Women on the Verge

Melissa Anderson on 3 Women and the Robert Altman retrospective at MoMA

Robert Altman, 3 Women, 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Millie Lammoreaux and Pinky Rose (Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek).

DIRECTED BY ROBERT ALTMAN during the New Hollywood paragon’s most fertile decade, 3 Women (1977) stars two of the greatest, most emblematic actresses of 1970s American cinema: Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. This shape-shifting movie, which explores self-delusion, intense attachment, and identity-merging, originated in a dream Altman had and proceeds with a particular oneiric logic. The film is rich in brilliant oddities and juxtapositions, never more so than when Duvall and Spacek are encompassed in the same frame.

3 Women looks back to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and anticipates David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001); all three movies revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. In Altman’s film, childlike Pinky (Spacek), a new arrival to Southern California, becomes utterly transfixed by Millie (Duvall), the garrulous woman who’s assigned to train her on the basics of hydrotherapy at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatrics Center. These coworkers soon become roommates at the Purple Sage Apartments, Pinky dazzled by Millie’s professed sophisticated taste, largely shaped by McCall’s magazine. Willfully ignoring the fact that most people find her to be a nattering, desperate fool, Millie frequently upbraids her simple-minded, pigtailed devotee, whose dedication seems to grow only stronger with each rebuke. “You’re the most perfect person I ever met,” Pinky gushes to Millie, who, in between cigarette puffs, smiles wide and says, “Gee, thanks,” genuinely flattered that someone has echoed her own long-held self-assessment.

After a near-deadly incident that occurs well into the film’s second half, the power balance between Pinky and Millie is inverted, the latter now the doting caretaker of the former, who expresses her gratitude through passive-aggressive outbursts and petty tyrannies—behavior clearly modeled on that of her one-time idol. The epilogue reveals an even more profound transformation of identities, with Pinky, Millie, and the third woman of the title, Willie (Janice Rule), a peripheral though ultimately crucial character who paints mystical, Boschian murals, settling into either a perverse family unit or a separatist desert herland commune—or both.

Or neither. “I just had the most wonderful dream,” Willie says in the movie’s closing minutes, suggesting that maybe everything that has transpired in 3 Women is limited to her midafternoon doze. However open to interpretation 3 Women may be, the film deepens in meaning when considering the facts of its production and its principals. The movie is the sixth of seven Duvall made with Altman, who cast her in her screen debut, 1970’s Brewster McCloud. (Their final project together, the 1980 musical flop Popeye, was released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Duvall’s best-known vehicle.) The film marks Spacek’s only collaboration with the director (who died in 2006) and, most likely, her sole film with Duvall, who hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2002. Though the actresses possess unconventional beauty, they are physically dissimilar—yet Duvall/Millie and Spacek/Pinky make perfect doppelgängers. Both performers were born in 1949 in Texas, Duvall in Houston and Spacek in Quitman, cities that also serve as the respective hometowns of Millie and Pinky. Their Lone Star State drawls intact, the actresses are reminders of a very specific somewhere, the one immutable truth in a film abounding with fantasies.

3 Women screens December 17 and 20 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the series “Robert Altman,” which runs through January 17, 2015.