We all know how Robert Altman spent the 1970s, right? M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs Miller. Freewheeling satirical ensemble pieces, playing fast and loose with genre, inventing the adjective Altmanesque for their naturalistic sprawl. Except there’s another face of Altman’s ’70s work. He was so prolific that many smaller, less characteristic films have been overlooked – Images, A Perfect Couple, Quartet and Brewster McCloud among them. In this second tier of work, 1977’s dreamy, compelling, confounding 3 Women has long been the most likely to break into the commonly accepted canon of Altman masterpieces. On its release, Roger Ebert declared it his favourite film of the year – and this in a year when the Oscars were choosing between Annie Hall and Star Wars.
Viewed through a certain lens – a zoom lens, probably – the story of 3 Women is very simple. It is about the relationship between Pinky, a shy teen played by Sissy Spacek, and her co-worker Millie, played by Shelley Duvall. Millie is a lot more outgoing than Pinky in her social life, her working life and her romantic life, and Pinky becomes fascinated by her, eventually becoming her room-mate. The third woman, Janice Rule’s Willie, is present mainly through the enormous, disquieting murals she paints, which open the film and set the tone for Pinky’s increasing instability.
Viewed through a different lens – the bizarre distorting one that Altman films certain scenes with, which makes the camera look as if it’s half-submerged in water – 3 Women is in fact incredibly complex. There are hints throughout that the relationship between Pinky and Millie might have some hallucinatory element, that their identities might be merging with each other in the manner of Bergman’s Persona (an acknowledged inspiration). This reaches a crisis point halfway through, when a sudden traumatic event redraws the boundaries of Pinky and Millie’s friendship, and leads up to a haunting nightmare sequence that might be the closest Altman ever got to horror cinema.
Altman got the idea for 3 Women in a dream, though even in the 1970s you couldn’t get a film greenlit on that basis – he won funding from 20th Century Fox by pretending it was all based on an acclaimed short story he’d secured the rights to. The finished film certainly has the drifting pace and open-endedness of a dream, though it has to be noted that even Altman’s non-surreal films are rarely concerned with narrative closure and propulsive plotting. There is, for example, a repeated motif of shooting ranges and target practice, which may contain some profound metaphorical significance. Or it may be that Altman saw some shooting ranges near the film’s location and decided to incorporate a chance element into the film, as he so often did.The title of 3 Women indicates that this isn’t going to be one of Altman’s cast-of-thousands films, though most of his other characteristics are present and correct. His multilayered sound mix ensures that the scenes at the health spa where Pinky meets Millie are dense and mysterious before anything strange has even happened, and his swooping, panning, zooming camera is as seductive as ever. The oneiric elements are also firmly grounded in Altman’s genius for observation and character detail, as well as his knack for getting utterly believable performances out of his cast.
There isn’t a weak link in 3 Women’s cast, but it all comes down to Spacek and Duvall. At the start, they’re playing against type; Spacek’s fragile wallflower hardly seems like she could withstand the traumas this actress had already been through in Badlands and Carrie, while Duvall’s self-assured, garrulous, sexually forward Millie is a world away from what would become her most famous role, Wendy Torrance in The Shining. But the film also allows them to take on elements of each other’s characters, and by the end of it you’re in no doubt that these are two of the greatest actresses of their generation. Spacek, of course, keeps her hand in, but Duvall is retired. Arrow’s worthwhile set of extras includes an interview with her, but even without that this release would feel like a tribute, a valuable reminder of a mercurial talent too often overlooked.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
- New 4K digital restoration by Twentieth Century Fox
- Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- New video interview with David Thompson, editor of ‘Altman on Altman’ and producer of the BBC’s ‘Robert Altman in England’
- Archive interview with Shelley Duvall from the Cannes Film Festival – the actress describes working with Altman, his methods and how she started acting
- Galleries featuring behind-the-scenes photos, the Cannes Film Festival press conference and promotional images
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nathanael Marsh
- Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic David Jenkins and excerpts from Altman on Altman, illustrated with original stills
3 Women is now available on Arrow Film Blu-Ray from all good stockists