In Desert Springs, California, SHELLEY DUVALL’S “Thoroughly Modern” Millie Lammoreaux, seems to have leapt from the pages of Cosmo, Apartment Life and Woman’s Day, with her Vidal Sassoonesque hairdo, pad by the pool in the Purple Sage singles complex, and her own “famous” dinner party fare: tuna melts, pigs-in-the-blanket with Cheez-Whiz, and store-bought shrimp cocktails (one per guest) -and a social life centered on virtual ghost emporium Dodge City, complete with empty swimming pool, abandoned miniature golf course, motorcycle track, and pickup bar. She’s brilliant – a waif-ish odd-ball I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the moment I first watched 3 Women.
Then, at the old folks rehab center where Millie works, and arriving straight-from-Houston is Pinky Rose (SiSSY SPACEK, fresh from ‘Carrie’ and a quarter-century before ‘In the Bedroom’), with only one pair of underpants and a sewing machine to her name; DUVALL’S orientation session turns into a bad case of hero worship for SPACEK (“You’re the most perfect person I ever met”). Pinky is so taken by Millie in all her wonderfulness. After the inevitable move-in to Millie’s apartment, its nonstop imitation-at-first-sight, until a near-fatal fall into the pool – leaving you wonder – was it a suicide attempt? – and a resulting coma moves things on to an apparent personality transplant-takeover à la BERGMAN’S ‘Persona’. And the entrance of the third woman – JANiCE RULE’S reclusive, extremely pregnant Willie, painting murals of amphibian people in her heat-packing husband’s dry swimming pools – elevates the already-unsettling atmosphere, ALTMAN”S most dreamlike film to date. 3 Women is a movie filled with doubles and reflections; the 3 women of the title double and reflect each other.
And no wonder: “The film literally came to me in a dream,” once explained the director. A simultaneously pathetic and fingernails-on-the-blackboard turn for DUVALL (who apparently wrote her own monologues) in “a comic performance as funny and moving as anything you’re likely to see this year” (ViNCENT CANBY, Times) that won her Best Actress awards from Cannes and the L.A. Film Critics, and an equally chilling performance from SPACEK, whose performance as Pinky won her the Best Supporting Actress award from the New York Film Critics Circle. 3 Women was thought to be so unusual that most never imagined ALTMAN would be able to match it again.
To me there are many things that work about 3 Women – from the cinematography, the use of the reptile painting inside the pool, and the dynamic performance given by DUVALL and SPACEK. I’ve always found DUVALL an exceptional actress, with her unusual looks and personality – and in 3 Women she stands out for her subtle nuances and chatter-box dialogue. I will say that being a slow paced film, hardly packed with action or movement – can be difficult for anyone unfamiliar with ALTMAN’S cinematic style, which is often dialogue and character-driven. Yet, 3 Women is worth the watch if anything, for all of the ingredients used – and for an escape into a dreamlike world.