ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 109 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
September 30, 1975: an all-female fan club called the Disciples of James Dean meets inside a Woolworth’s five-and-dime store in McCarthy, Texas, 62 miles away from Marfa, where Dean filmed Giant in 1955, to honour the twentieth anniversary of the actor’s death. Still residing in McCarthy are the shop’s owner Juanita, Sissy, and Mona, the club leader and mother of James Dean’s son, while the out of town attendees are Stella and Edna – oh, and a mysterious woman none of them seem to recognise named Joanne…..
Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dead [yes, it’s one hell of an unwieldy and unappealing title, but please don’t let that put you off] begins with a shot of a photograph of the front of the main house in the film Giant, a front that’s actually a facade with nothing behind it, before the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a wall full of James Dean photographs and then some banners for an anniversary party celebrating the star – after which we hear a voice screaming the film’s title. It’s an absolutely perfect opening that distills much of what the film is about; the way we wear masks to disguise who or what we really are, the way we live in the past, the way pop culture icons can dominate our lives especially if our lives are lacking. I wasn’t around when Dean died, but I was certainly around when, say, Princess Diana died, which I feel might be a worthwhile comparison. I recall doing some shopping and then going for a first-time date. She told me the news and it sure put a damper on things [it progressed to a second date and then that was it!], while one could literally feel the sadness in the air for weeks after. I’d imagine that Dean’s fatal car crash resulted in a similar atmosphere. Robert Altman’s film uses that event, and the effect it had, as a springboard to explore important and ever timely issues about the lives we lead. It’s based on a stage play, and consists entirely of eight characters talking – and talking – and talking. And yet it’s one of the best films I’ve seen for several months. I guess I was expecting something more like Steel Magnolias which I’m not a fan of even if I can admire certain aspects of it, but I got something with infinitely more depth.
Altman, who’d previously directed the documentary The James Dean Story in 1957, was at a bad point in his career when he made this film. His last few movies had flopped and his attempt at a family blockbuster Popeye [which I love by the way!] didn’t even please many critics. He sold his Lion’s Gate studio, then took over directing Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean on Broadway. It wasn’t well received and its run was short, but Altman was convinced that it would make a good film which would be cheap to make. An early press report stated that it was being made for cable TV, though Altman has refuted this. He retained all twelve of the original cast members and shot the whole film on Super 16 film over nineteen days on one set, a redressed version of its Broadway counterpart. It was actually a double-set with two-way mirrors which were utilised for the flashback sequences, and operated by computerised lighting modules which often didn’t work and caused problems for the production. After taking it to several festivals where it was much liked, Altman decided not to let any major American studio handle the film, due to problems he’d had before. Instead, he got Cinecom Pictures, an independent distributor in New York City, to open it in several art-house cinemas there to guarantee a long run where it more than held its own. Altman enjoyed the experience of making it so much he went on to film several more plays.
The first person we meet is the shop owner Juanita. She inherited the place after her husband died and, being so religious that she objects to even mild cursing, likes to have gospel music constantly playing on the jukebox. Soon her helper Sissy turns up, late as always. She’s “the best roller-skater in all of West Texas”, proud owner of the biggest boobs in town, and a good-time girl who’s spent a lot of time lying on her back in graveyards. Following her is Mona, the fan club leader. She was supposedly an extra in Giant even though nobody can seem to find her in the film [she’s just to the right of Elizabeth Taylor’s ear apparently] and even met Dean himself, resulting in her bearing his only child – though the child, who is called Jimmy Dean but who we never actually see, is supposedly “retarded in the head”. Arriving from further away are the boisterous Stella Mae, who’s the wife of a Dallas oil millionaire, and the mousy Edna Louise, pregnant with her seventh child and on the receiving end of Stella Mae’s verbal abuse just like she was twenty years ago. It seems that, even though two of them seem to have made a success of their lives, none have really moved on from that terrible day exactly twenty years ago when they were at a club meeting and the news broke over the radio that Dean had died. They’re kind of stuck in time. These – well, I was going to say “friends” but I don’t think that’s true for all of them, some not having seen each other in two decades and subtle tension brewing between all of them. Anyway, these acquaintances talk and act really natural in a manner which won’t surprise viewers of other Altman films but which you don’t see too often today. For someone not too keen on this type of movie, I was surprised how much I was involved and intrigued even though Cher’s character is very stock and not as well written as she might have been. And then into this stifling atmosphere of stasis where there isn’t even any water enters a well dressed, Porsche-driving [much like Dean] lady named Joanne. She knows who the others are right away and feels that she belongs with them, but they don’t recognise her.
