3 Women (1977) "The Most Beautiful Nightmare Ever Put on Screen"

Starring:- Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier, Sierra Pecheur, Craig Richard Nelson, Ruth Nelson, John Cromwell.

Directed by:- Robert Altman.

Although I watched 3 Women first in my Altman marathon, its bewildering topicality and nature forced me to write about Secret Honor instead, giving birth to the urge to watch this movie again and again till I find myself satisfied. It is after four viewings that I consider myself eligible enough to even write about this masterpiece, which was recommended to me by a great friend of mine, who’s diagnosed with Chronic Cinephilia – quite a deadly disease with exhilarating ramifications. Get well soon.


3 Women starts from Pinky Rose (Spacek), a timid little woman, getting employed in a spa, under the supervision of two strict doctors. Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall) is given the responsibility to teach Pinky the job. Millie is an ardent chatterbox, leading to disapproval and ignorance from her peers, whom she continuously tries to influence with the help of tales regarding her relationships and recipes. Pinky reveres Millie, much to the chagrin of the latter. Pinky and Millie soon become roommates, revealing their sides slowly to each other. Their apartment is owned by Edgar (Fortier), a former cowboy who’s evidently unsuccessful in coming out of his heydays and his silent and pregnant wife Willie (Rule), who paints disturbing murals consisting of equally disturbing characters. The story soon takes a turn for the worse, after which the tables are turned and turned again to such an extent that we might consider the notion of dropping down dead in front of the eponymous women to stop torturing our minds and consciences alike.

It is said that Altman got the idea for 3 Women from a dream which he had while sleeping restlessly in a hospital where his wife was admitted. That answers for the dreamlike aura which encapsulates the movie – the narrative is disjointed, we often switch between characters, struggling to look at the turn of events from their perspectives, the situations so charismatic and divisive at the same time that we’d be more than happy to revisit the realms of Californian desert where the story is set, parched beyond recognition from facts, fiction and life as a whole.

The three women in question, in popular opinion, represent the active phases of a female, which is riddled with problems conforming with their presentation and location in the masculine world. Pinky represents the female child – joyful, ignorant, obsessive, ever-doubting and curious. Millie is the feminine youth – sexually enlightened, playful, chatterbox, fashionista, host and dominative. Willie is the mother, the feminine peak, lost in her own world of silence, expectations and unexplainable thoughts regarding the new arrival in her desolate world. She has seen and bore it all, represented by her husband Edgar – the ideal chauvinist with respect to the era and the mindset hosted by Willie.

Maybe that’s why there is a silent relationship between Pinky and Willie – a curious cub and a dutiful wolf hunting through the woods conquered by hunters of all kinds. Millie is the outcast, the one who wants to break out, the one who wants to embrace the society through her conformist actions like hosting dinner parties or engaging in conversations where she receives little to no reply. Her populist mindset is smashed when Pinky attempts suicide – the young girl stranded in between of a mother figure and an actual mother, the action of one would lead to the downfall of another. It is completely nullified in the end, where she loses her conformist outlook and learns to live her life on her own standards, to enslave the rebellious beings, to look at the world she revered, in a new but disturbing light.

Then there’s the character of Pinky Rose, who’s one of the most enigmatic characters I’ve ever witnessed on the screen. She’s like any other young girl in the beginning – searching for an idol, starting to create a lifestyle etc. When she witnesses, her idol coming out of her comfort zone, out of the boundaries of her nugatory perspective, she feels lost and that’s when the reptilian characters of Willie’s swimming pool mural invite her to the real world, the world conquered by chauvinists. It is of no surprise that Willie’s the one who comes for her rescue, an infiltration attempt into her desolate kingdom? The queen rises from the throne to receive the beggar and nurses her, only to be taken over by the sniveling maid i.e. Millie. Millie’s mindset has paralyzed her to such an extent that she dresses fashionably, right down to her yellow handbag to look at and receive the guys from the ambulance. Willie, at the subsequent moments, realizes that it’s time to break free from the world she paints on the walls of swimming pools when she looks into the eyes of her sleazy husband retreating.



