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Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean | Blu-ray Review

Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean Robert Altman CoverLong unavailable for home viewing, Robert Altman’s 1982 title Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean has languished as a remote, minor title of the auteur’s filmography, trotted out to devotees at retrospectives. Based on the play by Ed Graczyk and featuring a bevy of eclectic actresses, it’s often and unfairly lumped into consideration with Altman’s other adaptations of stage material from the time period, including David Rabe’s Streamers (1983), Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love (1985) and Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy (1987). Often described as typically Altmanesque with its examination of Americana, a dialogue heavy showcase of melodrama squeezed from the banalities of everyday existence, at last it’s available for a wider appreciation, ripe for a recuperation as more than a mere trifle lost in a flood of greater titles from an American auteur.

It’s 1975 and a group of extreme James Dean fans, known as The Disciples of James Dean, return to the rural Texas of their youth, where they had steadfastly worshipped their idol twenty years prior. Juanita (Sudie Bond), a devoutly Christian woman, now runs the Woolworth’s that had belonged to her husband, the group’s hangout. Sissy (Cher) now works there, awaiting the return of her husband, a high school sweetheart that had terrorized her friend Joe (Mark Patton) back in 1955. Mona (Sandy Dennis), who had scored a part as an extra in the 1954 James Dean film Giant, claims to have had a romance with Dean, resulting in a pregnancy, and a son named Jimmy Dean who is apparently handicapped. Others also arrive, including the loud mouthed Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and the simple and constantly pregnant Edna Louise (Marta Heflin). Their reunion is interrupted by Joanne (Karen Black), a woman that seems to be a stranger, but happens to have a secret to share.

While Cher received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance (and precedes the Oscar nod she’d snag a year later for her role in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood), her iconic status will tend to attract and overwhelm the odd mix of cast members here. It’s a magnetic performance, one that Roger Ebert praised for her ability to show audiences something more than the persona they’d already long been accustomed to. In retrospect, however, it’s the uncomfortable performance of Sandy Dennis and the powerful presence of Karen Black that really stand out in Jimmy Dean, both performers reuniting with Altman from previous collaborations (That Cold Day in the Park and Nashville, respectively).

Dennis gives an expertly calibrated performance of awkward discomfort. We can see right through her, but she’s familiar in that way often described as heartbreaking because she’s so achingly human in her desperate attempts for attention and meaning. Both are familiar names to avid cineastes, though their relationship to a cultural zeitgeist is generally relegated to conversations pertaining to their careers in the 1970s. The film develops several secrets for the main trio, all of which are rather predictable, especially the Dennis character’s claim about bearing the son of James Dean, a young man we’re told is mentally handicapped but is never seen.

By today’s standards, the casting of Karen Black as a transsexual male-to-female may not be politically correct considering the agency slowly but surely being granted a community rendered invisible by such glossy casting, even though several high profile films have similarly cast a woman instead of an actual trans individual (Felicity Huffman in Transamerica, 2005, for instance). But Joanne is a wellcrafted and potent screen presence and Karen Black is afforded some of the film’s best moments. “Time is such a nebulous date,” she retorts to her group of old ‘friends,’ one of several withering marks lost upon a washed out group of women struggling valiantly to hold onto some sort of meaning. Black’s performance, as well as the material, is well ahead of its time.

Altman is inventive with visual cues, utilizing a mirror motif throughout, with windows also serving as a portal to the past era, such as when the group poses for a photo in the background and Dennis stares at the final product two decades later, the snap of a camera blowing it away from the screen behind her.

Disc Review

Like other theatrical adaptations from Altman, it’s generally evident that Jimmy Dean is on a set, and there’s a cozy, claustrophobic feel to the artificiality of the cluttered Woolworth’s we are stuck in for the entire running time. Grain is rather evident at several points in the transfer, but for those that have been waiting for the long unavailable title, these are minor, unimportant squabbles.

Ed Graczyk Interview:
A twenty minute interview with playwright Ed Graczyk discusses the origination of the play as well as his unhappy collaboration with Altman, and his displeasure with the director’s stage and screen versions.

Final Thoughts

An examination of memory and celebrity worship, Jimmy Dean is Graczyk’s expert portrait of façade. Literally, the front portion of a set from Giant is continually referenced, crumbling into oblivion, with Dennis pecking through its ruins once a year, pieces of an ‘original’ façade littered around a miniature one placed inside their makeshift temple. She actually disappears behind it towards the end of the film, retreating into the fantasy of a life that she’d rather be lost in. Attempting to explain her attraction to James Dean as a power that eclipses love, she can’t quite find the words. But Altman’s evocative, melancholy melodrama, itself a time capsule of the way plays and films used to be created, captures beautifully the feeling she’s trying to describe, a great furious energy that resides in our unspoken, indescribable spaces.

Film: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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