When It Comes to Character-as-Theme Titles, Robert’s the Altman

Pair McCabe & Mrs. Miller with 3 Women for a Robert Altman double-feature of titles that center characters who would otherwise be considered mere supporting players.

“Mere” might sound like too much of a pejorative, because of course secondary and tertiary roles should be in some way crucial to the overall story. But usually, even if these minor arcs clearly inform the major focus, they’re still treated as refractions on the primary order of business.

Which is why nobody would’ve batted an eye if Altman’s aforementioned two movies were titled, respectively, McCabe and 2 Women; in fact, the former IS actually the title of Edmund Naughton’s original novel.

Though Mrs. Miller and the third woman (the painter!) are vital parts of their movies, without the titles as indicators, audiences might not take as much note of them as the traditional leads. Referencing them directly in the titles should guide us to view them as equally important to the others on the marquee, which would ideally inspire the analytically-inclined among us to contemplate how it changes our understanding of the movies, thematically and narratively, to see them as main attractions. If titles convey something essential about a work of art, then Mrs. Miller and the painter are, by definition, just as central as McCabe and the two women.

But since they don’t command their fair share of the attention in the movies proper, what does their position — as headliners, but relegated to less screen and talking time — represent in terms of how we can interpret them to be defining features of the features?

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