Movie of the Month: 3 Women (1977)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Hanna, and Brandon watch 3 Women (1977).

Britnee: “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 about it except what they feel.” Robert Altman’s words about his 1977 masterpiece 3 Women accurately describes the experience I had when watching it for the first time about a year ago. When I first saw the film I didn’t really understand what I had watched, but I knew that I loved it. Over time, it’s become one of my all-time favorite movies. The idea for 3 Women came to Altman in a dream, and the movie really does feel like a dream, where nothing really makes sense yet everything feels perfectly normal. Typically, when you wake up from a dream it’s difficult to explain it to others, and 3 Women is equally difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it.

As the title suggests, 3 Women is about three women: Pinky (Sissy Spacek), Millie (Shelley Duvall), and Willie (Janice Rule). Pinky is a carefree young girl and possibly a teenage runaway. She finds a job working at a geriatric health spa, which is where she meets her new coworker and her new obsession, Millie. Millie is a bit older than Pinkie. When she’s not working at the spa, she’s talking about all sorts of unappetizing recipes and how much she loves Scrabble. She actually never stops talking, but the problem is that no one listens to her. Everyone around her acts as if she doesn’t exist. Everyone except for Pinky, who is infatuated with Millie in a very Single White Female sort of way. Pinky eventually becomes Millie’s roommate in an apartment complex for singles. On their way to the apartment, Millie brings Pinky to her favorite bar, Dodge City, a dive attached to an abandoned Old West theme park in the middle of the desert. Both the bar and the apartment complex are owned by Edgar and his pregnant wife, Willie. Willie is older than Millie and Pinky, and she spends her time painting bizarre murals in silence.

Of the three women, my favorite is Millie. My God, Shelley Duvall is utter perfection in that role. She’s one of the most tragic characters in all of cinema, wasting most her time talking to people who don’t bother making eye contact with her or even acknowledge her existence. Whether it’s the group of male physicians she awkwardly lunches with, her coworkers, or the tenants in her apartment complex (especially bachelor Tom, with his never-ending “cough”), everyone treats Millie like a ghost. She really embodies that feeling of when you are trying to talk to someone in a dream, but they won’t respond or pay any attention to you.

Brandon, what did you think about Millie? Did her character’s journey throughout the film stick out to you more than Pinky and Willie?

Brandon: The main reason that Millie is such a standout in that central trio is that Shelley Duvall is such a heartbreaker of a performer. She is too fragile for this callous world, and watching people crush her spirit is always absolutely devastating. Whether in canonized classics like The Shining or in disposable novelties like Altman’s own Popeye adaptation, she is perfectly suited for the damsel in distress archetype. Unfortunately, this extends beyond her fictional performances and bleeds over into her real-life persona, something that’s haunted me ever since her offscreen struggles with mental illness were crassly exploited for ratings on a very special episode of Dr. Phil in 2016. Watching Millie endlessly chat at no one in particular, reaching out for human connection to a disinterested world only to be rejected, ignored, or taken advantage of over and over again easily made for the most compelling performance of the three women for me. By which I mean I spent most of the movie wanting to reach through the screen to whisk her away to a community that actually gives a shit about her. Even seeing her skirt get caught in the car door every time she went for a drive was just as heartbreaking as it was adorable.

The tragedy, of course, is that she does not acknowledge the one person who’s actively listening to her babble about boardgames and casserole recipes. Pinky’s childlike crush on Millie is just as delicately menacing as Spacek’s telekinetic fury was in her performance as Carrie White, but there is a kind of sweetness to her obsession as well. Pinky goes way overboard in her fixation on Millie, extending beyond a “I want to be your best friend” sentiment to more of a “I want to wear your skin like a housecoat” vibe. Still, Pinky’s loving attention towards her new roommate & unwilling mentor is essentially just an intense overdose of the kindness & interconnectedness that Millie longs for. It’s heartbreaking that they can’t get past their awkward social barriers to truly connect with one another on a meaningful level (ditto in their relationship with the reclusive artist Willie, who’s just as closed off to the world as Millie is openly vulnerable to it), so it’s effectively a relief when real-world logic breaks down to allow them to form a truly cohesive unit. The film strikes a nightmarish tone as it shifts their world around to allow these connections to happen, but the end result is outright sublime, serene: they become a family.

