3 Women or The Three Graces

Since I’ve been writing She and working on the Female Icons project, I’ve literally been drowning in women. An overkill you might think, but actually it’s been a splendid baptism, an exercise in recognizing Eve in all her representational guises.

detail of Primavera (The Three Graces), Sandro Botticelli (c. 1482) present location Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Recently, as a part of my research, I watched Robert Altman’s 3 Women. Made in 1977, the story is based on a dream Altman once had. Like most dreams, the substance resides in the collection of details rather than the big picture. Things don’t really add up, and that’s exactly where the seduction lies. The untold and unseen is what entices our imagination to the darkest corners of our own thoughts and memories.

Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall, 3 Women (1977) Robert Altman

The film can be viewed as a series of intertwining, if not interdependent, portraits. First, there is the thin and wide-eyed Millie Lammoreaux. Played by Shelley Duvall, she is a cross between Betty Crocker, the Avon Lady and a Virginia Slims model. On the one hand, she’s single and independent, and on the other, desperate to find a man to smother in patty melts, cheez whiz and tuna casseroles.

While beautiful, she makes you want to cringe. She wears ridiculous Holly Hobbie-style dresses (often yellow) and pays too much attention to her hair (in one scene she uses a toothbrush to shape her under-curl – now that’s precise coiffing). She haughtily brags about her legendary skills as a hostess, boasts about her talent for home decoration and frequently touts her uncontested attractiveness to men.

But Altman harshly juxtaposes this over-inflated sense of self with a crueller reality. At the rehabilitation center for the elderly, where Millie works, she is habitually ignored by her colleagues. Often she walks ten paces behind them trying to strike up a conversation. And when she returns to her swinging singles apartment, she is also snubbed by her neighbours lounging by the pool, including a man she claims is pursuing her.

The second woman, Pinky Rose, is a child-like waif played by Sissy Spacek. As the new trainee at the rehabilitation center, she is an odd bird. In the first scene when Millie is assigned to show her the ropes, Pinky is wearing a little pink cotton dress and has white shoes with a matching white purse. It’s a great outfit for a five year old but slightly peculiar for someone in their twenties. This child-like demeanour is further heightened when she blows bubbles in her Coke at the cafeteria and has a skip in her step as she moves along the center’s corridors. Her character appears even weirder when she returns to the privacy of her hotel room and washes her one pair white cotton panties in the bathroom sink. Altman never returns to this point, and that’s what makes it all the more powerful. Pinky’s personal history is ambiguous, unknown and somehow all the more disturbing as a result.

The third woman, Willie, is the most enigmatic, and for me, problematic. Maybe I just can’t get my head around how Altman sees her. Played by Janice Rule, Willie is a kind of artsy earth goddess à la 1970’s style. Like Niki de Saint Phalle, she is in the habit of shooting her paintings and has a penchant for wearing draped clothing.

She and her husband own a bar that Millie frequents and also the apartment complex where she and Pinky live. Heavily pregnant, Willie weaves in and out of scenes painting murals which function as the cohesion, chorus and backdrop to the drama as a whole. While crucial to the story, there is something emotionally undeveloped about her character; she remains a supernumerary but with a strong visual presence.

detail of Primavera , Is it a dance or a struggle?

For the most part the film focuses solely on the relation between Millie and Pinky. First, they are working colleagues, then they become roommates, and later, after going through Pinky’s attempted suicide, Millie becomes both caretaker and underling. On paper, the film could have easily remained one of those “stalker roommate” movies. But Altman does something radical and subversive in the filming and montage; he collapses the narrative into an abstract and hallucinatory rage, or since I’m speaking of three women, “fury” might be the better word. In the desert the women are left to deliver Willie’s baby, and through that traumatic event, the women, much like the Three Graces, meld into a seamless matriarchal unity.