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“Sometimes I feel like little Eva, running across the ice . . . with the dogs yapping at my ass,” Robert Altman said in 1976, the year before 3 Women debuted. “Maybe the reason I’m doing all this is so I can get a lot done before they catch up with me.”
Altman certainly worked at a tremendous pace during the 1970s, completing more than a dozen features. And they—the box office, the studios, the less broad-minded critics—certainly caught up with him as the 1980s began, driving him further than ever from the Hollywood system after Popeye (1980) underperformed and H.E.A.L.T.H. (1980) didn’t perform at all. Altman spent most of the eighties exploring the possibilities of video, producing and directing plays, and adapting stage works into low-budget movies. He didn’t return to full glory until The Player in 1992, an acerbic Hollywood satire that combined his nontraditional style—bravura zooms, overlapping sound, self-reflexive gestures—with a funny and suspenseful plot. He has remained a vigorous player ever since, with movies as varied as the epic Short Cuts (1993), the peculiar Prêt-à-porter (1994), and the popular Gosford Park (2001).
All this notwithstanding, the seventies remain Altman’s most successful decade, starting with M*A*S*H (1970) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and peaking with Nashville (1975). His most idiosyncratic pictures of this period, from Images (1972) to Quintet (1979), are so wildly adventurous that it’s hard to imagine them having come from the American film industry, and impossible to imagine them being made with big-studio support today.
Not that American movies were as aesthetically tame between the late 1960s and the middle 1970s as they generally were before that time and have been since. The churning sociopolitical currents of the sixties, questioning traditional ideas in arenas from sex to civil rights, gave studios the notion that there were money and prestige to be gained by breaking cinema’s classical rules. This touched off a wave of exploratory filmmaking that was characterized at its most exciting by the improvisational urgency of Easy Rider (1969), the fierce genre revisionism of The Wild Bunch (1969), and the transcendental mysteries of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), among others. Pictures like these paved the way for Altman’s long-gestating originality to reach theatrical screens; and his diminishing clout after Nashville also took place in a wider cinematic context, as Jaws (1975) spewed gigantic profits and mass-marketed blockbusters became almost every studio exec’s ideal. It’s striking to recall that 3 Women came out the same year as Star Wars—and it’s far from surprising that the latter film became Hollywood’s new financial and cultural touchstone, as America moved toward a more conservative orientation, one that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg tapped into with uncanny precision.
Altman stood with the bravest filmmakers of the pre-Reagan years, and 3 Women stands with his boldest achievements of that remarkable time. He received a green light from Twentieth Century Fox not only without a finished screenplay but with an expressed desire to make the entire movie without one. He had literally dreamed up the project during a night of tossing and turning as his wife lay seriously ill in a hospital bed. While his dreams that night didn’t provide the film’s story, they gave him the specific vision of making a film called 3 Women starring Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, set in the California desert, and centering on the theft of someone’s personality. He was raring to get started as soon as he woke up.
The first step was developing a fifty-page treatment with writer Patricia Resnick, who had to work Altman’s flyaway ideas into some kind of linear form. Next he got support from Fox, which was still hoping the maverick director would cook up another money-spinner like M*A*S*H. Then he headed for Palm Springs with his dream cast (so to speak) of Duvall and Spacek, plus Janice Rule as the third woman of the title. The dialogue—including Duvall’s ditzy chatter about color schemes and dating tips—was partly improvised, in keeping with the mood Altman hoped to evoke, at once dramatically elusive, thematically suggestive, and aesthetically controlled.
The finished product was well received, earning important awards—best actress for Duvall at the Cannes Film Festival and best supporting actress for Spacek from the New York Film Critics Circle—and garnering enough enthusiastic reviews to revive Altman’s career after the critical and commercial failure of Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976), his previous picture.
When asked whether he considers himself an “auteur” director, Altman has said he is to some degree a primary creator, in the sense implied by that term, and to some degree a “filter,” considering ideas offered by others as filmmaking proceeds. For a deeply personal project like 3 Women, his own instincts clearly take first place. Yet his dream would not have been effectively realized if he hadn’t been able to tune many collaborators in to his own intuitive wavelengths. This in itself makes 3 Women a quintessential specimen of Altman cinema, propelled by evanescent reveries of his own and inventive contributions from cast and crew.
In the end, 3 Women emerged as such a seamless weave of image, sound, story, and character that no plot summary can do it justice. Ideally, it should be watched and pondered more than once, since many moviegoers find the film so utterly outside the cinematic frameworks they’re familiar with that they wonder if its tenuous narrative (especially the deliberately indefinite ending) has passed them by, or isn’t really there in the first place.
The narrative is not only present, it is central to the film’s impact. This does not mean, however, that Altman hoped a conventional story would somehow emerge from the inchoate notions he had when principal photography began. “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional, not narrative or intellectual,” he once told a journalist, “where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” 3 Women doesn’t quite match that ambition, but no Altman movie comes closer.
Woman One is Pinky, played by Spacek as a stranger in a strange land who has traded the heat and dust of Texas for the heat and dust of California while remaining as clueless about life as she’s apparently always been. Woman Two is Millie, played by Duvall as a permanent adolescent who bats her eyes at every male in sight and sports a self-confidence so utterly misplaced that their sneering indifference never makes a dent. Woman Three is Willie, played by Rule as an enigmatic artist who paints morbid frescoes—of reptilian women and a threatening, dominating man—while waiting for her pregnancy to come to term. The only important male is Willie’s husband, Edgar, who spends his time swaggering, womanizing, and target shooting behind the local Dodge City saloon. The story moves through various plot developments on the way to its enigmatic ending, which presents a parody of American family life as desolate as it is surreal.
What does it all mean? That’s for every viewer to decide. In the final analysis, 3 Women is precisely what it sets out to be: a dream, full of images seen through physical veils like water and mirrors, metaphysical veils like the mercurial nature of meaning and understanding, and the stylistic veils of Altman’s desire to create a cinema rooted in allusion and emotion rather than surface realities caught with the camera’s allegedly objective eye.
Altman experts have tried to sum up his overall approach in various pithy phrases. Robert Kolker speaks of “radical surfaces,” for instance, while Robert T. Self invokes “subliminal reality.” While both formulations are useful as far as they go, 3 Women eludes all efforts at definitive interpretation. That’s what makes it essential viewing for moviegoers adventurous enough to follow Altman’s audacious quest for a new kind of moviemaking.
David Sterritt is chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, chief book critic at Film Quarterly, an adjunct professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and editor of Robert Altman: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2000). This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD edition of 3 Women.