Tuesday, July 23, 2024

3 Women: Robert Altman’s Waking Dream

I’m told that the plot for 3 Women came to Robert Altman in a dream. That must have been some dream! He was apparently sleeping fitfully, worried about his wife surviving a serious medical crisis. In his dream, he was directing Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in a story about identity theft, set against the austere backdrop of the California desert. Awakening, he jotted down multiple pages of notes, which eventually turned into a highly ambiguous screenplay.

 I discovered this 1977 film (which was financed by 20th Century Fox in tribute to Altman’s track record) while reading through obits for the saucer-eyed Duvall, a longtime Altman favorite. It  premiered at Cannes where it won positive reviews, especially for Duvall’s performance, which won her a Best Actress award. Mainstream audiences, though, didn’t know what to do with it. Though the film nabbed a few accolades from critics’ societies, Oscar voters (and the public) remained indifferent.

Altman, a master at setting a scene, begins with eerie, androgynous figures, looking something like primitive deities. Apparently these are paintings, adorning a desert town’s walls and the bottoms of its swimming pools. The watery images give way to a sad-looking local health spa, where feeble seniors are being helped into a therapy pool by young women in drab grey uniforms. Eventually we meet a new addition to the staff. Pinky, played by Spacek is a recent arrival from Texas. Pinky dresses in modest pastel-pink frocks, and responds, wide-eyed, to all the opportunities afforded her in this new situation.

 For the first third of the film, it seems primarily Spacek’s story.  Duvall is introduced to her as one of the most capable of the therapy assistants, and before long she’s showing Pinky her off-hours haunts and letting this very naïve girl share her cheerfully decorated apartment. It’s a while before we realize the film’s focus has shifted to Duvall, as Millie. Seemingly confident and sociable, full of mile-a-minute chatter, she turns out to be not as socially successful as she at first appeared. In fact, she’s lonely, and Pinky’s awestruck admiration of her seems to be quickly waning.

In the wake of a strong disagreement between the two, there’s a near drowning in one of those bizarrely decorated swimming pools. As Pinky lingers in a coma, Duvall’s Millie takes it upon herself to watch over her roommate day and night, even going so far as to locate her parents in Texas.  But from this point forward, nothing seems to go as we might expect. While Millie is revealing a surprisingly maternal side, the recuperating Pinky seems to have changed completely. Once modest, slightly childish, and a teetotaler, she now confidently drinks, smokes, and shows off her prowess with a pistol at a local shooting range. Who knew?

 The film is titled 3 Women, and—yes—there is a third, played by Broadway veteran Janice Rule. (She starred in the original stage production of William Inge’s Picnic, and at the time this film was made was married to Ben Gazzara. A previous husband was Robert Thom, the screenwriter behind Wild in the Streets, and one of the strangest men I met in my Corman years.) Rule plays a mysterious woman, the artist responsible for all those weird images. Though significantly older than Spacek’s and Duvall’s characters, she’s heavily pregnant by her husband, a movie stuntman who’s clearly up to no good. There’s a harrowing scene in which her baby is delivered, in her husband’s absence by the in-over-her-head Millie. And what follows next is even stranger, with the three women transformed into entire different people. Ah, Altman!