Despite her memorable work with filmmakers of such high caliber as Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and, briefly, Woody Allen, Shelley Duvall seems to get little respect. Maybe it’s the monotone baby-doll vocal delivery, the deer-caught-in-Mac-truck-headlights gaze, the unsteady spaghetti-limbed stance, or, most likely, the fact that she often doesn’t prize intelligence as a main character trait, but Shelley Duvall is one of the few 70s icons who also doubles as a punchline. Her too-perfect-for-comfort role as Olive Oyl capping her decade-long winning streak was like an awkward exhalation, as if this is what she was destined to play: a shapeless woman playing a formless sketch, reduced to disembodied ADR voice tricks and flailing rubbery mannerisms. The result seemed to be a decade of toiling away in TV fantasy and children’s whimsy, from Time Bandits to Faerie Tale Theatre, even if the latter was an appropriate and charming claim to fame for the younger set (certainly many of those in my generation first saw Duvall perched on her storybook chair, surrounded by mounds of wiggy ringlets, narrating a series of delightfully mounted Grimm costume dramas).
The tendency to write off Duvall as simpering ninny (The Shining), apathetic barnacle (Nashville, Annie Hall), or catatonic woman-child (Thieves Like Us) all breaks down in the face of Altman’s 3 Women, which had been both underappreciated and all but unseen by my generation until its Criterion reissue five or so years ago. Yet I had been enamored of its tricks since high school, when I happened upon it on cable’s Fox Movie Channel at the wholly apt time of one a.m. I went to bed haunted and bleary-eyed and the next day scanned TV Guide for its next showing, with a blank tape at the ready. Sissy Spacek’s half-raging, half-playful performance as Pinky/Mildred was astonishing, yet it came as no shock, considering the versatility on view in Carrie, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Crimes of the Heart. It was Duvall who took me by surprise; yes, she was again ethereal, in her own world, a real “space cadet”–yet as Millie Lamoreaux, the Texan physical therapy worker who takes in Spacek’s anonymous, sweetly freckled drifter (and new fellow nursing home attendant) as a roommate, Duvall revealed new depths of melancholy.
This time, her remoteness was there but she was constantly trying to puncture it, to make contact with neighbors, acquaintances, co-workers; she’s outcast and socially strained, yet she now had a heightened awareness of her own limitations and frightful difference. Altman, always an expert at zeroing in (often, literally, with his camera) on the small details that make someone either blend in with or stand out from their environment, constantly boils Millie down to a series of memorable symbols and objects (cheese whiz and tuna fish sandwiches with onion powder, a swatch of canary yellow dress eternally caught in her car’s driver’s side door ) or awkward movements (her wavering cigarette lighting, her meticulous Breck-girl hair maintenance), yet Duvall never allows herself to be just a succession of goofy shtick. By the time Altman’s film has descended into a nightmarish, abstract evocation of the two women’s souls, split and congealed together, his surprisingly experimental leap is made all the smoother by Duvall’s presence; she may have a natural tendency toward the detached, but she’s poignant and bitter here, as well. By the end of the film, she’s made a drastic transition: she’s grounded, has become necessarily maternal, commanding. 3 Women is baffling, heavily symbolic filmmaking, yet Duvall and Spacek sell it, moment for moment; it’s all about subtle gradations in their performances, their minute transformations, and eventual metamorphosis. In other words, the kind of stuff impossible without actors attuned to the material; it’s one of the finest films of the seventies, and Duvall deserves a lion’s share of the credit.