Shelley Duvall does the talking, but Sissy Spacek may be the real protagonist of Altman’s 3 Women

Shelley Duvall does the talking, but Sissy Spacek may be the real protagonist of Altman’s 3 Women

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Defining a protagonist is often trickier than it might seem. Hollywood politics can obscure matters in many instances—actors get positioned in a certain Oscar category based on star power and the perceived likelihood of winning or being nominated. (The most ludicrous example in recent memory found Ethan Hawke relegated to Best Supporting Actor for Training Day, a movie in which his character not only was unmistakably the lead, but appeared in almost every shot.) Then there are ensemble movies, like The Dirty Dozen and Magnolia, that don’t have a clear central figure. And on the flip side, consider movies with multiple protagonists—usually two or three, but one could credibly argue, for example, that The Breakfast Club features five protagonists of completely equal weight and significance. 

Sometimes things get muddled even to the people actually making the movie. Robert Altman’s 3 Women, you’d think, would be about three women… and it is, sort of. One of the three, however, appears only in the film’s margins, wearing floppy hats and creating disturbing murals. The other two are played by Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, and it’s become conventional wisdom that Duvall’s Millie, rather than Spacek’s Pinky, is the film’s protagonist. I’d initially thought this was more politics, and paid little attention to the fact that Duvall won Best Actress at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, while Spacek received a Supporting Actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle that year. But on the Criterion DVD’s commentary track, even Altman himself (speaking in 2003) says as much: “We talked mostly about Millie, because she’s the one that you see these forces working on and happening to. So she’s the protagonist.”

With all due respect to the late Mr. Altman, that’s just plain nuts. Pinky is as much the protagonist of 3 Women as Millie is, and dominates the film’s first half in particular, even though Millie’s the one doing all the talking (or yammering, as the case may be). Take a look at this pair of scenes in which Pinky invites Millie to eat lunch with her at the spa where they both work, and tell me which of the two characters the movie appears to be about.

We learn a great deal about both Millie and Pinky from this abortive interaction. When she’s in danger of being late, Pinky is the sort of person who runs to work but then slows down and composes herself just before opening the door to the facility, so as not to tip anyone off to her tardiness by bursting in. On the other hand, when the spa’s Nurse Ratched-like administrator pulls the curtain open after catching Pinky taking a (non-)smoking break, Pinky, hilariously, is facing the curtain and standing right there waiting for her, as if she hadn’t just made a futile attempt to pretend she’d actually been working. Meanwhile, Millie is immediately revealed as someone with very little regard for others (despite working in geriatric care), as she doesn’t bother to warn Pinky, who’s new on the job, that they’re about to get busted. She just mutters, “Uh-oh,” and immediately ducks into her own unit, leaving poor Pinky to take the rap. Not really what most people would think of as potential best-friend material, but then Pinky isn’t most people.

All of this is seen exclusively from Pinky’s point of view, apart from one brief shot of Millie when she first starts smoking—and even then, the focus is primarily on Pinky’s offscreen voice repeating what she’s just heard Millie say. From the film’s very first scene, Pinky has been intently observing Millie; Altman summarizes the dynamic perfectly in his commentary, noting that Pinky is “like a soul that had appeared on the planet and said, ‘How do I make myself a person?’ And she was doing it by mimicking Millie.” So we get a classic surveillance moment in which Pinky clambers over her dozing charge and peeks at Millie in the adjacent unit, a wisp of a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. And the very nature of film grammar dictates that it’s the observer who truly interests us, not the one being observed. We’re intrigued by the object of desire only insomuch as the observer is intrigued. When Jimmy Stewart is following Kim Novak all over San Francisco early in Vertigo, Novak is not playing the lead.

This gets reinforced in the second scene, when Pinky, who’s put way too much stock in Millie’s indifferent agreement to have lunch together (“It’s okay with me”), tracks her down at the hospital cafeteria where she usually eats. In a superficial sense, Millie is the scene’s focus. She never shuts up, for one thing, though it’s abundantly clear that the interns she’s trying so hard to impress merely tolerate her presence. And the attention to detail is remarkable—I’ve seen 3 Women several times, but only on this most recent viewing did it register that Millie picks up a bunch of magazines as she’s leaving, which she’s either collected from the hospital waiting rooms, or brought along to create the false impression that she’d planned to spend her lunch reading, but was unexpectedly distracted by an abundance of testosterone. (I’m not sure which would be more pathetic.) It’s not as if the camera ignores her, either. She creates an impression.

Nonetheless, this scene, too, is all about Pinky, even though Pinky never says a word (except to the food server) and is never even acknowledged by Millie, who as far as I can tell doesn’t notice Pinky is there. We’re not really getting additional narrative information here—it’s been well established by now that Pinky has developed a weird fixation on Millie, so the only story beat comes at the very end, when Millie puts an ad seeking a roommate on the bulletin board and Pinky quickly grabs it. (They’re roommates in the very next scene.) But Altman still primarily wants us to watch Pinky watching Millie, and he makes a point of following the former around even though she doesn’t actually do anything but grab a slice of melon and some pie. Nothing says “pay attention!” more directly than devoting a lot of screen time to something or someone when it doesn’t seem to be expressly warranted, so I find it weird that Altman could have constructed the movie this way and imagined that Millie was his protagonist. She arguably becomes the protagonist in the second half, when identities start shifting—indeed, all three women arguably become aspects of the same woman—but we’re firmly allied with Pinky at this stage. 

None of this is meant to diminish Duvall’s performance, which richly deserved its Cannes prize. She makes Millie an intensely annoying personality while somehow retaining your affection for her; I love the pseudo-covert way she sprays Binaca in her mouth just before leaving the cafeteria, glancing around as if hoping the guys will notice while simultaneously striving to create the impression that she hopes the guys won’t notice. (Whatever happened to Binaca, anyway? Did Tic Tacs kill it?) But just because somebody’s doing all the talking doesn’t mean they’re the movie’s primary point of interest. Watchful silence speaks volumes, too.

Filed Under: Film

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