Shelley Duvall is perhaps the most misunderstood and underappreciated American actress of the past several decades. A twitching mass of nervous tics and gangly legs and arms, Duvall was hardly anybody's idea of a conventional Hollywood actress. Add in a unique twangy accent only vaguely identifiable as Texan, and it seems like one of modern cinema's minor miracles that she had a film career at all.
Robert Altman first cast this most unlikely of stars in Brewster McCloud (1970) after he spotted her selling cosmetics in a Houston mall. He continued to cast her in his early 1970s films including critical favorites "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville." Duvall's collection of eccentricities, her look, her own strange way of moving, made her one of the most intensely physical of all actresses; perhaps this is what Pauline Kael meant when she described Duvall as nearly "a female Buster Keaton." No other actress could possibly bring the same undeniable presence to a role. Duvall turned in performances, ones seemingly without affect, which no other actress in Hollywood could possibly replicate.
Due to her unusual appearance and way of movement, she never really got the chance to star in a film, at least not until Altman finally gave her the opportunity to shine in his 1977 film, "3 Women." In "3 Women," Duvall plays Millie Lammoreux, a spa therapist and wanna-be cosmopolitan stuck in a nowhere town in the middle of the California desert. Millie lives in her own world, striking up conversations with co-workers who don't want to listen, and flirting with doctors who clearly have no interest. In Millie's world, she's the apple of every man's eye and the life of every party, a testament to her ability to tune out reality. Her neighbors openly mock her, and she spends most of her time alone reading fashion magazines or refining recipes for chocolate pudding tarts. In fact, nobody seems to care about Millie at all, at least not until Pinky Rose shows up.
Pinky (Sissy Spacek) is the new girl at the spa. So young and tiny she looks positively elfin, Pinky latches onto Millie as her role model, imitating everything she does and eventually moving in with her. She follows Millie like a puppy dog, including on trips to Millie's favorite bar where the bartender is a woman named Willie (Janice Rule). Willie is eight months pregnant and never talks, preferring to express herself through her painting; strange, mystical drawings of earth-goddess women that appear throughout the film.
Inspired in part by Ingmar Bergman's "Persona," the movie takes a sudden turn about halfway through. Shy, passive Pinky (whose real name, by the way, is Mildred - just like Millie) has an accident and when she recovers, she's a completely different person. And we come to realize she's not just any person; she seems to be turning into Millie Lammoreux. The sweet, agreeable Pinky becomes angry, assertive and sexually voracious, stealing Millie's semi-boyfriend (who also happens to be pregnant Willie's husband.).
The first half of the film is fairly straightforward though the wailing music on the soundtrack creates an atmosphere of menace. As the film progresses, particularly after Pinky's transformation, logic and order soon fall by the wayside and the film seems to be less Altman and more David Lynch. Pinky and Millie inevitably clash in a climactic scene in which Willie gives birth, only to set the stage for a truly bizarre final scene which recasts the entire film though in what terms, it's hard to say.
The plot of "3 Women" is difficult to describe, largely because it doesn't necessarily make a whole lot of sense. Every day activities are cast as unfamiliar, identities constantly shift, and the center eventually collapses altogether. It's more of a dream than a coherent story; in fact, Altman claims he dreamed the very idea. "3 Women" is an attempt by Altman at art-house provocation, an exercise in shifting tones and mysterious twists that might or might not amount to a whole lot. The creepy, foreboding mood is far more important than the actual story and you'll either be sucked in by the mood or not. I'm not entirely sure whether the film really works or qualifies more as an interesting but ultimately unsuccessful experiment by one of American cinema's most relentless experimenters.
For me, the film's success is largely a function of Shelley Duvall whose various quirks breathe vitality into a role that I believe nobody else could have played as well; Duvall is a singularity existing in her own pocket of reality (a pocket of "Duvallness") separate from everything around her. The film community noticed her performance; she won a Best Actress Award at Cannes that year though she was snubbed by the Oscars. It turned out to be the high point in Duvall's career. After a superb (and yet another misunderstood) role in "The Shining," she played the role the genetic lottery had built her for, Olive Oyl in Altman's vastly underrated "Popeye." The die was cast; she was forever Olive Oyl and whether for professional or personal reasons, Duvall began to drift away from mainstream acting, leaving behind a solid decade of some of the most unusual and remarkable performances of the post-classical Hollywood era.
"3 Women" is perhaps Altman's strangest film, though it's hard to determine exactly what constitutes a departure for such an eclectic director. It's also one of his most visually accomplished. It's a little like Bergman, a little like Lynch, and just a whole lot weird. If you want a change of pace, and something you probably never expected from Altman, give "3 Women" a shot.
The movie is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The high-definition digital transfer is par for the course for Criterion which means it looks gorgeous. Like most 2.35:1 transfers, viewers with smaller screens might feel somewhat frustrated, this is a print that absolutely must be seen on a wide-screen. The image quality is sharp and clean, and the colors are vibrant. "3 Women" is probably Altman's best-looking film after "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and this transfer more than does justice to it.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Mono. The signal is directed to the center channel on surround systems, though the production notes from Criterion suggest some viewers might want to switch to two-channel playback for better sound. The movie has a full and vital score which comes across beautifully even without stereo. Optional English language subtitles support the audio.
Aside from trailers and stills galleries, the only feature on the DVD is a commentary track by Robert Altman. Fortunately, the commentary is top notch with Altman being more open and revealing than usual. Viewers who are intrigued but confused by the film (a natural reaction!) will want to listen to the director's thoughts. Fans of Altman will also enjoy his discussion of his production methods, particularly his thoughts on working with actors.
The attractive snow-white graphics on the DVD invite an obvious comparison to other Bergman DVDs in the Criterion collection. The liner notes include a short essay by critic David Sterritt.
More than any major American director, Altman alternates duds with masterpieces, mixing mediocrities in along the way. He's worked non-stop for nearly forty years now, and become one of modern cinema's most relentless experiments, perfectly willing to fail publicly simply for the sake of trying something new. For me, his two best movies are "The Long Goodbye" and "California Split" with "The Player" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" just behind. "3 Women" isn't quite in their company, but it's not far off. It's also a film that I suspect will seem very, very different to me when I watch it a second time. So I reserve the right to come back later and either call it brilliant or a complete waste of time.