I don’t know why there are so many psychological thrillers where women who are fixated on each other start to meld & swap personalities over time, but I do know that I’m always a sucker for it (with recent examples including titles like Queen of Earth, Sibyl, Always Shine, and Butter on the Latch). Even so, 3 Women registers as one of the greats, maybe bested only by the queen of the genre: Persona. Boomer, do you have any thoughts on this genre in general or how 3 Women functions within it? What differentiates its tone & purpose from a more typical woman-on-the-verge-of-a-breakdown story?

Boomer: When the Swampflix Canon was updated a few months ago, I took a look at my contributions to that list and had one of those “You really don’t see your patterns until they’re laid out in front of you” moments and realized that there are apparently only three things that I like: (in Brandon’s words) “populist superhero spectacles, obscure Euro horrors,” and women-on-the-verge films. My love for the aforementioned Queen of Earth is well documented, but the film that I thought of most frequently throughout 3 Women (after my initial thoughts of “Oh, this is Single White Female” followed by “Oh this is actually Mulholland Drive“) was Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which similarly features dreamlike narrative and “gauzy” filmmaking juxtaposed against harsh realities of disaffection and occasional violence.

There’s a definite undercurrent of that quality that fascinates me in that genre present in 3 Women, but one major difference that I see is that 3 Women has (arguably more than) one woman who’s already on the other side of the verge: Willie. She’s clearly past the point where she cares about “society” in any meaningful way, living in a derelict mini golf park/shithole bar and spending her waking moments making angry and occasionally violent (literally, with bullet holes on the canvas) art on every available surface. Millie isn’t really flirting with the edge, yet, but you can tell that she knows it’s not too far away, as her constant attempts to garner not just the friendship but the mere attention of her peers and other members of the community is her defining character trait; at first, Pinky isn’t even aware that there’s a cliff that she could possibly go flying over, until her disappointment in and (tacit and explicit) rejection by Millie causes her to leapfrog straight over her crush/roommate into complete loss of identity.

What really differentiates 3 Women from others in this genre, however, is the way that it treats the characters’ pasts. Queen of Earth has flashbacks to the year prior and features much discussion of the past and the characters’ relationships that delineate their current conflict; Puzzle of a Downfall Child likewise has flashbacks to Lou’s childhood that ultimately explain why she is the way she is, albeit not without some contradiction; 2011’s The Roommate (which I’m citing because I saw it more recently than Single White Female, despite it being a worse movie in every way) has a backstory and a diagnosis for our identity-coveting villain. Like the desert itself, the “now” of the film seems ageless in an anxious, foreboding, and eternal way. We learn relatively nothing about Willie, even in comparison to her husband, whom we at least know is a prankster and a former stunt double from the outset. We know a little bit more about Pinky, but her backstory is still mysterious and possibly false, as we never really confirm if she’s even from Texas. In comparison, we know lots more about Millie because she’s always talking about herself, but the things we learn about her are pretty shallow (that irises are her favorite flower, that she had to sleep in the rollaway bed in the living room a lot when her previous roommate had “company,” and that she keeps a daily journal that’s factual and perfunctory rather than insightful or meditative) and don’t really inform an understanding of her long term psychology, other than the fact that she’s doing her level best to be “normal” without much success. There’s a strength of character and identity that’s conveyed solely through performance here without the standard packaging of “Character X does Y because of childhood event Z” that we normally see, and I like that a lot.

Hanna, what do you think of Pinky’s story, in or out of the context of the epilogue? I’m thinking in particular of her pre-hospitalization stories (such as they are) about herself, and the scene where Millie drives her home to the apartment for the first time, wherein Pinky compares their surroundings to Texas; later, when Pinky’s parents (maybe) visit to see her, her mother (maybe) says “It sure doesn’t look like Texas.” Does she really not recognize her parents only due to amnesia and taking on an amalgamation of Millie’s real and imagined identities, or is it because they’re not her parents, as is potentially indicated by Mrs. Rose’s claim that Mr. Rose came up with the name “Pinky,” although we know her real name is Mildred (or is it)? Is Pinky merely an honest girl who experienced severe brain damage or does she simply lie about her past like a lot of teenagers do and lose track of her deceptions?

