Robert Altman understands that weddings are semi-goofy affairs on which, each year, a whole lot of money is dropped on lavish, nerve-wracking, and anxiety-inducing ceremonies and even more unthinkably gaudy receptions, all in the service of unions that have less than a 50% chance of succeeding. He’s also keen on the notion that all weddings are secret disasters waiting to happen as the joining of two families is generally a nightmare recipe. So it’s curious that A Wedding, Altman’s first contemporary and reality-bound work since Nashville, feels like more like a rough idea than it does an actual movie. To be sure, it’s a mostly wonderful and quotable film, but it’s also frustratingly overstuffed, laboriously too busy (even for an Altman joint), and, perhaps most consequentially, permeated with an ugly and rank contempt for almost all of its characters.

A Wedding is the story of the wedding and subsequent daylong reception of Muffin Brenner (Amy Stryker) and Dino Corelli (Desi Arnez, Jr.). Opening as a grand and reverent enterprise, the film slowly peels layer upon layer from almost every character in its purview to the point where, at the end, the entire party on both sides of the aisle has been exposed as unpleasant, sick, and/or corrupted in almost embarrassing measures.

On the groom’s side is an air of a nouveau riche aristocracy and is one that is likewise laced with ennui-induced drug addiction. On the bride’s side, there is more established wealth that masks a lower-class of people where bored complacency leads to wanton hedonism and where familial relations are far too close for comfort. Between them is an assortment of friends, siblings, in-laws, ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, estate staff, and event contractors, all of whom share secrets, desires, loves, laughs, drinks, weed, politics, and indignities throughout the day and into the evening.

I suppose that in his defense, Altman thought it was all ok if he stuck it to everyone on the screen with equal force and measure and therefore couldn’t be branded as an elitist if he did so. But it’s almost as if the cynical summations of America that he presented in both Nashville and Buffalo Bill and the Indians had disgusted Altman to the point where the poison couldn’t help but flow into his creative juices which, sometimes, does minor damage to the film. I mean, it’s one thing to introduce a creepy, almost incestuous relationship between two of the family members in the pursuit of some dark humor but, from a sexual standpoint, the bride’s side of the family is presented as such a gaggle of grossly dysfunctional and regressive hayseeds that the film sometimes veers dangerously close to being mean-spirited. Like the world on display in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, the groom’s side of the family is a closed, perverted environment and one that is so decadently incorrect that “Chairman of the Board” William Williamson (Altman regular Bert Remsen filing his last performance for the director) is the only guest to show amid the “few more than a hundred” regrets.

Sometimes, the need to cover everything crowds out Altman’s better sense and further dulls the piece. While the former supplies at least three of the film’s hilarious moments, both Viveca Lidfords’s Ingrid Hellstrom and Maureen Steidler’s Libby Clinton could have been completely excised from the film without affecting its structure in the least. Likewise, less time could have been spent on extraneous characters and situations such as the sometimes farcical security detail (which includes co-screenwriters Patricia Resnick and John Considine) and the film crew (which includes another co-writer, Allan Nicholls). While well-intentioned, neither of these conceits feel very organic and they likewise suck up a lot of oxygen that could have been of better use by focusing on the specific relationships between the myriad characters or on Geraldine Chaplin’s delightfully uptight wedding planner, smartly utilized as the film’s master of ceremonies/center of the hurricane.

As is to be expected, the entire cast is incredible. While her broadly pitched performance sometimes tilts in the direction of the Eunice character she created for her variety show, Carol Burnett is wonderfully hilarious as Tulip Brenner, mother of the bride. Almost better is Nina Van Pallandt as Regina Corelli, mother of the groom. Nursing a secret yet crippling addiction to heroin, Pallandt is by turns nervous and jittery before her performance relaxes into an enunciation minefield where all of her hard r’s are sanded down and she glides along on a soft, narcotic cloud. Vittorio Gassman, playing beleaguered father of the groom Luigi Corelli, turns in a softly hilarious and ultimately touching performance as he slowly reveals himself to be perhaps the most decent person in the whole bunch. But, if anything, the film’s greatest casting coup was to pair Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher as father and son. Portraying, respectively, father and brother of the bride, Snooks and Hughie Brenner, both find the exact temperature in every scene they’re in and create a truly believable dynamic which no doubt led Peter Yates to cast them as father and son in the following year’s Breaking Away in which both gave career-best performances.

And on a technical level, A Wedding is a marvel. As much as any multi-tracked ensemble film from Altman, it demands to be seen twice as half of the film’s best jokes are found in the grout and away from the camera, in snippets of random dialogue that rise above the maelstrom of its staggering cast of characters (there are about twice as many people in this than in Nashville). Additionally, most of the scenes contain an energetic and bustling choreography of actors moving in and out of the staid and static frame that sit nicely alongside Altman’s more familiar, “roaming-eye” camera flourishes.

By now, it probably sounds as if A Wedding is something of an unlikeable failure which is most definitely not the case. While it’s far from a masterpiece, it contains a great many worthwhile insights that live underneath its thorny and acrid surface and, despite the film’s tone, the natural beauty of Altman’s style can’t help but elevate the picture to something more than just a moving portrait of unappealing wax dummies. Even though the air is mostly foul, there’s a vivaciousness in this movie and perhaps the point of the film is that it’s as as equally hilarious and nauseating as real life.

In retrospect, though, Altman’s greatest idea involves the death of Nettie Sloan (Lillian Gish). It’s probably no accident that Gish, the doe-eyed “First Lady of American Cinema,” is cast as the matriarch of a family which is helplessly dishonorable. Dying in the film’s early moments (setting up one of the film’s best gags that predates Ted Kotcheff’s Weekend at Bernie’s by a full decade), she seems utterly relieved to no longer have to lord over a family where the relationship between her daughter Clarice (Virginia Vestoff) and Randolph (Cedric Scott), the African-American house butler, is explicitly dictated to remain in the closet (as is the family’s biggest secret which reveals itself in the film’s closing moments). An antiquated sense of race and class dissolving as the natural winds of change blow about her, Altman symbolically uses Gish’s demise to trumpet the new cinema which had, by 1978, choked out the old system.

“When it’s over, it gets real sad,” says Rosie Bean (Lesley Rogers) to Geraldine Chaplin’s Rita Billingsley about the exhausting comedown that occurs after the ceremonial brouhaha surrounding a wedding. On one hand, it’s an indictment of the kind of dichotomy that naturally exists between a wedding and a marriage. On another hand, it’s something of an existential conundrum put to people like Billingsley who make a living feeding the beast and widening that delta. But another possibility is that it could also be Altman speaking to himself; reckoning that his Hollywood stroke had become less and less significant and perhaps feeling his best days were shrinking into the horizon behind him. But like the detestable and doomed Wilson Briggs (Gavan O’Herlihy) and Tracy Farrell (Pam Dawber), the bride and groom’s respective exes who each show up to the wedding reception as bad-faith discomfort agents, Altman was too busy being a condescending wisenheimer to see the jackknifed tanker sitting in the middle of the highway toward which he was barreling at top speed.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


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