163. 3 WOMEN (1977)

“I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual, where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything but what they feel.”–Robert Altman (quoted in David Sterritt’s Criterion Collection essay)



FEATURING: , , , Robert Fortier

PLOT: A young girl named Pinky begins working at a spa in California, where she eventually becomes roommates with her idol, Millie, who is a few years older. Millie believes herself to be popular, inviting people over for dinner parties and out on dates, but in reality nearly everyone avoids her except for Pinky. Then, after a near-fatal accident, Pinky undergoes a radical personality change…

Still from 3 Women (1977)

  • Robert Altman conceived the picture after a dream he had while his wife was hospitalized: he dreamed the title of the film, the location, that it involved personality theft, and that it would star Shelly Duvall and Sissy Spacek.
  • 3 Women was made without a traditional screenplay. Instead, together with writer Patricia Resnick, Altman devised a 50 page treatment. The movie was then shot in sequence, with Altman writing out the next day’s scenes the night before, and the actors improvising much of the dialogue. Duvall wrote all of her character’s diary entries herself.
  • The murals were painted by an otherwise nearly unknown hippie artist working under the name “Bodhi Wind.”
  • Duvall’s performance won her a Best Actress nod at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • The movie was not available on home video in any form until 2004, due to the distributors’ failure to negotiate rights for Gerald Busby’s avant-garde musical score.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The paintings that decorate the swimming pool walls: strange creatures with scaly legs and baboon faces, engaged in bizarre, violent courting rituals. A male stands with his arms outstretched and his stout penis hanging proudly between his legs while females scatter, looking over their shoulders and baring their fangs at him. Shots of these two murals, which inside the movie’s reality are painted by Janice Rule’s character, occur over and over throughout the film, including over the opening and closing credits. Oddly enough, the shot most associated with 3 Women—the one that illustrates the DVD cover and accompanies most reviews—doesn’t even occur in the film. The photograph of Sissy Spacek entwined in Shelly Duval’s arms as they recline against a fresco depicting one simian lizard creature strangling another was a promotional photo. 3 Women is that kind of movie: the type that’s best represented by something lying outside of its own boundaries.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: 3 Women is based on an uneasy dream suffered by Robert Altman, and incredible performances by Sissy Spacek and (especially) Shelly Duvall turn it into a collaborative dream. Although most of the movie is naturalistic, with nothing happening that could not quite happen in our reality, there is nonetheless a dreadful sense of illusoriness, as if we’re seeing events through a gauze.

Original trailer for 3 Women

COMMENTS: Tucked away on the long stretch of nowhere between Persona (1966) and Lost Highway (1997) lies 3 Women, the 1970s iteration of cinema’s recurring dream about sliding identities. This film is as dry and mysterious as a bone found in the desert. Directed by Robert Altman, the miniature scope—most of the film involves only two characters—and the way dramatic naturalism is subverted into disquieting weirdness is not what we typically think of as an “Altmanseque” epic ensemble satire. This change in tone makes this pensive movie all the more of a surprise coming from an accomplished director who (besides the experimental comedy of Brewster McCloud) was not known for his surrealist tendencies. The movie has a quiet quality that honors its Mojave desert setting; you hear the wind rustling through the spaces between Pinky and Millie.

Well into her twenties when she played this role, freckle-faced Sissy Spacek had a gift for playing wide-eyed neophytes whose innocence turned dangerous (as teenage serial killer moll Holly in Badlands, or the title character in Carrie). Here, as the redundantly-named Pinky Rose, she begins as a childlike blank slate and builds a persona before our very eyes. How her character, who seems all of fifteen years old, ends up in the middle of nowhere with a battered suitcase and no place to live or means of support is a mystery. She’s not a runaway fleeing abuse or an aspiring starlet on her way to Hollywood; she’s a slip of nothing who materializes from nowhere, a pure unformed girl with no plans or interests of her own. Permanently clad in infantalizing pink, we first catch sight of her staring blankly through a window at the women leading the old folks on their rounds through the hot pool at the spa, observing and absorbing. She blows bubbles in her coke, and is too tiny to fit into any of the bathing suits at the spa. When Millie is assigned to train her, Pinky immediately latches onto the older girl like a hatchling imprinting on momma. Pinky won’t remain an eternal child, however. After a symbolic death, she is reborn as a woman. Not as her role model, exactly, but as Millie, as Millie wishes she was: a confident queen bee swarmed by the boys, an alpha-female. And a crack shot, to boot. The script requires Spacek to play two women (maybe three, if we count her appearance in the coda as a separate role from Pinky); though it may be more accurate to say she plays one girl and one woman. Her first part is unnaturally innocent, and the latter is almost too bumptious to be believed. Spacek embodies each of these caricatures so credibly that we accept them both as real people, and buy the fact that they could be the same person. At the same time, she creates a queer aversion to each opposite personality.