Hanna: To be honest, I had a very hard time interpreting the journeys of these characters, or at least articulating any kind of interpretation. Just like in a dream, the relationships are foggy, disjointed, and archetypal; it seems like you can’t make sense of them unless you close your eyes. So, when I close my eyes, I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Rose are the parents of pre-coma Pinky, who dies in the pool; when Pinky is “reborn” as Mildred, her parents aren’t her parents anymore. I don’t think Pinky is lying about her past, and I don’t even really think that “Mildred” Pinky is brain damaged; I see “Pinky” Pinky and “Mildred” Pinky as two connected but distinct people, one of whom has started to absorb Millie’s identity. Pinky’s dive felt sacrificial, and the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of enmeshed identity that Willie’s paintings seem to predict; through the sacrifice, she destroys any part of her that has history outside of the other two women. I also think it’s telling that, in the very end, Pinky identifies Millie as her mother, and that all three women have established relationships that preclude individual lives. This is a totally strange line of logic in real life, but if it was happening in a dream I don’t think I would question it.

I think one of the most compelling aspects of this film was each woman’s sublimation of self into a single folkloric identity. Boomer’s pointed out that nagging “eternal” feeling of the desert, and that perfectly describes my feelings about the three women. The film starts off with Pinky and Millie working in the rehabilitation center for the elderly, but slowly the two women are drawn out of Californian society and into this dreamworld saloon by the magnetism of Willie, the pregnant Wild Woman. In the end, we find all three of the women abandoning the identities that no longer serve them, creating a dreadful symbiotic family comprised of a Child, a Mother, and an Elder out on the ranch that’s incapable of fostering growth outside of itself. I imagine that they’ll be living out there until the end of time, certainly never in need of a spa for the old.

Lagniappe

Brandon: This feels like a huge departure from what I’ve come to expect from a Robert Alman picture. I’m much more used to seeing him in his big cast/overlapping dialogue mode (Short Cuts, Nashville, Pret-a-Porter, Gosford Park, etc), and 3 Women feels like a much more insular, cerebral experience than that. I wish he had tackled this kind of eerie, dreamlike, horror-adjacent material more often; he’s damn good at it. Looking through his filmography, the hallucinatory psych-horror Images is really the only title that seems close to this territory, and I’m excited to check it out.

Hanna: I definitely agree that Shelley Duvall was the standout (I cringed very deeply and personally during the lunchroom scenes), but I really wish this movie had more Willie. Her energy elevated 3 Women from a dreamy psycho-drama into the realm of the mystical. On the other hand, I think that mysticism was accentuated by the fact that she spent 90% of her scenes skulking around the edges of the frame painting beautiful, tortured fish-people.

Britnee: Listening to Millie talk about now vintage recipes made with nothing but processed ingredients brought me so much joy. The one that stuck out to me the most was Penthouse Chicken. When she was trying to impress the table of silent doctors with the recipe that can be “made with a can of tomato soup,” I was sold. It turns out I’m not the only one who wanted to make Penthouse Chicken after watching 3 Women. The Famous for My Dinner Parties blog (titled after a direct quote from Millie) posted a picture of the recipe from the 1963 cookbook Cooking with Soup. What a great dinner and movie combination!

Boomer: Shelley Duvall’s overall career is referenced above, and I think it’s worth mentioning that when I think of her name, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t The Shining or Popeye, it’s Faerie Tale Theatre. Enjoy.

And also this, which is one of my earliest memories of watching a movie and fully warped my brain.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Hanna presents Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)
October: Brandon presents Monster Brawl (2011)
November: Boomer presents Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)

-The Swampflix Crew

One thought on “Movie of the Month: 3 Women (1977)

  1. Pingback: Bonus Features: 3 Women (1977) | Swampflix

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