Pinky, after waking up from a coma, remembers and receives herself as Millie, completely transforming into her. She violently denounces her real parents by calling them liars and wants to be known as Mildred – her real name which she hated to such an extent that she adopted her nickname as her real one. This transformation and reception of one’s own psyche in the form of another person draws parallels to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which served as a chief inspiration for this movie. Millie’s identity is stolen by Pinky in various manners. When confronted, Pinky’s response resonated much of Millie’s when she was the dominant one. Millie slowly starts introspecting herself, aggravated by the people’s reception of Pinky, which Millie lacked even after trying a lot. She soon transforms into a motherly figure when Pinky has a nightmare – an amalgamation of two dreams, one dreamt by Willie at the same time – representing the silent connection between a child and a mother.
Initially, I was skeptical about this movie mainly due to the casting. The combination of Duvall and Spacek is disastrous enough to make me look away from the movie at the first scene, but I found something clandestine in their performances, something so nuanced yet unexplainable that they seemed overtly realistic. Honestly, I was able to relate to the character of Millie because she personified my biggest fear in life: getting ignored. Her physical mannerisms, shockingly stay constant when greeted with no replies, making these moments more devastating and cringeworthy by the second. However, nothing is more shocking than Pinky’s transformation. Yeah, her answers and personality is bolder than ever, but she has changed physically too. She is taller than her previous self, her eyes are wider, her hair is straight and her voice is graver than ever. I love how Spacek embodies Pinky perfectly, right down to her eyebrows. She’s clearly the better actor here, even though Duvall is ticketed as the protagonist – maybe my hatred for Duvall is blinding me but that’s what I felt after every viewing.
I love how Altman makes the narrative touch every point on the contour with equal precision. There’s emotion, tragedy, horror, drama, a touch of western and a whole load of humor. Dark humor. I remember my friend mentioning splotches of humor, which I was not able to receive much in the first viewing. It grew on me with every subsequent viewing, making me giggle at the most strenuous of scenes. There’s this scene where Pinky is caught by the Nurse Ratched of the spa, played by Sierra Pecheur, when she’s on an unofficial break, an attempt to conform to Millie’s modus operandi. Then there’s Pinky’s parents, played beautifully by Ruth Nelson and John Cromwell. They seem to be the perfect Texan couple, both visibly beyond 80s and crooked. I love it when Cromwell asks some stupid questions at pivotal scenes, leaving Nelson to answer them beautifully, due to which one can see why Pinky ran away from her home to seek refuge in the deserts of California.
3 Women is, as the title says, the most beautiful nightmare ever put on screen – thanks to the excellent cinematography of Chuck Roscher. The palette is filled with brown, oranges, yellow, blue and purples, roasted by the desert’s sunlight. The discordant woodwind and brass music by Gerald Busby serves as a predecessor to Greenwood’s music to Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, who is widely considered as Altman’s protégé. The symbolism, like Punch-Drunk Love, is too stringent to ingest and at some parts, to even identify. According to Altman, the water level kind-of stuff which rises at some scenes denote the amniotic fluid of a womb, with the icing denoting the umbilical cord. The last shot, which is one of the creepiest shots I’ve ever seen, has multiple interpretations. Even Altman himself clings onto a theory, which he himself may not have known whether it is true or not. The movie was shot with little to no screenplay, with most of the dialogues improvised during the rehearsals, giving 3 Women that uneasy vibe visually, as well as verbally.



In conclusion, 3 Women is one of the greatest movies ever made. The level of nuance and uneasiness set against a tenebrous background is so high that sometimes we may doubt the credibility of our society and our social presence in manners unknown to us. One of the most labyrinthesque movies ever made and easily one of my most favorite movies of all time.
Pro:- Everything except…
Con:- Shelley Duvall in some scenes.
Ratings:- 4.90/5

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