Yet, as good as Spacek is, the movie belongs to Duvall. Tall, gangly, bug-eyed, with an overbite and a Houston accent that made her sound slightly backwards, Duvall was far from glamorous. She could never play a conventional female lead,  but Altman was fascinated by her face and her mannerisms, and knew how to make her flourish in the right oddball roles. Olive Oyl aside, Millie Lammoreaux is Duvall’s perfect creation; all of her physical and social awkwardness pours into this vessel. Millie is constantly clad in an attention-seeking bright yellow, a color she favors even more consistently than Pinky’s signature shade. The long hem of her yellow skirt constantly hangs out of the door of her equally yellow Pinto. If, at times, Duvall seems to be acting stiffly, this is entirely appropriate, because Millie is a bad actress in her own life. She believes herself to be a party girl, but is utterly oblivious to the disdain with which everyone except for the worshipful Pinky sees her. When you watch her trolling for eligible bachelors who desperately try to avoid talking to her or acknowledging her presence, these exchanges make you hurt, both for Millie and for those forced to endure her company. The cluelessness of a young woman on her own can be dangerous: she gives Pinky alarming advice suggesting that she doesn’t understand how birth control pills work. There is one man who pays attention to Millie; Edgar, her landlord and owner of the local watering hole/shooting range. Edgar is married, drunk, horny, and corny, and even Millie has enough self-consciousness to know that this relationship is degrading; but sometimes her loneliness breaks through the carapace of delusion she’s exuded around herself. Initially too strange and self-absorbed to sympathize with, Millie becomes the film’s heroine rather than a simple object of pity once Pinky’s accident engages her motherly instincts.

The audience’s focus shifts between the two women. We spend the first part of the film trying to figure out Pinky, and the second part trying to figure out Millie. Still, even more mysterious is Janice Rule’s Willie, the third of the film’s 3 women. Mute (by choice) and very pregnant, she constantly lurks in the background, working on her distressing murals and shooting accusatory glances at the other characters. She could almost be a mirage rising from off the desert floor, an emanation rising from the friction between Pinky and Millie. Although she plays a part in the plot late in the film, her most important role is as author of the brutal creatures she carefully paints on swimming pool walls. She is an oracular figure, silently bringing the characters (impressionable Pinky, especially) frightening visions of a world of animalistic sexual violence, images that are meant to be—literally as well as figuratively—submerged.

I’m not a fan of the movie’s coda, which suddenly reconfigures the relationship between the three characters in a way that seems unduly arbitrary and not of a piece with the more disciplined development that came before. But that’s a very minor complaint in a movie that otherwise has an embarrassment of riches. A dream in the desert, 3 Women succeeds in its aim of making you feel like you’ve been let in on a secret; at the same time, the meaning is as substantial as heat waves rising off asphalt. These 3 women are each, in their own way, alienated and lonely, struggling with insoluble issues of self and of others. The movie’s evocation of loneliness is linked to a sense of fragility of identity; Pinky might become Millie, and any of them seem like they could simply evaporate at any time. This fear of the theft of our very personality, which is explored in all of Persona‘s progeny (from 1968’s Performance as well as the late work of ) seems primal, yet it really relates directly to nothing in our experience. It fascinates us because it introduces us to a new type of dread, a totally psychic unease divorced from any physical boogeyman. 3 Women‘s spin on the template is to link this vague panic to the vivid personality disorders of aimless Pinky and delusional Millie, neither of whom seem quite real on paper, but both of whom are brought to undeniable life by a pair of brilliant performances. With 3 Women Altman fleshes out the phantoms of his dreams, but I fear he has not quite exorcised his personal demons as much as he’s passed them on to his audience. That’s an effect no horror movie can claim.


