No Man’s Land: Robert Altman’s 3 Women

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In “Guys and…?,” a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post, linguist Anne Curzan writes:

The ages of 18-22 seem to capture the girl-woman transition, at least lexically…. The word guy usefully seems to cover males from about 15 to at least 40. In this way, it offers a very flexible midway point: a lexical option that allows speakers not to have to choose between boys and men…. Females of college age, and those talking about them, must choose between girl and woman.

When I was in my early twenties, I was sensitive to the way girl infantilized me, but I was uncomfortable with woman, a word that felt too big, like a dress hanging in my mother’s closet. I was not a girl, not yet a womanNo one single word allowed for both my gender and my age as I expressed and experienced them. What value does the culture place on this “girl-woman transition” that it won’t name the people going through it?

Robert Altman’s film 3 Women (1977) doesn’t quite answer this question. It does, however, dramatize its premise: the problem of inhabiting an unnamed space. And it does so by launching two of its three title characters—Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall) and Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek)—into that girl-woman no man’s land. The dramatic tension that arises propels 3 Women forward.

Take, for instance, the film’s first scene, in which Mildred “Pinky” Rose, a recent transplant from Texas, arrives in Southern California for her first day of work at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation Center. Pinky watches the other young women at work—one of whom is Millie Lammoreaux—guiding geriatric patients through gentle exercises in a crowded pool. Already, the movie squirms its way into that troubled space between girl and woman: Pinky, one of the film’s women, doesn’t look the part. In her pink eyelet dress, with her strawberry blonde hair pinned back behind her ears, she looks like a girl. How old is she supposed to be? I asked the first time I saw the film. I’m still not sure.

Pinky doesn’t just look like a child. She acts like one, too. At lunch that day, she blows bubbles in her Coca-Cola. While she’s waiting for Millie, the “girl” who’s supposed to train her, she goofs off in an unattended wheelchair, spinning in circles. (Girl. That’s what the female caretakers at the rehab center are called—“Millie’s one of our best girls,” a manager says.) Among the elderly patients, Pinky, whose new uniform—a gray swimsuit—hangs off her flat body, appears excruciatingly young. “When we found the spa where the old people were looked after by young women,” Altman said about the setting, “I knew that would be where they worked.”

Millie and Pinky

Millie and Pinky

Pinky develops complete admiration for Millie during her first day of work, so when Pinky begins to imitate Millie, I was unsettled but not surprised. (For example: Pinky overhears Millie talking to a patient. “I’ll be right back,” Millie says. “I have to go to the little girls’ room.” As Mille steps out of sight of her client and lights a cigarette, we overhear Pinky say, “I’ll be right back. I gotta go to the little girls’ room.”) I was even less surprised when, minutes after Millie posts a roommate-wanted notice on the workplace bulletin board, Pinky takes it down.

Just like that, Millie and Pinky are roommates, driving down a desert highway to Dodge City—part bar, part shooting range, part dirt bike track. Upon seeing the façade of this faux frontier outpost, Pinky asks, “What is this place? Disneyland?” “No, it’s a bar,” Millie replies. “This is my hangout.” Pinky ricochets around the place like a pinball: she scrambles inside a mock teepee; squeals at the sight of a (defunct) miniature golf course; and climbs the decorative gallows, hanging her head in the noose, groaning, “They caught up with me.” Millie, a model of maturity, is unimpressed: “God. Come on, will you?”

Willie

Willie

Inside the bar, Millie introduces Pinky—and us—to Willie (Janice Rule), the establishment’s pregnant proprietor. She and Edgar (Robert Fortier), Willie’s drunken has-been stunt double husband, run Dodge City. “That’s just Willie,” Millie explains. “She paints those weird things all over the place.” Taking seriously her perceived responsibility to show Pinky the ropes, Millie says, “You haven’t seen Dirty Gerty yet. Pull her bow and she’ll say hello.” Dirty Gerty, a mechanical hag in a kerchief—a grotesque specter of old womanhood—hangs on a post above the bar. Dutiful Pinky does as told, and Gerty cackles loudly, her tongue poking in and out of her mouth, her eyelids sliding open and closed.

