It has been 20 years since his death but time for the McCarthy, Texas chapter of the Disciples of James Dean to reunite
When Robert Altman’s idiosyncratic take on Popeye (1980), starring Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall, flopped at the box office, the director of Nashville, The Long Goodbye and M.A.S.H. retreated from Hollywood to New York, where he first directed Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean for the Broadway stage, then adapted it for the big screen. Nearly 40 years on from its original release, the film remains a powerful paean to female friendships and indefatigability.
It’s 1975 in McCarthy, Texas and, on the 20th anniversary of his death, members of the “Disciples of James Dean” reunite at the convenience store where they used to hold their fan-club meetings in honour of the late actor. Devout Christian Juanita (Sudie Bond), who owns the place, fragile Mona (Sandy Dennis), who claims her 19-year-old son was fathered by Dean, and beautiful, brassy Sissy (Cher), are joined by old friends Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin). We flash back and forth to 1955, as the friends reminisce and reflect on their lives since, but the arrival of Joanne (Karen Black) – monied and mysterious with a bucketful of secrets – throws everything up in the air.
Betraying its theatrical origins, 5 & Dime is stagey (the action never leaves the store’s confines) and frequently melodramatic, while its extensive use of flashbacks initially feels jarring. It isn’t long, though, before you get used to the film’s rhythms and increasingly drawn to these women, who have all lived difficult, messy lives, most with little to show for it. The movie’s central mystery – who is the real father of Mona’s son, Jimmy Dean – is fairly obvious from early on, but it’s really just a MacGuffin to keep you on the hook, as Altman allows his fascinatingly flawed ensemble to spark off one another.
Although the film deals in harsh realities – cancer, rape, mental illness – it also has a dreamlike quality; the flashbacks to 1955 are shown through the big mirrors that sit on the wall behind the 5 & Dime’s counter – it’s as if we’re quite literally being taken through the looking glass. Altman also uses the reflective surfaces to drop hints about the film’s various revelations (the images of different characters bleed into each other 20 years apart), while exploring all sorts of contrasts and ironies between then and the “now” of 1975. It’s an artful visual trick that, once you get used to it, becomes ever more potent.
Various aspects of religion loom large here. We see its poisonous, fundamentalist side in Juanita’s homophobic attitude to Joe (Mark Patton), the young gay man sacked from the 5 & Dime because of his sexuality. But the film also entertains the idea that the adoration of celebrity is usurping traditional worship – James Dean is idolised by these women (they are called his disciples for a reason). Mona was even an extra in Giant (in which Dean starred with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor) and has retrieved a piece of masonry from the façade of the mansion (“Reata”) featured in the movie, treating it like a holy relic.
Most of all, though, 5 & Dime is about these extraordinary characters. With the exception of Joe, we never see another man in the film. Not Jimmy Dean, not Juanita’s husband, not Sissy’s errant boyfriend. It’s a female-centric, even feminist movie, but also one full of sadness and regret. The women have little agency in their lives and, to a greater or lesser extent, struggle to accept the reality of their situations. Juanita won’t come to terms with her late husband’s appalling behaviour, Sissy clings to dreams of stardom away from the 5 & Dime, while Mona inhabits a fantasy existence in which her idol fathered her child because she simply can’t cope with life outside of that delusion. All they have is each other’s friendship and an inbuilt capacity to somehow carry on.
Ultimately, Altman’s film made me wonder what the heck they must have been smoking in Hollywood during the early ’80s, as 5 & Dime failed to receive a single Oscar nomination. Black and Cher’s bravura supporting turns were overlooked, there was no nod for Altman’s innovative direction nor David Gropman’s immersive production design. Graczyk’s terrific screenplay got zip. Most scandalously of all, there was nothing for Dennis’ extraordinary portrayal of Mona, a mentally vulnerable woman with so many lies and disappointments weighing upon her fragile shoulders, it’s a surprise she could stand up straight.
This Eureka Masters of Cinema release is a high definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation from a newly updated version of the 2012 restoration of the movie. Originally shot on Super-16, it still looks pleasingly grainy.
I don’t like to feel I’m being lectured when I listen to an audio commentary, so Australian film historian Lee Gambin’s chattier approach is much appreciated. Gambin is authoritative on Altman’s storied career and the filmographies of 5 & Dime’s excellent ensemble cast but, delves deeper, with potted histories of how obsessive fandom and transgenderism/cross-dressing have been depicted on the big screen. Most of all, though, I enjoyed his contention that this is a horror movie of sorts, sharing DNA with Altman’s other female-fronted films, That Cold Day in the Park, Images, and 3 Women. He knows this stuff inside out and provides a truly absorbing listen.
Gambin is also responsible for two new and exclusive interviews. Cutting Jimmy Dean (25 mins) opens a fascinating window into editor Jason Rosenfield’s work on the film. This was his first time on a movie – having only edited “little magazine-style” documentaries before – and he discusses undergoing a steep learning curve, particularly in terms of the huge amount of footage Altman presented him with – “I went in a rookie and came out an editor” as he puts it.
We also get Designing Jimmy Dean (11 mins), an interview with art director Gropman. Unfortunately, it’s less than half the length of the other featurette and rather jarringly edited. It’s nevertheless interesting to see and hear Gropman talk about his theatre background (this was his first movie, too) and the differences between the sets on the Broadway theatre production and the film that followed it.
There’s also a trailer – which drops some heavy hints about a couple of the film’s big secrets (so beware), a booklet featuring a new essay by critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and an English subtitled version of the film for the deaf and hard of hearing.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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