Robert Altman’s 3 WOMEN: A Summer Nightmare

“We don’t like the twins. You’ll learn about them soon enough.”

The seventies and the eighties were incredibly fruitful for director Robert Altman. After the success of MASH, he was given carte blanche by Twentieth Century Fox. As a result of this wealth of freedom, he wrote, produced, and directed 3 Women, which, according to the director, was born entirely out of a dream that he had while his wife was in the hospital.

3 Women is Altman’s magnum opus – ethereal, surreal, and carried by two magnificent performances from Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. Bearing similarities to Bergman’s Persona, 3 Women is the tale of two twenty-something’s, Millie Lammoreaux (Duvall) and Pinky Rose (Spacek) who meet one another at the geriatric spa in California where they both work. Pinky is young, naïve, and oddly smitten with the high-strung, wannabe socialite that is Millie, who awkwardly takes Pinky under her wing during her job training sessions at the spa. Pinky seems to idolize Millie, who never seems to stop talking. She constantly chatters in the locker room to the other nurses, who never seem to acknowledge her in any way. Despite the indifference of her co-workers, Millie displays an air of self-confidence, wearing her delusions on her sleeve for the world to see.


When Pinky responds to a roommate request posted by Millie in the hospital cafeteria, the two women find themselves living together, despite their incredibly diverse personalities. The apartment building in which they live is haunted by the presence of a third woman, Willie (Janice Rule) an abstract artist who paints increasingly disturbing murals on the pool floor, featuring dominant, reptilian creatures. Willie is pregnant and never speaks. Her alcoholic husband runs the hotel, as well as the local bar. He constantly flirts with Pinky, and carries on an affair with Millie.

Before long, Pinky’s childlike behavior, as well as her inability to mind her own business begins to wear on Millie. The two have a heated argument, after which Pinky jumps from the top of the apartment building into the pool, falling into a coma as a result of the impact. She is admitted to the hospital, much to the shock of Millie, who instantly regrets her dismissive attitudes towards the young lady.

When Pinky finally rises from her coma and moves back in with Millie, it is clear that a personality shift has occurred. Pinky is aggressive, intolerant of Millie’s eccentricities, and becomes increasingly promiscuous with Willie’s husband. The roles have been reversed. Pinky has become everything that Millie aspires to be; the only difference is that Pinky succeeds where Millie has failed.

Millie’s true colors began to shine through the façade, revealing her vulnerability.

And one must never forget Willie, the woman on the outside looking in – the silent observer. Saddled with an alcoholic philanderer for a husband, she turns to her art. The threatening visions in her mind end up on the canvas, on the pool floor, and may serve as a doorway which triggers a metaphysical chain of events. She is a key figure that simply cannot be dismissed.

All through the film, there are clues that hint at the mysteries within. Notice the many instances of “mirroring” within the film. There are mirrors everywhere. Reflections, everywhere. No one is who they seem to be in this world that Altman has created – a world as peculiar as the eerie twins that quietly linger in the background at the spa where Millie and Pinky meet one another.


3 Women ends on an ambiguous note, which completely blurs the line between dreams and reality. The entire film is a dreamlike experience – a summer nightmare, rich with symbolism and unsettling imagery. The possibilities are endless with a film such as this, which focuses primarily on mood. You “feel” your way through this film, and perhaps this is the proper way to approach such material. Gerald Busby’s masterful score is the soul of the film, it’s atonal brilliance guiding us from moment to moment, never manipulating us into one emotion or the other, but simply existing in this space, in this world, with these characters.

A masterpiece on every conceivable level, this film is Altman’s best, and is highly recommended.

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