Shelley Duvall's Fever Dream in the Desert - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Shelley Duvall's Fever Dream in the Desert

Shelley Duvall's Fever Dream in the Desert

By Eugene S. Robinson


At one point there was an American avant-garde. 

By Eugene S. Robinson

A friend said it best when describing the difference between movies made in the auteur heyday of the 1970s and movies made now: “It’s the difference between watching something happening and watching a movie about something that already happened.” Which, in a way, describes one of that generation’s giants, Robert Altman, who, while he rose much higher with his multiple-award-winning Nashville, still had the stones to make a movie like 3 Women. Also known as a movie that would never be made today, what with its almost lazily long and meandering intro with the incandescent Shelley Duvall wandering through one of the more curious therapeutic senior spa communities in a sunblasted central California desert town.

Enter Sissy Spacek, and we’re two women into this 1977 desert noir about two roommates and their mostly silent landlady (played by Janice Rule). Rule, who spends the better portion of the film painting murals of murderous ancient Greek gods on any surface that will accommodate a mural, joins Spacek and Duvall in this quasi-improvised, two-hour trip of trying to film a dream that Altman had actually had during a period when he thought his wife was dying. While working at the spa, Duvall’s character nurtures that of the younger Spacek as her charge in a professional, then personal relationship that shifts into overdrive right about the time it shifts into eerily weird.

Doesn’t mean I like it, though. It made me pretty uncomfortable.

Nicky Vee, film reviewer

“The best part about dreams and about this flick,” says film reviewer Nicky Vee, “is that it doesn’t have to make sense to be any good.” Or rather, it doesn’t have to make Transformers–Michael Bay kind of sense. Things don’t have to go boom, leaving what remains standing primed for a sequel. Duvall, a perfect foil and unreliable narrator in this narrative, slips in and out of being half right, totally wrong and then totally right, while the suspiciously sweet Spacek acts and reacts in a way that suggests motive, ulterior and otherwise. “Which is not to say 3 Women is any good,” Vee says, laughing. “It actually is, but how it is beats me.”

Vee’s assessment is one supported by the BAFTA nomination and Cannes and Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards for Duvall, backed by the New York Film Critics Circle award for Spacek. “Altman does this wonderful thing with spaces and spacing,” film reviewer Bob Calhoun says. “And [he] gives his actors lots of room to shine.” Sexual without being overtly sexy, and smart without being precious, 3 Women assigns agency to the actresses that’s a far cry from modern cinema’s symbolic attachment to women as objects.

“Doesn’t mean I like it, though,” Vee says. “It made me pretty uncomfortable.”

Which, if you’re a fan of the uncomfortable in your art, makes 3 Women a must-see.

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