Altman's Orphans

Oak Street Cinema brings the neglected offspring of an American master in from the cold

Speaking of dreams, the mind boggles at the thought of Altman entering Alan Ladd Jr.'s office on the 20th-Century Fox lot in 1977, telling the studio chief about a dream he'd had, and walking out with a deal to shoot 3 Women. (I remember the movie playing to an empty house at the multiplex where, as a child, I had come to see Fox's other summer product--a new science-fiction film by George Lucas.) In it, a shy, withdrawn woman named Pinky (Sissy Spacek) connects with the other oddball at her workplace, the vain Millie (Shelley Duvall). After these two spend a day drawing retirees into a physical-therapy sauna, they return to their little two-bedroom in Pasadena, and Pinky stares in awe while Millie lectures on how to get a man. Needing her junior partner's attention and acquiescence, Millie heaps contempt on Pinky, whom she blames for scaring away all the cute guys. Pinky is so browbeaten that she jumps off the second-story walkway of their apartment complex--and it is with this leap that 3 Women takes off into terrain never before mapped in movies.

Indeed, not counting 2001: A Space Odyssey, there hasn't been a more original movie made in the studio system than 3 Women, which defined aspects of American life not represented either before or since; with all due respect to Nashville (June 29 through July 2) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (June 14 and 15), it is, I believe, Altman's finest achievement. The film's trippy yet airtight narrative begins in the affectionate mode of a Raymond Carver story, then springs into a Jungian cloud world that makes the last third of Apocalypse Now look like yesterday's racing form. When Pinky plunges into the building's swimming pool and cracks her head open, a new personality--an über-Millie--creeps in. (Maybe this personality comes from one of the homicidal satyrs seen raping lizardlike women in a painting at the bottom of the pool; in any case, this image, seen through wiggly waves, is among the most nightmarish in all of cinema.) What follows in 3 Women is not a schematic, Persona-like trading of places, but rather an exploration of the fragility and impermanence of identity--one that defies all laws of genre and characterization.

I should say that I have seen the film 30 times or more; it has radically informed my understanding of families, of growing up, of how to tell a story, and, above all, of women. Probably each of us has at least one work of art that affects us as deeply as a beloved friend; 3 Women is undoubtedly one of mine. I am tempted to say that this degree of love for the film should disqualify me from evaluating its merits objectively; for me, it's not so much a movie as it is a living thing. In any case, it isn't only Altman who gives the film its special quality: The performances of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall are among the all-time greats. (Those critics who attack Altman for his supposed misogyny should be forced to revisit 3 Women and its spiritual twin, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.)

One-third of a body of work: Sissy Spacek (right) in '3 Women'
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
One-third of a body of work: Sissy Spacek (right) in '3 Women'

To stretch one of 3 Women's Jungian metaphors a little further: If Altman's ensemble pictures are his weightlifting sons, his dreamscape movies are his poetry-writing daughters. And the secret is, they're much tougher than they look.

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