunately he was struck by a car while walking one day in 1991 and killed. You look at the lizard creatures in them - usually a group of females dominated by a man - and wonder what they're all about and how they relate to the film. Considering the subject of this film you'd think they have to be connected to everything. Shelley Duvall decorated the interior of her character's apartment all by herself, and even gets a Set Decoration credit for doing that work - it was the kind of film that encouraged the cast to create their own character's inner world.

One last item to look at in considering what the film means are the transitions all of the characters make during their journeys through time. Spacek's Pinky begins in an obviously child-like and innocent fashion, but later becomes contrary, argumentative and sexual - as if she's going from childhood to adolescence. Duvall's Millie goes from being primarily interested in herself and guys to caring for Pinky and providing for her - as if she's going from adolescence to motherhood. Willie seems to be the maternal matriarch of both of these characters, and by the film's conclusion she's wedded to them as if they're one family living together. There seems to be a natural progression that occurs, created by an almost supernatural process, for these three characters - and in the end they turn on their male overseer, who has failed them completely by putting his physical needs above his own wife and child. He doesn't seem necessary to the family unit we end up with by the time the film's conclusion draws the curtain on what we see.

3 Women really feels like one of Altman's "perfect" films - one where everything comes together in just the right way, and you feel a particular satisfaction having seen it. The film is even interesting and entertaining just on it's surface - all of the characters are highly unusual, and you're never quite sure what they'll do next. When Millie finally manages to find Pinky's parents, and she brings them to see Pinky in hospital, they're a couple that seem to be two of the more stable patients from an asylum rather than your average Ma and Pa - and appear far too old to be Pinky's parents in the first place. When she awakens, and cries out claiming that they're not her parents you're not sure whether to believe it or not - neither option would surprise. Then, after Millie puts them up at her place, she happens upon the two elderly visitors making love, which increases the preternatural feel to what's going on. There's a million little touches to the film as well, which all add up, such as Millie's dress always seeming to get caught by her car door - you'll see her drive around with the hem of her dress poking out many times. Something that first occurred as an accident, and then once Altman saw it he decided to make it a character trait.

I thoroughly enjoyed 3 Women the first time I saw it, and by that first moment I had yet to really invest myself in all the possibilities of what it all means, and what it was saying. I felt sad for the outgoing Millie, who is absolutely ignored by every character in the film other than Pinky - her yearning for friends, and the way she'd invent many small lies about how popular she was, and how she had to turn so many men down, really accentuated the sad feeling I had about her. I still wonder about how female viewers perceive the film, it having been created by a man - but 3 Women seems to have been universally accepted and acclaimed, despite it having to sit dormant for three decades without video or DVD distribution until 2004. It might not have made much money - but Altman was at a certain stage of his career where he could take great risks, and make films with limited appeal. Alan Ladd Jr. at 20th Century Fox was greenlighting Robert Altman films on the basis of the budgets he kept them constrained to, and his interesting ideas. His personal relationship with Ladd would tide the filmmaker over for the rest of the decade.

So, I loved it. Roger Ebert also did, and he rated it as his Number 1 film for 1977 - over and above Star Wars. There weren't many people making films with the guidance of sparse treatments, relying on input from actors and crew, and seeing where it takes everybody at the time, and there weren't that many before or since. What's most surprising is how profound the results can be - to achieve what he did, it would have appeared to me that Altman had meticulously planned every single moment of this film - but it would appear that our subconscious mind knows better, and that the cast and crew also have a role in the creation of a film that goes beyond just doing what the director or producers tell them to do. The rest of the mystery (probably a bottomless mystery) awaits for the next time I turn my mind to 3 Women - for like a dream, it has a lot more to say and reveal. Sometimes a person's personality can carry over into another person - and identity can be elusive, changeable and reflective of who we identify with. Sometimes, like with twins (there are a prominent pair in this film) two or more people can be like one. The desert surroundings of Palm Springs have never seemed as haunting or isolating as they are in this dream - a Robert Altman dream that has now been shared by 3 ethereal women.