Directed by Robert Altman
The United States of America
Stella Mae: I just love to try an' guess at people from old photographs.
What can I say about Robert Altman? He is one of American's greatest and most original directors. And yet, the early Eighties were a time of severe crisis for this true auteur. In 1980, he made the commercial and critical stinker Popeye. It had good intentions and even a talented cast, but it ultimately fell apart. Suddenly, nobody wanted to finance his movies anymore. The man who had created such phenomenal films as M*A*S*H*, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and Nashville suddenly was out of work. So, he took a two year break from the world of cinema. Thankfully, when he returned, he proved that he was still a cinematic giant to be reckoned with. The next three films that he directed were Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Streamers (1983), and Secret Honor (1984). Even though they would be largely overshadowed for the rest of his career, these three films have been remembered as three of his greatest. All three of them were cinematic adaptations of theatrical plays. All three of them featured very small casts and even smaller sets. Just like Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944), they were restricted to a single set piece (or even a single room). Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was set in a diner, Streamers was set in an army barracks, and Secret Honor was set in ex-President Nixon's office. Their minimalistic approach were a satisfying return to form for Altman after such excesses as A Wedding (1978) which supposedly contained 48 primary speaking parts. While it is true that they may not have always used Altman's overlapping trademark dialogue or naturalistic filming techniques, they were perfect examples of what made Altman's earlier work so endearing: stories centered around great characters being performed by great actors. These three pieces of the Altman pantheon have gained somewhat of a cult status among the die-hard Altman fans. Secret Honor was lucky enough to even get a Criterion Collection release. However, the first two have long since faded into obscurity. And so, I will do a two part review of these two movies. Tonight, I will write about Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean while tomorrow I will write about Streamers. And so, without further ado, I give you Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.
In a small Texas town in the middle of nowhere, there sits a small, decrepit five-and-dime store. On this particular day, a number of women file in and greet each other for the first time in twenty years. They are the members of the Disciples of James Dean, and they have gathered to mourn the twentieth anniversary of the passing of their hero. Unlike many others who were enamored with James Dean when he was alive, these women share a special connection with the late actor. Their little town is located a few miles away from Marfa, Texas, where Dean starred in Giant in 1956. They fondly remembered going up to the set and seeing their star. But the real magic happened when one of their own is chosen to be an extra in the film. And so the women regroup in order to celebrate old times. The group is populated by many fascinating characters who over the course of the day will have their realities turned upside down as confessions and realizations wash over them.
First, there is Juanita (Susie Bond), the owner of the little shop. As the day crawls by she stalks around her store looking for mosquitoes to kill. A devout Christian, she is constantly justifying her actions in the name of the Lord and annoys many of the other women with her Gospel and country music on the radio. Then, there is Sissy. She is the local sexpot who flaunts her figure and delights in aggravating Juanita with her language and lifestyle. She is effortlessly played by Cher in one of her best movie roles. Indeed, it was her performance in this film that earned her respect from movie-going audiences and critics for the first time. Then comes Stella Mae played by the great Kathy Bates who married a rich petroleum executive and now lives the good life. There are other players as well, but they do not hold a candle to Mona and Joanne.
Mona (Sandy Dennis) is the leader of the Disciples of James Dean. This is probably because she was the member of the group who was chosen to be the extra in Giant. Well, it's not only that. It's also because she believes that she slept with James Dean and bore his child nine months later. She named him Jimmy Dean. He became a tourist attraction to fans who were grief-stricken at the passing of their idol. In fact, nearly 3,000 people came to see little Jimmy Dean for the first week after he was born. It literally put their little town on the map. However, as he grew older, it became apparent that he was mentally retarded. Feeling great shame, Mona had him cooped up away from people. Despite this, she viciously defends the idea that her son is James Dean's son and takes great pride in it. 'He chose me, from everybody else, to bring his child into this world,' she says in an almost trance-like state. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that she has a tenuous grip on reality. Her son (well, James Dean's son) is the only thing keeping her from descending into a crazed state of mania. But this is all challenged when Joeanne shows up.
In an Oscar-worthy performance, Karen Black plays a character named Joeanne. I say character, because this person was not always known as Joeanne. In fact, Joeanne was originally a boy named Joe who had a sex change. Twenty years ago he did a routine with Sissy and Mona where they imitated the McGuire Sisters. He was then publically assaulted for dressing up like a girl. Even though there were many bystanders, nobody helped him. Nobody recognizes her at first. When they do, there is a mixture of shock and adulation. Juanita confronts her and says, 'You're just one of them perverts, that's what you are!' Joanne coolly responds, 'Well, that's what you always thought I was, Juanita.' She explains that she got the sex change with money that she received when her mother died. Before the operation, she loved Mona, but she rejected him because she promised to love only James Dean. How ironic considering that Joeanna was Jimmy Dean's real father........
As I mentioned before, the entire movie takes place in a single room: the diner. Try as I might, I couldn't think of a better way to describe the set than how Roger Ebert did in his 1982 review:
[Altman] works just as closely with David Gropman's extraordinary stage set, on which the movie was shot. Gropman has actually created two dime stores, one a mirror-image of the other. They're separated by a two-way mirror, so that at times we're looking at the reflection of the "front" store, and at other times, the glass is transparent and we see the second store. Altman uses the front as the present and the back as the past, and there are times when a foreground image will dissolve into a background flashback. In an age of sophisticated optical effects, this sort of dissolve looks routine until you learn that Altman isn't using opticals, he's actually shooting through the two-way mirror. His visual effects sometimes require fancy offscreen footwork for his actors to be in two places during the same shot.
It's only appropriate that the flashbacks are in the mirror. In these small town cafe mirrors, people watch themselves transform from children to seniors. Their whole lives could be observed over cheeseburgers and orange crushes. In the flashbacks, we learn that the diner has barely changed in twenty years. It is an altar to dime-store Americana and has its walls plastered with photos of James Dean. It projects this rustic, dirty look that was championed in Hollywood New Wave films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). This is due in large part to Altman's choice to photograph the entire movie in 16 millimeters. In post-production it was enlarged to 35 millimeters. The resulting effect makes the movie seem like it was filmed with a special lens that gives everything a small layer of sepia coloring.
All of this was done on a meager $800,000 budget. This just proves that all Altman needed to create a great film was great actors. Every single one of them gives power house performances. Maybe this has to do with the fact that Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was originally a play on Broadway. Cher, Black, and Sandy were actually cast members from the original stage play. During their time on the stage, they honed their characters and performances until they were pitch perfect. They all seem so alive, so incredibly real that we find ourselves becoming attached to them as the movie goes on. Therefore, it breaks our hearts when they leave the reunion shattered from the night's events. We can only hope that their next meeting in another twenty years will be better. I only wish that Altman could have been their with his camera to film the Disciples of James Dean reunite for one last time. But we are given one last shot in the movie of the five and dime twenty years in the future: It is decayed and abandoned. All that remains are the streamers from the last meeting all bunched up in the corner.
Editor's Note: I couldn't find any more pictures from the movie. All of the other available pictures were from different theatrical adaptations.