After dicking with the Dino De Laurentiis company one and only time in 1976 with his acidic Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Robert Altman moved into what seemed to be a really nice and comfortable distribution deal with 20th Century Fox, whose film division president was Altman superfan Alan Ladd, Jr. To Ladd, Robert Altman could do no wrong, so whatever Altman wanted to deliver was a-ok with him. This couldn’t have been a more perfect arrangement but it somehow led Altman to write, produce, and direct five movies over the course of the following four years that would greatly assist in his unceremonious ejection from Hollywood and cause him to wander the creative wilderness for every waking second of the 1980’s. This is not a reflection on the quality of the movies Altman delivered to Fox, mind you. This was just how it went down.

3 Women, the first project on Altman’s slate, was likely the one that knocked him most off-course with audiences, causing him to have to thread quite the needle to work his way back into the mainstream. If audiences were only somewhat welcoming to Nashville and Buffalo Bill & the Indians, it’s hard to imagine that anyone thought they were going to cotton to 3 Women, a perplexing and mysterious film quite literally built out of a dream. But ever the maverick, Robert Altman just didn’t care. He had carte blanche with a major studio and he was going to make the movies that he wanted to make and 3 Women was his shot across the bow to illustrate just how serious he was about it. And, in crafting a post-Bergman/pre-Lynch meditation on shifting personalities and twinning identities, Altman produced a true masterpiece with 3 Women and it stands as one of his greatest achievements.

The film begins simply enough. Inelegant and plain Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) arrives fresh from Texas to a dusty, desert town in California and goes to work in a health spa that caters to the elderly. There, she meets Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), a overly self-confident chatterbox whose lack of an emotional quotient would stun even the least self-aware among us. In need of a roommate after her freewheeling friend, Diedre (Beverly Ross), moves out of her one-bedroom apartment, Millie reluctantly allows Pinky to move in with her. Here, Pinky soaks in Millie’s constant jabbering about her goofy recipes for frozen banana pops and tuna melts and becomes completely enamored with (to Pinky) Millie’s excitingly independent lifestyle which doesn’t really consist of anything outside either being shunned by her neighbors at her apartment complex’s pool or hanging out at a nearby bar and shooting range run by Edgar and Willie Hart (Robert Fortier and Janice Rule). After one of Millie’s McCall’s-inspired dinner party goes awry, the film takes a sharp left turn better left experienced as a first person viewer rather than a third person reader as Altman and company take the audience on one of the most spellbinding and haunting journeys in his filmography.

The third part in a loose trilogy that includes That Cold Day in the Park and Images, 3 Women stays out of the humdrum life of Frances Austin or the unreliable mind of Cathryn and replaces them with a diaphanously hazy dreamscape where only Dennis Christopher’s Coca-Cola delivery boy seems like the only outsider. Traces of the other films occur as the horribly awkward Millie is much more like Frances Austin, her understanding of sex and contraception bordering on the juvenile as she chirps to Pinky that she only takes the pill “when I know I’m going to do something.” But more in line with Images, 3 Women goes into hyperdrive when it’s focusing on the confusion of identity and psychological doubling. Aside from the utilization of identical twin sisters who work alongside Millie and Pinky at the spa, the details that blossom from both Pinky and Millie reveal a wicked symmetry that continues to tangle around the two of them until metaphoric ripples across the surface of a pool triggers a sea change in attitudes and personalities that culminates in a horrific nightmare and an even more terrifying climax, the board and all of its players becoming completely resettled.

3 Women is a curious title for the film as it predominantly about two women. But Janice Rule fills the important role of the silent and intimate yet unknowable presence that fascinates Altman, an idea that he would explore in greater detail two years later in Quintet. Willie isn’t just another woman in this universe with a phonetically similar Christian name to Duvall’s character. She’s the sad end to a tributary Duvall pretends to understand but, in reality, one in which Duvall has no clue. To Millie, Edgar and Willie are just a fun couple who run the watering hole where he cuts up on the shooting range and she solitarily creeps around the rotten and derelict park and emblazons all available white space with sinister, anatomically-defined figures engaged in a terrifying and bitter scrum. To Willie, Millie and Pinky become, at different times, “the other woman” which, frankly, they can only understand from their side. It’s all Scrabble and wines with names like like Lemon Satin and Tickled Pink until you’re the one who is desperately alone, toiling away at the bottom of a dried up pool while on the downslope of middle age where allegory and reality cruelly blend into one.

It’s likely impossible to heap enough praise on Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek who give two of their greatest performances in 3 Women. And, truthfully, it was likely the best Duvall ever got, her performance nabbing her a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival that year. As Millie, Duvall projects an almost impossible lack of self-awareness with an attitude both supremely confident and subtly fragile that is by turns both painful and hilarious. And Spacek’s Pinky has to go from homely to hot in both look and attitude and the 180 degree shift in her performance an absolute masterclass from top to tail. The film’s tone never strays from its dreamy origins and everything in the story clicks much like it would if you were half-lucid and looking at life through a gauzy filter. It sometimes feels like it’s a movie taking place about five hundred feet above an Altman film where the overlapping dialogue and off-frame conversations can still be vaguely heard, always keeping one of the film’s feet in a recognizable reality but submitting to almost no rule of traditional Hollywood filmmaking.

Given that this came out in April of 1977 and Star Wars came out a scant five weeks later, it probably comes as no surprise that 3 Women, despite getting some of Altman’s best reviews in years, got its ass kicked all over the box office. Unlike William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, another brilliant film from ‘77 that got itself all kinds of fucked up by Star Wars’s monopoly on America’s imagination, the business 3 Women lost to Star Wars was, truthfully, probably negligible. This film was going to be a tough sell no matter what year in which it came out. But what happened to 3 Women was not just that it simply got murdered in its general release, hardly anyone not named Jerry Harvey remembered it at all and the film languished in obscurity, never seeing a home video release until the Criterion Collection picked it up in 2004.

But to Altman, this was just part of the business and tough sells and easy sells weren’t his problem. He had a pipeline set up and when one project crashed, another one was on the horizon. While doing promotion for 3 Women, Altman made an off-handed remark to a reporter that his next film was going to be “a wedding,” a joke on the then-nascent business of having a legit film crew come and professionally capture your wedding. Well, a joke turned into an idea, an idea into a script, and a script into a film, and by the following year, A Wedding would be unleashed on America.

That’s just the way Altman rolled. Well… for a few more years, at least.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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