Who she turns out to be is revealed half way through. I won’t reveal it because it’s one of the biggest surprises of the film, but I will say that first time viewers today might be pleasantly surprised by the sensitivity with which this character is handled. Further secrets come out later on as characters are prodded to reveal things, though some of these things turn out to be already known anyway by the others, and one of them feels rather unnecessary. The biggest emphasis is on Mona, who could very well be living a life spent in denial. While all the performances are unsurprisingly good in this film made by a filmmaker known for his skill as a director of women, Sandy Dennis may be the one you remember most, the role really allowing for her to show her immense range, even if she’s possibly at her best when she’s just glowering. She may break your heart. Some of the scenes in the final act come across as a tad forced, and I wished that I’d learned more about Edna and Stella, but false sentimentality is commendably avoided and you’re left with a very poignant sense of self-delusional idol worship, of how we often like to avoid truths, and of how we like to hide behind facades – and possibly women more so than men seeing how it’s a male dominated world we live in. Altman and Graczyk have appropriately and understandably mixed feelings on some of this stuff. For example they know and express the dangers of the attitudes many of us have for celebrities [it’s a terrible, toxic culture but I’ve fallen victim to it too], yet can’t help but still show an affection and even love for the Rebel Without A Cause star, and clearly have an understanding of why he was so popular and why his death hit so hard. Even though I was merely a toddler when he was found dead in that apartment, I’ve been a huge Bruce Lee fan for much of my life and, when watching his movies and reading about him, I do sometimes get a sense of what his death must have been like for his millions of fans.
Flashbacks to 1955 tell us about the club meeting that took place twenty years, a boyfriend of Mona’s named Joe Qually who is being bullied, Mona bringing back rocks from the Giant mansion, and several other incidents which inform the present. Altman devises a brilliant way to show the past continually drifting in and out of the present, at times represented by little more than a single shot. Alongside simple dissolves from a distance which are easy to miss if you’re not providing your complete concentration, he uses wall mirrors where events from 1955 are often seen, sometimes by the characters, sometimes not. The effect is almost dreamlike, while also enhancing the idea of how nostalgia can distort memory, the reflections showing a slightly messed-up view of reality. Unfortunately the decision to use very little makeup on the actresses to distinguish the time periods doesn’t always work, especially with Dennis who gets most of the close-ups. The lines on her face never convince us that her character is in high school. Keeping the camera back from the performers would have probably helped in this case, but the way that Pierre Mignot’s camera slowly explores its restrictive surroundings so that you eventually get to know the main interior of this diner is another of this film’s joys, and anyway when you have the likes of Dennis, Karen Black and Kathy Bates giving it their all, and the person directing them clearly has great fondness for the misfit characters they’re playing, you don’t really want to keep at a distance do you?
The songs of the Mcguire sisters are often playing in the background and adding their own commentary to what we’re seeing and hearing. In the context of this film, their music seems to adopt a haunting quality. I reckon the whole film will haunt me for a while. I had the feeling that, while I do tend to like Altman, I’d appreciate the acting in Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, but would otherwise fail to engage with it and might even lose interest. But to my surprise I encountered a rather rich, thought provoking piece that made me ponder on things like the difference between how life is and how we would like it to be, and how too much rose-tinted looking at the past doesn’t do us much good at all. I don’t mind admitting that I’m the kind of guy who would usually prefer to see some cool images than listen to reams of chatter. But I found Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dead to be powerful, penetrating and poignant, and I liked it a lot.
Because Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was shot on Super 16 rather than the usual 35mm, one shouldn’t really expect it to look too great on Blu-ray. Indeed the colour fluctuates in a few places and there’s more grain then some might like, but I think that the softness of the picture was intended, the film meant to have a slightly hazy look. On the other hand a painted backdrop may not have been as obvious before, though considering the nature of the piece it hardly matters.
The Region ‘A’ Blu-ray release from Olive Films contained an interview with Playwright Ed Graczyk, which is quite surprising seeing as Olive tend not to provide any special features at all. But unsurprisingly Eureka have outdone them. First up as Lee Gambin’s audio commentary. It’s a typically enthusiastic track from him – I lost count of how many times he said “really cool” when describing things he really likes in the film. But he balances his love for it, which he places with Altman’s earlier trilogy of female-centred horror movies, with what is virtually a scene by scene insight until he runs out of steam about three quarters of the way through and lists other movies dealing with some of the same topics this one does, such as fandom.
Cutting Jimmy Dean goes pretty extensively into the editing process on this film, Jason Rosenfield clearly proud of it and his work during what was basically a crash film school course in movie editing. He answers a variety of questions at considerable length. Especially interesting to hear are his visits to the play, Altman’s liking for collaborating with everyone involved, and a description of how the complicated set worked. Editor David Gropman also had his movie debut as he describes in Designing Jimmy Dean, which is a much shorter interview but still very worthwhile. Chuckle as he says how he was warned not to use yellow but ended using – yellow – because it seemed to evoke the dryness and the heat best. Hearing how Dennis and Cher became friends is nice, while both interviews suggest that Altman was simply wonderful to work for as long as you brought stuff to the table yourself.
Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dead is proof that, in the right hands, little more than lots of words can be as enriching a movie experience as any other kind. Eureka’s fine Blu-ray comes Highly Recommended.
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a newly updated version of the 2012 TFF funded restoration
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*New and exclusive feature-length audio commentary by Lee Gambin
*Cutting Jimmy Dean [25 mins] – New and exclusive interview with film editor Jason Rosenfield
*Designing Jimmy Dean [11 mins] – New and exclusive interview with art director David Gropman
*Original Theatrical Trailer
*A collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and Travis Crawford