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With: Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall, Janice Rule, Robert Fortier
Written by: Robert Altman
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 124
Date: 04/03/1977

3 Women (1977)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After the box-office success of M*A*S*H in 1970, director Robert Altman continuted to enjoy great artistic freedom throughout the 70s, although a follow-up box office smash was elusive. This period yielded such great films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye and Nashville, but none of these is as beautifully poetic and dreamily elusive as 3 Women (1977), now available on a spectacular Criterion Collection DVD and in 1-to-2.35 widescreen for the first time.

Altman literally dreamed up the concept of 3 Women while sleeping by his wife's sickbed. He even dreamed the title and the casting of Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall and he knew that the story would somehow involve identity theft. But even that is too specific a description for this strange, beautiful and funny film. Altman has said that, of all his films, it comes the closest to eliciting a purely emotional reaction from the viewer.

Duvall plays Millie, a chatty and naïve nurse at an old folks' health spa. When a soft-spoken, childlike new employee, Pinky (Spacek), arrives, Millie trains her for the job and becomes her roommate. After an argument, Pinky throws herself off the balcony and winds up in a coma. When she wakes, she's a completely different person. A third woman, the mysterious pregnant artist (Janice Rule) haunts the edges of the story. The film's ambiguous last scene is as haunting as anything in American cinema.

Altman has a lot of fun with Millie, whose self-image contrasts sharply with reality. In her mind, she's the object of desire of every man around and her culinary and decorating skills are beyond reproach. In reality, she cooks things like tuna melts and chicken smothered in tomato soup mix and her apartment stings the eyes with its relentless yellow. The only man who will have her is the artist's husband (Robert Fortier), an ex-stuntman in cowboy movies.

At the same time, the film plays repeated refrains of jokes like Millie's dress being caught in her car door, or Pinky imitating the canned laughter of a plastic toy hanging in their favorite watering hole. We also learn that Pinky's real name is Mildred, which is long for Millie.

Whole theses could be written on this film, from its odd locations (the health club, the run-down western bar and shooting range, the cramped yellow apartment), to the relationship between the three women of the title. As such, it warrants and deserves repeated viewings.

Thankfully, Altman provides a commentary track, perhaps the very best of the half-dozen or so he's recorded so far. The disc includes a still gallery and the original theatrical trailer, which is hilariously unsuccessful at describing this amazing film in 2-1/2 minutes.

Looking back, it's ironic that 20th Century Fox, released both 3 Women and Star Wars the same year. The success of the latter caused the blockbuster system to click into place, which signaled the end of Altman's creative Hollywood phase. Nevertheless, Altman quickly found a home in the independent movement and has continued to make fascinating films to this day.

The Criterion Collection upgraded their 2004 DVD with a terrific 2011 Blu-Ray edition. The picture is now brighter and more like film stock, with visible grain. The mono soundtrack is uncompressed. All the extras are the same.

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