Pinky’s antics persist: Millie and Pinky turn to their beers, and Pinky reaches for the salt, pours a healthy dose into her mug, watches the beer froth and overflow, blows the thick foam across the bar top, then gulps the beer down in an energetic bottom-ups. It’s hard to tell, at this point, how Millie—a desperately aspiring sophisticate—takes Pinky’s childish stunts, only that she models an alternative, showing Pinky what to do and how to do it. How to make tuna salad. How to take the pill: “…you can get a bad reaction from it, so I just take it whenever I know I’m going to do something.” And if Millie, brandishing her McCall’s, is a tutor in the mores of 1970s womanhood, Pinky is a willing pupil—perhaps too willing. Case in point: when Millie returns home from a date unexpectedly early, she catches Pinky wearing her robe. We know, too, that Pinky has smoked Millie’s cigarettes and read her locked diary—Pinky’s sitting on the key.

Millie and Pinky

Millie and Pinky

In this way, Pinky does eventually wear on Millie until Millie can no longer preserve her characteristic—if willful—composure. When Millie and Pinky’s dinner guests, for whom they’ve prepared a veritable feast of processed foods (such bounty from countless cans and jars: pigs in a blanket; chocolate pudding tarts with whipped cream and sprinkles; Pringles; easy cheese on Sociables; and wine, two bottles, Tickled Pink and Lemon Satin) cancel last minute, Millie lashes out. She projects her disappointment onto Pinky. “You ruined everything. You always do,” she yells from the bathroom. And when Millie emerges, she leaves in a huff. “I’m gonna go find them [the would-be guests] and have some fun for a change.”

Millie returns late that night, drunk Edgar in tow, and asks Pinky to sleep on the rollaway. (Edgar doesn’t seem to need that kind of privacy, though: “Pinky, baby, now did we throw you out of your little beddy-by? I think we’d ought to have Pinky join us in the fun.” Note the sexy baby talk.) When Pinky tries to dissuade Millie from sleeping with Edgar, Millie’s frustration takes a new and desperate shape:

Ever since you moved in here you’ve been causing me grief. Nobody wants to hang around you. You don’t smoke. You don’t drink. You don’t do anything you’re supposed to do. Well, I’ll tell you what, if you don’t like the way I intend to live around here, why don’t you just move out!

Millie screams those last three words, overwhelmed, I think, by her unwieldy anger and loneliness. Millie’s anger overwhelms Pinky, too, who leaves the apartment, wanders onto the second-floor balcony, climbs over the railing, and drops herself into the pool below, where she floats, her arms buoyant on the surface, her body, sunken, dragging behind.

Though she lies for days in a coma in the ICU, Pinky survives, and when she wakes, her uncanny transformation into a Millie-like version of herself is complete. Pinky—or, as she now prefers, Mildred—is a woman, and despite Millie’s tireless efforts, Pinky plays the part better than she does. Pinky is cool and casual and sexy. She sunbathes by the pool while men mix her drinks. She reclines on the rollaway in the apartment, flirting with Edgar. Before, she stayed in nights, snooping through Millie’s stuff, her hair in braids. Now, she lies with ease, tosses her mane over her shoulder, rolls her eyes and snaps at Millie, drinks, smokes, shoots guns. “Gimme a slug of that, hoss,” she says to Edgar at the shooting range—she’s gripping a gun with both hands—and he holds his beer to her lips.

