Perhaps among Robert Altman’s most bizarre (which is saying a lot) works, 1977’s 3 Women stemmed from a dream the auteur had and then decided to transform into a script (though most of the dialogue came while shooting).
Following wide-eyed, new-in-town Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) from Texas as she begins a new job at a swim therapy facility for the aged in Los Angeles, the premise of 3 Women is vague at best and ominous at worst. Pinky’s prudish nature doesn’t stop her from idolizing a fellow co-worker named Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), a woman so unaware of how little others (men) care for her due to her own comparatively prudish nature that it seems ironic Pinky could ever see her as anything resembling a rogue.
When Millie’s roommate moves out to live with her boyfriend, she ends up resorting to taking on Pinky as her new roommate/protégée. Although Millie is glad to have someone to be admired by, she ultimately becomes vexed with Pinky to no end, prompting the latter to jump off the diving board in their apartment complex and plummet into a coma. The third woman in the trifecta, Willie Hart (Janice Rule), is a foreboding pregnant woman who creates disturbing mosaic murals both at their apartment building and the local bar they frequent, run by Willie’s washed-up cowboy husband, Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier).
Millie, who can’t seem to find any other men to have sex with her, prostrates herself by allowing Edgar into her home, at which point Pinky chastises her for her immoral behavior, prompting Millie to snap, a cruel reaction that then sends Pinky to her watery fate. It is at this juncture that the film turns from a Single White Female slant to a Desperately Seeking Susan one. After waking up from her coma, Pinky believes she is Mille, much in the same way Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) believes she is Susan (Madonna) after hitting her head while in Battery Park. Alarmed by Pinky’s lack of recognition of her own identity and adoption of Millie’s as some sort of defense, Millie does her best to go along with it in the hope that it will cure her. This tactic echoes Alma’s (Bibi Andersson) on Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film, Persona. The two women become so intertwined and so enmeshed in each other’s personalities that they can no longer recognize the distinction between them.
By the time the nebulous conclusion of the film rolls around, the student (Pinky) has pulled an Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) in All About Eve by surpassing Millie in terms of mastering the role of her personality. And so, with these various elements of obsession, amnesia, jealousy and blurred guises, 3 Women embodies some of the most renowned movies in cinema (though “renown” might not be the best word to describe Single White Female).