Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Runner-Ups: Shelley Duvall in "3 Women" (1977)

Shelley Duvall
Every Oscar season, there are a handful of actors who get tagged with the "snubbed" moniker. While it is always unfortunate to see our favorites not honored with at very least a nomination, there's another trend that goes largely unnoticed: those who never even got that far. The Runner-Ups is a column meant to honor the greats in cinema who put in phenomenal work without getting the credit that they deserved from The Academy. Join me every Saturday as I honor those who never received any love. This list will hopefully come to cover both the acting community, and the many crew members who put the production together.

The Runner-Up: Shelley Duvall
Film: 3 Women (1977)
Oscar Nominees in the Best Actress category (1977):
- Diane Keaton (Annie Hall) *Winner
- Anne Bancroft (The Turning Point)
- Jane Fonda (Julia)
- Shirley MacLaine (The Turning Point)
- Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl)

What is there really to say about Shelley Duvall? To most people coming to her work, she is best known for her work in The Shining. She has managed to portray a variety of women who aren't often considered to be conventionally beautiful, even managing to make a pretty convincing Olive Oyl in Popeye. Over the course of an impressive career, she has turned in a lot of great work that more than reflects her charisma and capability to be a Tilda Swinton-esque actress of her time. Whatever she lacked in the leading woman department, she made up for with charisma and weird acting choices. It is what lead her to work on several films with the director Robert Altman, including her own debut in 1970 with Brewster McCloud. With a legacy that spanned over 30 years, she is one of the most singular actresses to appear in New Hollywood cinema and beyond. All of this is to say then that it's very strange that she never received a single Oscar nomination for any of her great work.

While it isn't the definition of a great career, it will be a recurring theme on The Runner-Ups to highlight actors who can be considered forces of nature, but never got the attention for it. Much like Peter Lorre before, you don't forget what Duvall looks like. You don't forget her eyes or how they can look paranoid or seductive with mere shifts of an eyelid. She has a softness to her that can harden a performance with a magnetic presence. The only real tragedy is that, with limited exception, her later career failed to match the impact of the first two decades. By the 90's, she had moved on to also doing children's programming and adding her quirky sensibility to telling familiar stories. Still, there's at least a dozen great performances - sometimes buried in the massive ensembles of Altman's biggest films, including Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. These films earned other people Oscar nomination, but Duvall's cameo-level appearances would go unnoticed.

There remains a magic then to Altman's 3 Women that even now feels like it's among his more obscure selections. Following an impressive run of films MASH and Nashville, he took on a film that is famously known for being based on a dream he had. The mystical nature causes the subject to be at times vague and unable to be properly defined by conventional plotting. It's true that Altman was rarely conventional, but 3 Women took this ideal to a dreamlike state and pitted the titular three women (Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Janice Rule) into a tale that takes place in the underpopulated California desert. While the story revolves mostly around Duvall's Millie and Spacek's Pinky, it becomes a complicated portrayal of womanhood and letting go of childish ways. If you don't understand that this is the subtext by watching it, don't worry. Almost nobody gets it right on the first try.

What's interesting is that Duvall actually did win Best Actress at Cannes for this performance. While this isn't always the gatekeeper for awards season, it did prove that while the film is inaccessible to mainstream audiences, there was a certain respect for her charisma. As Millie, Duvall played a woman who is at best considered to be a cliche of what a woman is. She spouts stock catchphrases while flirting with me. She has the typical 70's ideal of how a woman should be. However, the dark comedy doesn't allow it to be as over the top and grating as the text would suggest. Instead, it's the beginning of a more complicated portrayal. Millie slowly devolves into an actual woman as she had to deal with Pinky following her concussion. It may be slight, but the final pay-off is a thing of beauty and adds a haunting ambiguity to the film. It helps that Spacek is equally enduring as the younger and more naive woman, of which serves as a springboard of Duvall's growth throughout the film.

While the film has garnered a reputation in the years since, 3 Women failed to receive any Oscar nominations. Despite being released during the height of the award's most interesting period of nominees - ranging from auteur directors to experimental political statements - it wasn't able to skid by on Altman's charm. It could largely be due to the film's ambiguity and inability to be as immediately satisfying as the director's earlier films. There wasn't anything as noticeably revolutionary about the film like MASH's portrayal of war or McCabe & Mrs. Miller use of overlapping dialogue. While it definitely influenced films that would incorporate a dreamlike state, it wasn't something that would happen, at least not aesthetically, for quite awhile. A modern comparison point would be 2012's The Master, which sometimes plays as a masculine side to the same coin and incorporates a mystifying atmosphere. It didn't quite receive the box office that its acclaim had, and it missed out on a Best Picture nomination. 

Yet this isn't to say that Duvall was shut out of that year's Oscars entirely. As in keeping with her "Always the bridesmaid, never the bride." tradition, she made a memorable cameo in the Best Picture winner Annie Hall. Of course, she was one of many cameos including Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum. It also isn't fair that Altman would receive a hefty seven nominations, and Spacek would have six nominations with one being a win for Coal Miner's Daughter. In a tragic twist of luck, she would receive a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress for her most iconic film: The Shining - again with Oscar winning (though not for the Stephen King adaptation) Stanley Kubrick and Jack Nicholson accompanying her. Still, her body of work speaks for itself in terms of talent and makes you wonder how nobody threw her a bone at least once or twice.

Admittedly, Duvall may not be the most iconic actress of her generation. However, one could easily look at performers who were nominated and wonder how they even stood a chance. In a time where there's baffling wins (Alicia Vikander's victory for The Danish Girl still makes no sense), it becomes harder to wonder why certain performers didn't make the cut. True, I cannot fathom the impact that The Turning Point or The Goodbye Girl had at the time, but there's few depictions of womanhood that are as complex and nuanced as 3 Women. It's a film that was so unappreciated that it didn't receive a proper home video release until not even a decade ago. Yet there are those who stand up for it (myself included) as Altman's best. Duvall's performance deserves a lot of credit for why that is. It may be frustrating and confusing at times, but that's part of its appeal. Not nominating Duvall at any point in her wonderful career is even worse.


  1. I agree, Duvall was the worst Oscar snub of all time.

  2. Totally agree. Shelley Duvall as Millie Lammoreaux in 3 Women is one of the biggest Oscar snubs of the 1970s. She deserved a Best Actress nomination, without question. In my opinion, Sissy Spacek also deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her performance in the film as Pinky Rose. They were both astounding.