(Republished from the May 1977 issue of Palm Springs Life magazine)
Robert Altman is either loved or hated. Either way, he probably is understood only vaguely. Hollywood's current most intriguing director is an enigma, more so even in person than on Celluloid.
The Academy-award nominee, in tandem with a large entourage from his Lion's Gate Films Inc., quietly caravanned into Palm Springs last fall for several weeks of unobtrusive location filming of "3 Women," his new movie released April 29 on the West Coast.
Altman is somewhat inarticulate about the film, which is not surprising since the idea for it was born on a rather tenuous thread — a dream he had one Saturday night last mid-July. Who else but Robert Altman, except maybe a Fellini, could have conjured up a full-length feature inspired only by his sandman muse?
Unorthodoxy is the Altman stamp. Not only did he translate reverie to the big screen, he did so working from a most unusual, personally devised story treatment, a kind of outline-script combination. "3 Women" was scripted formally only as the individual scenes were being put together. The film and script were finished simultaneously.
To insure complete control of "3 Women," the feisty independent director — who has been known to revel in intramural hassles — personally financed the $1.7 million project through his production company. He wrote, directed and produced the dream flick for Twentieth Century Fox release. The film's world premiere was April 8 in New York City, where Altman is a much larger cult figure, quasi-legend, than in Los Angeles.
There are no superstars in "3 Women," but there are some regulars from the Altman "stable." Casting was facile since two of the women of the title were already auditioned and cast in the director's subconscious. One is Shelley Duvall, the painfully thin, saucer-eyed 27-year-old who, since 1970, has left her imprint on one Altman film after another, particularly "Nashville." The other is ingénue-looking Sissy Spacek, described in a recent Newsweek cover story as the hottest new young actress in Hollywood. Altman speculates it was watching Sissy's performance in the dailies of his recently produced "Welcome to L.A." that triggered the "3 Women" dream. The other two leads are actress Janice Rule and Robert Fortier, who appeared in Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."
The Palm Springs area location was not cast specifically in Altman's dream; originally he had figured on the Saugus-Newhall area, but he decided it was not sufficiently isolated.
Altman became familiar with Palm Springs some 16 or 17 years ago. It was that memory which brought him back to look around. The idea that the desert would be right for "3 Women" just evolved, he says, as so much that happens in the development of Altman projects.
The atmosphere of isolation around Palm Springs, says Altman, is central and essential to the movie, which basically is a character study. It concerns the relationship of two girls from Texas (Duvall and Spacek) who meet in the desert and encounter a third woman, an artist (Rule), who is a native of the neighborhood. She and her husband (Fortier) own a bar and the apartment building where the young girls live.
Altman says "3 Women" is a psychological drama about how we all are deluded by our cultural trappings, molded by all those "how-to" magazines, told what is the "right" hairdo, make-up, clothes, automobile, lifestyle, way to think. If he intends any message here at all, it is that "we should consider what would happen if we were to revert to a baboon status." (Altman rarely imposes any message on his movies other than that the viewers should have to do much of the thinking themselves.)
Five locations in the Coachella Valley were used in shooting "3 Women": the Sunbeam Inn, a small Palm Springs hotel which, for the film, becomes the gaudy Purple Sage Apartments; the Joseph M. Shapiro Eye Center of Desert Hospital; Coffee's Hot Mineral Pools and Hotel in Desert Hot Springs, represented in the movie as a geriatric hospital; the Palm Springs Greyhound bus station; and the Hidden Springs Ranch Club in Thousand Palms, which was built by Charles Doyle in 1945 and has stood deserted for the past dozen years.
Altman almost always shoots his movies on location, rarely using studio sets. In so doing he has learned well to adapt to existing conditions, as witness his continued good humor and patience while filming in the wilting heat of a Palm Springs' Indian summer. Typical of his professional philosophy Altman used area residents as extras in "3 Women," rather than Screen Actors Guild extras.
When the movie troupe rolled out of the desert and back to Westwood Village, Altman had left behind a permanent legacy: three very eerie, larger-than-life murals which he had commissioned artist Bodhi Wind to paint, setting the stage for the character portrayal by Janice Rule.
In the movie, she (the pregnant artist) is shown gradually completing the murals, which are caricatures of a pregnant woman. One of the diabolical, cartoon-like works is etched on the bottom of the swimming pool at the hotel; the others are on the pool and patio of the dude ranch. The bizarre creations have caused a stir among Los Angeles media, which are vying for an exclusive story on them.
Robert Altman is a free-wheeling maverick with an erratic track record. A prolific artist, he is a self-proclaimed workaholic who has in the last seven years written and/or produced and/or directed 11 movies. Hits and flops alike, they have been more memorable for making waves than for making money. No director since Sam Peckinpah has provoked such passionate disputes: though Altman wants approval, he courts enemies, enjoys controversy.
Kansas City-bred, 52-year-old Altman began his career working in industrial films after serving in World War II as an Army B-54 combat pilot. He later spent 10 successful years in television, directing episodes for Alfred Hitchcock, "Kraft Mystery Theater," "Bonanza" and other popular shows. He formed Lion's Gate in 1963; has been his own man ever since. Today Altman, almost unanimously, is considered the most distinctive American director by the critics, who acclaim him for his vigorous, uncompromisingly personal films.
Robert Altman delights in spouting contradictions; he tells far more about himself by his actions than by verbalizing his feelings and ideas. He claims, in fact, to fear and abhor self-analysis. Observations of the determined director at work with his cast and crew on the set of "3 Women" were more revealing than personal conversation with him. Altman shows rather than tells; it's his profession.