3 Women (1977)

Pros: Shelly Duvall, Gerald Busby soundtrack

Cons: too long and slow and wince-inducing

I find Robert Altman’s 1977 “3 Women” excruciating watching—excruciatingly slow and wince-inducing for all three of the women. The hearty, gauche vision in yellow, Millie Lamoreaux (big-eyed, buckteethed and otherwise gawky Shelly Duvall) does not seem to me to deserve the scorn with which everyone except the new hire whom she shows the ropes and takes on as a roommate, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek, 27 when the movie was shot and seeming even younger) treats her. Millie is pretty unflappable and/or oblivious. Pinky is naïve and more than a little oblivious. There is little indication what the pregnant painter/barmaid Willie Hart (Janice Rule) notices or feels. She does not say a single word for considerably more than an hour into the movie. Her husband, Edgar (Robert Fortier) is a horndog cad, whom Millie unwisely beds, evicting Pinky from the other bed in the bedroom.


90-year-old long-time director John Cromwell (father of Jason), who also appeared in Altman’s “The Wedding”, was too old to be Pinkie’s father, so her denying it has some plausibility (perhaps her grandfather?). The 72-year-old Ruth Nelson was also (if not as much) too old to be Pinkie’s mother.

Duvall was the only set decorator listed for the film in IMDB, and presumably improvised more than a few of her lines. An uncredited Patricia Resnick (credited for story and screenplay of the later (1979) Altman debacle, “Quintet”) prepared a treatment based on a dream (complete with the two leads) dreamt by Robert Altman, who acknowledged being influenced by Bergman’s “Persona” with its famed mysterious personality switch between two women, the care-supplier and the taken-care-of woman).

Mildred (Pinky) and Millie may be aspects of a single person, though I don’t see Willie as part of a unity, except the quasi-family at the ambiguous end (I don’t see her as having absorbed the other two).

Altman himself said: “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.” And counterpoised to Pinky absorbing Millie, there is a pair of twins at the geriatric facility where Pinky has just been hired at the start of the movie. She speculated that they switch back and forth who they are, though no personality differences between them registers. Sometimes a twin is just a twin

Gerald Busby contributed an atonal, rather ominous-sounding score. And as a pitiable worm who turns, Spacek had just played the title role in “Carrie” the previous year. Duvall was nominated for a BAFT best actress award and won best actress awards at Cannes and from the Los Angeles Critics Association, while Spacek (whom I think is the protagonist of the movie) won a best supporting actress award from the New York Film Critics for her performance. Duvall was runner-up to Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall for the New York film critics.

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