David Kehr, Chicago Reader wrote:
Robert Altman’s would-be American art film (1977) is murky, snide, and sloppy, but the director’s off the hook because he dreamed it all. Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall are two Texas girls who meet while working in a California sanatorium (courtesy of 81/2) and exchange identities while Altman struggles with feminism and the American dream. As usual, the director plainly despises his characters but offers no alternative to their pettiness, although his sneaky jokes at their expense give the film its only glimmer of style.
Altman’s ‘3 Women’ a Moving Film; Shelley Duvall in Memorable Role
Millie Lammoreaux is a joke. Her conversation is a confusion of clichés, brand names and affectations. “I’m famous for my dinner parties,” she might say, or, “This is my parking space. It’s the best one,” as if today’s Cosmopolitan Girls were graded on their parking spaces as well as on their grooming. Millie is nothing if not perfectly groomed, though when she hops into her car to go cruising for men she never quite succeeds in pulling all of her skirt inside. A bit always hangs out the door, like a distress pennant.
Millie Lammoreaux is the central figure in Robert Altman’s funny, moving new film, “3 Women,” and, as played as well as largely created by Shelley Duvall, she’s one of the most memorable characterizations Mr. Altman has ever given us. Miss Duvall’s large, round dark eyes are windows through which a tiny creature inside looks out upon a world whose complete disinterest Millie Lammoreaux refuses to accept.
Mr. Altman says that “3 Women,” which he wrote, directed and produced, had its origins in a dream he had in which he saw two young women in a desert setting. Ordinarily, I’m not sure that we should ever know too much about the particular inspiration for any work of fiction. Such knowledge has a way of sidetracking us from the work itself, or of prompting us to read into it things that are no longer there.
It’s apropriate in this case, though, since “3 Women” is still a dream—Mr. Altman’s—and, like a dream, it is most mysterious and allusive when it appears to be most precise and direct, when its images are of the recognizable world unretouched (as happens in the film from time to time) by camera filters or lab technicians.
It’s been a moviemaker’s convention for a long time to smear Vaseline around the edges of an image, or to blur it in some other way, to indicate a dream, even though an image of blinding clarity more accurately reflects the condensed nature of the dream experience, when, for example, without the slightest hesitation, we may accept one person as being two different people at the same time. Logic is beside the point in dreams.
Because “3 Women” is a dream, one must know what happens before one attempts to find out what it’s about. What happens, briefly, is this:
Millie Lammoreaux, a physical therapist in a Palm Springs spa for old folks with fat incomes, finds herself the adored object of another young therapist who calls herself Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek). Pinky seems to have no past of her own, not even a Social Security number. At first, it seems that Pinky might be retarded but then it’s apparent she’s simply a blank, possessing nothing but her worshipful appreciation of Millie.
Millie accepts Pinky’s praise and affection as if she’d always been a prom queen instead of the figure of ridicule she really is, both at work and at the Purple Sage Apartments, the singles complex where she lives and that Pinky comes to share with her. Pinky doesn’t notice the snubs given to Millie. She doesn’t envy Millie. Because she loves Millie — idolizes her — she comes to be her, to take over her life being both herself and Millie.
The third woman in the composition is a reclusive painter named Willie Hart (Janice Rule), the wife of a philandering, middle-aged, ex-stunt man (Robert Fortier) and the owner, with her husband, of the seedy desert recreation area where Millie likes to hang out and look for men.
In the course of the film, in sequences that sometimes seem absolutely natural and at other times absurdist, these three women merge into one person, who is mother, daughter and granddaughter, isolated but serenely self-sufficient.
Now, I suppose, someone is bound to ask what it really is about. I’m not sure, but there are a number of possibilities. Since it is the moviemaker’s dream more than that of the characters within, it seems to be a consideration of today’s women. It’s not a narrative in any strict sense but a contemplation of three stages of a woman’s life by a man who appreciates women and may not be without a bit of guilt. It’s also about youth and age and (as are all Altman films) about the quality of American life. Let it go at that and don’t worry too much.
Having no easily discernible surface logic, “3 Women” must depend on internal logic, and this only falters when Mr. Altman loads his dream with more or less conventional dreams within, when we are given superimposed images, standard nightmare visions and images seen through water. This fanciness is unnecessary. “3 Women” is most strange and poetic when it’s played straight, as when poor Millie one night comes upon an elderly couple making love, or when someone says cheerily of a character in a deep coma, “I’m sure she’ll wake up when she sees you.”
Logic has nothing to do with films’ effeciveness, though it does with all of the performances, beginning with Miss Duvall’s. In this film Miss Spacek adds a new dimension of eeriness to the waif she played so effectively in “Carrie.” Also noteworthy are Miss Rule, Mr. Fortier and veteran actor-director John Cromwell and his real-life wife, Ruth Nelson, who play Pinky’s possible parents.
Vincent Canby, NY Times, April 11, 1977