I don't know if it's possible to make a film like 3 Women anymore. Even Robert Altman seems to have problems making Robert Altman films these days: studios aren't falling over themselves to fork over money, even relatively small hunks of it, for a movie with no script and no stars based on a decidedly low-concept pitch. But this was the 1970s, thank god, and Altman had the Hollywood currency to score the money and people he needed to follow a hunch out to the California desert.
He describes his process of (literally) dreaming up this "painting with music" on the commentary track of the 2004 Criterion DVD release of the picture, and from the dream that started it to the pitch to Fox it's one of the more interesting peeks under the tent it's been my time-sucking pleasure to experience in awhile.
Altman calls it a story about identity theft, which it is, on the surface: an odd, waifish girl (Sissy Spacek) latches onto another lost soul (Shelley Duvall), who has herself cobbled together a sad simulacrum of a life from the instructive example of women's magazines, TV and other fleeting media impressions. But it is as much a story of authenticity and connection (and the sorrow in the lack of it) as anything.
It takes trust and courage (and maybe a touch of lunacy, these days) to live a Real Life, much as it takes the same collection of traits (plus maybe a touch more lunacy) to make a film this way. There's no room for ego in a real life, and while there's obviously some ego involved in shepherding a gigantic project from conception through to completion, that ego has to step out of the way when it's time to actually tell the story. Altman describes a level of collaboration and openness in the assemblage of 3 Women that seems extraordinary for any director, especially one of his stature. He's hardly humble, a humble man doesn't walk into Alan Ladd's office and ask for a million-five to make a picture about identity theft with relative unknowns. But he's got enough confidence in his own voice to let other voices make themselves heard where it will be helpful.
For instance, Altman talks at length about Duvall's talent in playing the excruciatingly sad Millie, a self-deluded, universally ignored (if not despised) worker at a low-end desert "health" spa who thinks pre-packaged shrimp cocktail is the height of casual dinner party elegance, as her ability to show "the pink side": that soft, tender part of us that makes us so vulnerable, we never willingly show it to anyone. And she does, making a fool of herself over and over again for the full length of the picture without ever winking at it or playing the clown. It's almost unbearable to watch at times, just seeing her full yellow skirt caught in the door of her bright yellow Pinto every time she climbs in is enough to break your heart, and yet you can't look away: her sweetness and truth is that unusual and that compelling.
While the individual elements and their alchemic combination are just about perfect there's still a good lot of arty-farty to get through in 3 Women. I wish there was a way to turn off the atonal soundtrack Altman was so taken with, and as the story devolves into full-on surrealism in the third act, I confess to becoming a little agitated and distracted. But, flawed though it is (and it's not bumping Nashville off my Top 20 list anytime soon), i am still, some 20-odd years after first viewing 3 Women, moved to revisit this odd little filmic tone poem.
Besides, with the advent of DVD subtitling-on-demand, I can finally catch all that good Altman dialogue I missed in the theater...