“…like a dream, it is most mysterious and allusive when it appears to be most precise and direct, when its images are of the recognizable world unretouched…”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…a daring piece of cinema that glides along the edge of weirdness and somehow manages not to fall off.”–Eric Henderson, Slant (DVD)

“…combines comedy, suspense, social comment, and Bergmanesque reverie to weird but often wonderful effect.”–Geoff Andrew, Time Out London

IMDB LINK: 3 Women (1977)


3 Women (1977) – The Criterion Collection page for 3 Women, with a link to David Sterritt’s essay, the trailer, a scene breakdown by painter Eric White, a profile of Shelly Duvall by Michael Koresky, and a short video essay

3 Women Movie Review and Film Summary – Roger Ebert’s entry on the film for his “Great Movies” series (he declared 3 Women the best movie of 1977)

3 Women << Angeliska Gazette – This personal reflection on the movie by blogger Angeliska includes a nice bit of detective work regarding mysterious muralist Bodhi Wind

Assignment Secured, Life Transformed for Composer of an Altman Film – 2017 interview with composer Gerald Busby

DVD INFO: As noted in the background section, for years 3 Women was not available on home video, until the Criterion Collection finally sorted out the issues with the musical rights in 2004 (buy). For a Criterion disc, there are not a lot of extras here: just a still gallery and several alternate versions of the trailer. There is, however, an invaluable Robert Altman commentary. In 2011 Criterion upgraded the movie to a Blu-ray (buy) with the same features. It can also be rented or purchased digitally (rent on demand).

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric SG, who rhapsodized, “[t]he look of the film, the mysterious paintings in the empty swimming pool, the brittle and emotionally flawed characterizations of the 3 women, it all adds up to a beautifully weird film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

7 thoughts on “163. 3 WOMEN (1977)”

  1. MY Trifecta of mysterious, psychological enigma movies have always been Persona (first and foremost) Mulholland Drive and this movie. Each of these movies have something to offer in their own individual moods – Persona is very formal, internal and psychological. Mulholland Drive is like a noir nightmare slowly unfolding and there seems to be a collision of two seperate realities in it. But 3 Women is the critical sleeper. It’s the movie of the three that is the most elliptical and dreamlike. I’d like to note how all three movies are solely held by the incredible performances of the two actresses that dominate each movie: Bibi Andersson/Liv Ullmann (Persona) Naomi Watts/Laura Harring (Mulholland Drive) and Shelley Duvall/Sissy Spacek. Is it a coincidence that all these movies use women to explore the dynamics of personality and psychology. One movie that I’ve missed and would like to see is the Double Life of Veronique which from the plot synopsis sounds similar to these movies. I’d like to say I really love the writing on this website and visit it once a week. It’s some of the most thorough and reflective writing on great movies I’ve ever read.

  2. Just watched this, on this site’s recommendation. It was great, and fantastically different – not only as a film, but as a WEIRD film, since it used a very different type of weirdness; an underhanded, indirect kind. Though it was also quite disturbing – and I really can’t quite place my finger exactly on why.

  3. After reading pages and pages of your entries here, it occurred to me… What about 3 WOMEN?!? Happily, it, of course was at the the very top of the listing… Yeah! And what a fucking lovely, poetic and imminently thoughtful write-up you attributed to it, you done me proud!! Also, the very tasteful way you mentioned `I am not a fan of the films coda’ and also that you are obviously not a nit-picker and that those last four minutes of the film did not in any way detract from your overall appreciation for the piece as a whole… more of a well-rounded, informed lover of film , I would say!

  4. One of my very favourite films, even within the inestimable career of Altman. I have watched it on celluloid perhaps half a dozen times. Each time it leaves new traces. Altman’s genius is in how he subtly layers the personalities so as to build plot. It is deeply disturbing in ways that are hardly apparent on the surface. And it’s also a landmark in feminism.

  5. There seems to be a common thread in all the reviews of this film…. that something very sinister is going on under the surface, and nobody can really put a finger on what it is or why it’s happening. I love that.

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