Robert Altman was one of a handful of directors to emerge from the last Hollywood Golden Age with an unblemished professional reputation. Discharged from the US Air Force in 1946, Altman settled in California with vague ideas about entering the film business. However, despite some initial success as a writer, Altman only began to find his feet once he started directing for such long-running TV series as Bonanza and Maverick. When Altman did finally get his shot at directing a feature film, the results were not exactly encouraging as a refusal to compromise his vision resulted in one rapid firing and one commercial catastrophe before he was given the script for MASH, a project on which a dozen other filmmakers had previously passed. Effectively little more than a shaggily-assembled series of army doctor sketches unconvincingly attached to the front of a conventional sports movie, MASH managed to capitalise on public anger about the Vietnam War and found not only commercial success but also critical success, securing Altman a Palme D’Or at the Cannes film festival as well as Best Director nominations from the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTA.
Now a critical darling with the ability to produce big hits for a studio system desperate to reach a younger audience, Altman began what is still widely considered to be his most productive period. Between 1970 and 1975, Robert Altman produced no less than eight films and most of them were not only commercially successful but also critically acclaimed, garnering their studios no less than eighteen major international awards and nominations. Like many of the most successful American directors of this period, Altman managed to find an audience by deconstructing conventional Hollywood genres and imbuing them with a more personal and political sensibility. For example, 1971’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a Western so revisionist it is often called an anti-Western while The Long Goodbye followed Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep in getting Leigh Brackett to adapt a Raymond Chandler novel but Altman’s Marlowe was transplanted from San Francisco to LA and changed from a street-smart white dude to a self-destructive Jewish loser who seems completely out of step with the world around him.
Unavailable on home formats for nearly thirty years until a DVD release by Criterion back in 2004, 3 Women saw Altman break with his usual deconstructive methodology in favour of a more European and self-consciously Art House approach that allowed actors to develop their own characters and work on their own responses to Altman’s ideas about theme and plot. This departure earned Altman a nomination for the Palme D’Or in 1977 but American critics and audiences seemed unsettled by the idea of a European film produced by a director whose career had — up until that point – been characterised by a two-fisted and politicised engagement with the trappings of cinematic Americana.
The first thing you notice about 3 Women is its use of colour: Set in a desert, the film is almost completely de-saturated except for yellow, pink, purple and a rolling blue liquid that occasionally appears before the camera as both a dream-like effect and a visual counterpoint to the empty swimming pools that dot the landscape. This release of the film contains an excellent discussion of the film by the legendary film critic David Thomson who argues that the film’s lack of colour allows the eye to roam about the screen without being drawn to any particular object but a better way of thinking about the film’s visual style is to assume that yellow, pink and purple are linked to the film’s three female characters and to observe how the different colours seem to appear and disappear from the film’s three primary setting.
The film opens with a gawky teenaged girl named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) arriving at an old person’s spa and physiotherapy centre in search of a job. Hired by the bossy female administrator who effectively runs the business on behalf of a befuddled male director, Pinky is told to learn the ropes from Milly (Shelley Duvall), a beautifully turned-out woman who spends her time trying to make friends only to be systematically ignored. Initially contemptuous of Pinky’s childlike cluelessness, Milly soon warms to the younger woman when she realises that Pinky is hanging on her every word.
Milly is someone who tries to be perfect but her idea of perfection comes from magazines and catalogues rather than mature and considered opinions about the world. While this means that her apartment is beautifully coordinated to match her signature colour of yellow, pretty much everything else in her life is a complete catastrophe: She has no family, she gets no respect at work, she has no friends and she cannot hold the attention of a man despite throwing herself at every one she happens to meet. Milly seems to realise the gap between the life she has and the life she appears to be living and so she spends much of the film’s opening act lying through her teeth about all of her great friends and the men who are constantly chasing her and begging for dates. She warms to Pinky because Pinky is too clueless to see through the lie that is Milly’s life and so her willingness to listen and do what Milly asks serves to legitimise Milly’s completely fraudulent sense of self until Pinky innocently asks the wrong question at the wrong time prompting the humiliated Milly to lash out with horrendous consequences.
3 Women is divided into three increasingly-short sections that are topped and tailed by these beautifully composed surrealist interludes that linger in the mind and imbue the film with a distinctly dreamlike quality. When Milly and Pinky’s first relationship falls to pieces, a dream sequence triggers a re-ordering of their friendship and a transfer of personality traits: Once childlike and naïve, Pinky now emerges as manipulative and sexually confident while the deluded and selfish Milly is replaced by a more nurturing and principled figure who tries to look after Pinky only to wind up apologising for her failings until their unhealthy relationship intersects with another woman. Milly and Pinky’s initial relationship falls apart because Milly decides to bring home Edgar, the married owner of both the apartment block where the women live and the bar where they go to drink after work. Pinky is shocked by Milly’s willingness to help a man betray his wife and that initial betrayal is re-visited at the end of the second act when Edgar’s wife loses her baby.
The film’s final protagonist is a slightly older woman named Willy (Janice Rule). Willy does not say a word until the end of the film but she is often seen painting elaborate murals on the inside of empty swimming pools. While Milly’s chosen colour is yellow and that of Pinky is pink, Willy is bound to the colour purple and we see it not only in her artwork but also in the apartment block that she owns with her husband Edgar. Willy’s artistic talent and refusal to speak position her as someone who has adopted a set of personality traits in order to survive in a male dominated world: Just as Milly adopted the persona of a consumerist sophisticate and Pinky adopted the persona of a sexually aggressive tearaway, Willy adopted the persona of a middle-aged mother who is happy to surrender the world to her macho, gun-twirling husband and retreat into a rich inner life. Just as Pinky and Milly’s early personalities result in a man taking advantage of them and driving them apart, Willy’s decision to let her husband have his way results not only in his cheating on her but also in his going off to get drunk while she is left alone to deal with a difficult birth.
The colours yellow, purple and pink wax and wane throughout the first two acts as the women try on various personalities in their attempts to deal with contemptuous and predatory men. The critically unpopular and misunderstood final act re-works the women’s personalities again but places them on a more secure footing inspired by the personalities of the classical fates, three women who were said to control destiny: Pinky is a savvy teenaged bundle of energy who deals with life and confronts the world, Milly is the world-worn single mother who provides authority and makes decisions, Willy is not just the older figure that both women must eventually become but also a figure linked to death as we are told that her experienced gun-handling husband somehow managed to kill himself with his own guns.
3 Women is an ambitious and challenging film: Characters appear from nowhere, do strange things and then suddenly change in a way that recalls the jarring metaphysical shifts of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Altman positions his film somewhere between realist drama and fantastical allegory, toying with various themes and ideas without every managing to bring them all into alignment and craft a coherent message. At the time, many noted critics argued that the film was a mess and half-formed but despite the red herrings and strange ontological shifts, it is clear that Altman was trying to make a film about female solidarity and the need for women to assume identities that benefit them rather than the faceless men who would surround, engulf and devour them. A million miles from the deconstructed Americana that made him famous and the satirical dramas that would help forge his legacy, 3 Women is a wonderfully rich and unconventional film that deserves to be seen as one of Robert Altman’s finest works.