Altman and Spacek

Altman and Spacek

This cocky act falters, though, when Pinky wakes from a nightmare and asks Millie, “Can I sleep with you?” Millie, like a good mother, pulls her blanket aside, and Pinky climbs in. After the two women fall asleep, Millie’s hand on Pinky’s head, Edgar—who’s landlord here, too—stumbles into their apartment, drunk and belligerent. A frightened Millie threatens to call the police, but Edgar remains unflappable. He dismisses her, takes a seat on the couch, and says, “At this moment, right now, I’m becoming a father.” Willie’s having her baby. And what’s more, she’s totally alone. “There isn’t anybody with her,” he reveals.

Millie and Pinky drive to Willie’s house, where Millie takes the lead, instructing Pinky to go to the hospital and get a doctor. But Pinky doesn’t go. Instead, she stands silent and still outside the house while Millie delivers Willie’s stillborn child. And when Millie finds her there, she slaps her across the face—another kind of motherly gesture. Willie’s blood lingers in Pinky’s hair, on Pinky’s cheek. The camera, like Pinky and like us, never enters the house with Millie, who, in this scene, proves her strength and capability as a caregiver—glimpses of which we’ve seen before with the patients at the rehab center and with Pinky.

Rule and Altman

Rule and Altman

Cut to a Coca-Cola truck on the road to Dodge City. These are the film’s final moments, and they mark a disorienting shift for the viewer. Inside the bar, we find Pinky chewing gum and reading a magazine. When the deliveryman asks for someone to sign for the flats of Coke, she says, “I’ll get my mom.” Who is Pinky’s mom? It turns out Millie has become her mother. (We also learn, in this scene, that “Old Edgar” is dead. Read: killed.) Millie signs for the delivery, turns to Pinky, and says, “Come on, Millie. You’re going to help me fix dinner tonight. The vegetables need washing. Get that hair out of your face.” Millie seems at ease, if resigned and a little melancholy, in her new role as Pinky’s mother.

Pinky and Millie walk over to Willie’s house out back, where they now live alongside Willie in a sort of “parody of American family life.” Willie, with her distracted demeanor and long gray hair, plays the part of elder, of grandmother. They fetch Willie from the porch where she sits, and the three women enter the house together, talking about dinner, about clothes that need mending. Millie gently scolds Pinky. The camera, as before, stays outside.

At first, I found this ending impenetrable, enigmatic. Why did Pinky revert back to childhood? When did Millie acquiesce to such a complete identity overhaul? Why did she let Pinky take her name? When I consider, though, that Pinky and Millie find themselves, throughout most of the film, in the psychically taxing space of this “girl-woman transition,” I begin to understand what their new family formation has to offer: stability. Before, they assumed insufficient pre-fab identities. Millie mimicked women in magazines, and Pinky mimicked Millie. But by becoming “the family in three generations,” these women adopt roles they can name, roles they know how to perform. (In other words, as writer Rebecca Solnit says in a recent interview with Slate, “I’ve always been interested in how much our problems come from not having the language, not having the framework to think and talk about and address the phenomenon around us.”) This new family, though, strikes me as a terrifying solution to a terrifying problem. Because the culture refuses to make room for Pinky and Millie, Pinky and Millie accommodate the culture.

Pinky and Millie

Millie and Pinky

Film critic Robert Kolker describes the world of 3 Women as a place where “identities are uncertain because unformed and unformed because there is no sense of self or location.” He continues,

Here and throughout the film, the viewer is caught in a forced perspective where the immediacy of the event and its detached and disorienting structure conflict. The result is a sense of being unanchored, with no firm or assured position, drifting, like the subjects within the narrative, through sifting images and significations.

That is, the film launches its viewers—as it does Pinky and Millie—into a disorienting no man’s land. (Which the film’s setting—a bright and overexposed stretch of sparsely populated desert—literalizes.) This film is about nowhere. It’s about what it means to navigate and inhabit cultural, psychological, and geographical nowheres.

“All the characters are like a rare species, lonesome, looking for a place in the world,” Altman said. In part, I agree—these three women are lonesome. But they aren’t rare. Instead, their loneliness and longing and desperation make them—as well as this otherwise elusive film—stirring, relevant, and relatable.

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