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In her performances, actress Shelley Duvall often seems as though she’s walking through a fog. Her gawky-elegant string-bean body moving as though on a conveyer belt, her perpetually goggling saucer eyes staring out at the world yet seeming to take nothing back in. One of the most engagingly disengaged actors to ever haunt the screen, Duvall became an icon of seventies American cinema thanks to the loyalty of Robert Altman, who was so smitten with her off-kilter presence in his early feature Brewster McCloud (1970) that he continued to cast her throughout the decade—and he was almost the only one: in 1976, Altman told Playboy, “Shelley Duvall has given absolutely marvelous performances in four or five of my films; her work in Thieves Like Us  is as good as any performance I can imagine. I’m always amazed that other directors don’t pick up on her, but nobody has.”
Eventually, other directors did work with her, notably Woody Allen in Annie Hall (1977), Terry Gilliam in Time Bandits (1981), and most infamously, Stanley Kubrick, who ground her to a pulp with multiple grueling takes for The Shining (1980), ultimately eliciting her most nakedly emotional performance (“I had to cry twelve hours a day, all day long, the last nine months straight, five or six days a week,” she told Roger Ebert in 1980 of her Shining ordeal). But her greatest legacy remains her work with Altman—including Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Thieves Like Us, Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976), and Popeye (1980), and their greatest collaboration, 3 Women (1977), an ambiguous, multilayered daydream of a movie that is in a fog all its own, and so suited to Duvall’s peculiar talents that it earned her the best actress award at Cannes.
In 3 Women, Duvall wafts across the screen as Millie Lammoreaux, a physical therapist at a geriatric facility in a dreary, desiccated California resort town. Living in a cloud of delusion, she chatters constantly about her “famous” dinner parties and her ideas about fashion and decorating, though her words fall on the deaf ears of her coworkers and neighbors, who silently belittle her, walking far ahead of her down halls while she jabbers on behind them and averting their eyes at the cafeteria table. Yet she remains indomitable, moving through life with a poignant unselfconsciousness that comes across as sincere determination. The only one who seems to notice that Millie exists at all is a mysterious new coworker, soon to be Millie’s roommate, Pinky (Sissy Spacek, fresh from Carrie), a young Texas transplant whose infantile manner the aspiring cosmopolitan Millie comes to find a nuisance.
Altman’s film—inspired by a dream he had when his wife was seriously ill and in the hospital—is entirely unusual. It’s an inexplicable story of personality theft and spiritual transference, paced, shot, and edited as though an emanation from some unidentified interior space. Yet as it plays out, the saga of Millie and Pinky (and Janice Rule’s Willie, a local artist and the most difficult of the film’s main characters to pin down) has an affectionate naturalism, like all of Altman’s best work. Millie feels real. The director defines Millie largely through Duvall’s own behavior and mannerisms; he even allowed Duvall to create much of the character directly from her own notes and diaries. (And one of Millie’s most memorable moments, when her billowing yellow dress gets caught in a car door unbeknownst to her, was a happy accident during shooting.)
By the time 3 Women came out, Duvall was already well known for her unorthodox looks and behavior. In a 1976 interview with Altman for Film Heritage, F. Anthony Macklin asked, “Can the general audience relate to Shelley Duvall externally? Won’t the general audience back in Dayton, Ohio, think she’s kind of freaky and kind of spacey and kind of weirdo?” It’s to Altman’s credit that he can make a potentially off-putting figure like Millie, played by an actor who often seemed (fascinatingly) disconnected from reality, into someone we can empathize with. But it’s Duvall who arouses our compassion. At times, you want to slap her to wake her up from her self-mythologizing (she imagines herself something of a debutante, and often speaks of men throwing themselves at her—contrary to what we see onscreen), but Duvall, with her Breck-girl curl and sunshine-colored dresses, cuts such a likably wacky figure that we can’t help but accept Millie in all her unreality. Her most poignant moments come directly after she’s discovered that a group of dinner-party guests have canceled on her, and thus foiled her plans to serve them her impeccably prepared pigs in a blanket and “chocolate puddin’ tarts.” Here, briefly, Duvall and Altman let us peek behind the flowery curtain and see the plain soul hidden there.