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We’re Thankful For Robert Altman’s ‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’

We're Thankful For Robert Altman's 'Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean'

Now out on DVD and Blu-Ray is Robert Altman’s
justly celebrated film adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play, “Come Back to the 5
& Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” For fans of this cult film, this new home
video release provides an opportunity to revisit the Disciples of James Dean, the
fan club that reunites in the title 5 & Dime in McCarthy, Texas, on
September 30, 1975, the twentieth anniversary of Dean’s death.

The story opens
with Sissy (Cher), the town sexpot, setting up decorations in bible thumping
Juanita’s (Sudie Bond) dime store. They await the arrival of Mona (Sandy
Dennis), the club president, who reportedly conceived James Dean’s son after
spending a night with the actor when she was an extra in the film “Giant” shot in
nearby Marfa. Other returning members include Stella Mae (Kathy Bates), a
brassy lady who escaped to a comfortable life in Dallas, and Edna Louise (Marta
Heflin), a mousy woman pregnant with her seventh child. When Joanne (Karen
Black), a stranger enters the store, she reveals her connection to the women
and forces them to confront the secrets and lies in their lives.

Graczyk’s play
is admittedly creaky, but the themes in the film about façades people present,
the cult of celebrity/notoriety, as well as issues of shame and change still
resonate. Much of the film’s power comes from director Robert Altman filming
the drama on a single set. He uses the dime store’s mirror to “flashback” to
1955. It is a very effective cinematic device, allowing Altman to juxtapose or
echo scenes taking place two decades apart. He also superimposes the faces of
Joanne in present day with Joe (Mark Patton) the only male member of the
Disciples to emphasize their connection.

also uses his roving camera to keep the staginess from being claustrophobic.
When Mona senses something familiar about Joanne, and they speak of “déjà vu,”
Altman provides close-ups of each character, freighting their exchange with
meaning. It never feels soap operatic, even if the play is maudlin at times.

arrival in “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” is what
makes the film interesting; not just because she reveals herself to be Joe
transformed, but because she prompts the other women to own up to the delusions
in their own lives. If the way these women see themselves and are seen by
others is questionable, that may be the film’s point.

the gay Joe (played by queer actor Mark Patton), and the transgender JoAnne are
primitively drawn. They function more as dramatic devices than flesh and blood
characters. However, the strength of the work is less on the characters and
more on the actors. “Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”
features several superb performances that elevate the mediocre material and
make it worth watching.  

Mona’s big monologue,
in which she recounts her experiences on the set of “Giant” and her encounter
with James Dean is riveting as Dennis’ hesitations and mannerisms bring this
speech to life. Likewise, Cher (who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her
role here) is impressive as Sissy, a woman who may be outspoken, but masks a
deep pain because things never quite turned out the way she hoped they would
be. Black gets the showiest role, but she is indelible as Joanne, especially
when she recounts the truth about Sissy’s husband.

If Kathy Bates
is wasted in the thankless part of Stella Mae—she just is not given enough to do—Marta Heflin is rather poignant as Edna Louise. A scene where the
pregnant woman comes out in a party dress to an empty room is oddly touching.

“Come Back to
the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” ends with a character equating belief
(or faith) with truth. For those who believe in this film, it is a very
bittersweet reunion indeed.

also includes a curious interview with playwright Graczyk, who discusses his frustrations
and experiences with the play being produced on stage as well as its screen
adaptation. Apparently, Graczyk is not unlike his characters. 

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