Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Robert Altman Goes Indie: “Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”

It’s hard to resist a movie with an outrageous title like Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Especially when you learn it was directed by a past master of quirky ensemble dramas, Robert Altman. It was not until I’d watched this small 1982 film that I found out it began life as a play, written by an Ohio-based dramatist who was also for many years the artistic director of a local theatre company. It had a brief stay on Broadway when Altman left Hollywood for more fertile artistic climes. That stage production starred Oscar winner Sandy Dennis (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Oscar nominee Karen Black (Five  Easy Pieces), and Broadway newcomer Cher, who would win her own Oscar for Moonstruck five years later. Also featured were Marta Heflin and Kathy Bates, another future Best Actress Oscar recipient. All these women repeated their roles in the modest film production.

 Hooray for low-key productions in which actors have the opportunity to shine! The film, like the play, mostly takes place in a modest Woolworth five-and-dime store, a place where you can sip a Coke at the lunch counter, listen to the McGuire sisters harmonize on the jukebox, and then shop for pretty much anything you can think of.  This one is in McCarthy, Texas, a stone’s throw from Marfa. The rapidly decaying Marfa is, in the eyes of the store’s patrons, a shrine of sorts, because it is where the film Giant was shot, back in 1955. Giant, of course, starred Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and heartthrob James Dean, who was killed in a California auto crash before the film’s release.

 In a story that moves back and forth in time, we see the central characters in 1955 and also at a reunion meet-up twenty years later. (Their costumes and appearances don’t really change from era to era, which makes for a lot of confusion on the part of viewers.) They are all members of a fan club called The Disciples of James Dean, and have the matching red jackets to prove it. Mona (the twitchy but always interesting Dennis) is convinced she was chosen to be an extra in Giant. She’s furthermore sure that she spent a romantic evening in Marfa with Dean himself, resulting in a never-seen but clearly difficult son she named after his daddy. In the twenty years since the filming of Giant and Dean’s deadly accident, some things have changed and others haven’t. Bates’ character, the sassy Stella Mae, seems to have gotten rich. Heflin’s Edna Louise is now married and perennially expecting.  But Mona remains as daffy and Dean-infatuated as ever, and Cher’s voluptuous Sissy is still the siren of the group. At midpoint, there’s also a mysterious stranger (Karen Black) who seems to know a surprising amount about the town and its inhabitants. Aha! A mystery! But not one that seems, in the long run, terribly convincing.

 I try to be open-minded when it comes to art. I don’t like rules about who should or shouldn’t handle certain subjects. I don’t think you should be required to write only about what you know in a deeply personal way. That being said, the man who wrote this play abut women doesn’t seem to have a genuine understanding of the opposite sex. I can’t put a finger on anything he gets terribly wrong, but the characters he’s created seem far more theatrical constructs than flesh-and-blood human beings. And the play’s stab at exploring gender identity, which may have seemed bold in 1982, just strikes me as a ham-handed trick here.



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