Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, is pure, stripped back, character-driven cinema.
After the critical high point of Nashville in the mid-1970’s, Robert Altman struggled with the changing face of Hollywood moviemaking, as the ingenue crowd he joined in bringing to bear the ‘New Hollywood’ wave that replaced the decayed studio system at the end of the 1960’s began to fade under the weight of the blockbuster franchise era. Altman, with his aggressive naturalistic style, his gutsy brand of raw Americana, struggled to find a place amongst the Star Wars and Jaws monster-hits of the burgeoning 1980’s and following the critical failure of Popeye—a film not typically in his wheelhouse—Altman spent the remainder of the 80’s in a self-imposed exile, determined to make the pictures he wanted to make outside of the Hollywood mainstream.
Jimmy Dean—as we’ll refer to this simply as now for ease—is a perfect example of Altman’s two-fingered salute to the New New Hollywood. Set entirely in one location, the titular small-town ‘5 and dime’, with a tiny cast of (almost) all-female characters, and tackling themes and ideas as diverse as social transformation of American life, religious rejection and changing gender, Jimmy Dean is defiantly un-cinematic, almost intentionally. It moves fast, throws a brace of dialogue at the audience from the first moment, and expects you to keep in step with a multi-layered facet of complex, emotionally damaged characters living their own strangely melancholic fantasy.
Adapted from the 1976 play by Ed Graczyk, which was successful on Broadway and Altman himself directed—casting numerous actors he would then bring over for the movie—Altman’s film captures the same bottled, low-fi, stage aesthetic you would find in a theatre and puts it on screen.
Set in 1975, in a small Texan town entirely within a Woolworth’s 5 & dime store, Jimmy Dean focuses on a collection of women on the eve of a 20th anniversary reunion of the ‘Disciples of James Dean’, now middle-aged women devoted to the 50’s screen icon James Dean, who famously died in a car accident at the zenith of his fame and popularity as a symbol of the rock’n’roll generation, part of the counterculture vanguard.
Mona (Sandy Dennis) is a zealot, convinced her son Jimmy Dean is the child of the vaunted screen icon who was conceived while she was an extra on Dean’s film Giant; Sissy (Cher) the glamorous, hard-talkin’ gal still nurturing dreams and aspirations of fame, and Juanita (Sudie Bond) the older, now widowed dime store owner who has weathered the winds of change and remains a steadfast fixture inside a hermetically sealed world that has refused to evolve beyond the 1950’s. Together their world is rocked by the mysterious Joanne (Karen Black), who they swiftly realise used to be a man, one of their 50’s circle, and a woman who represents just how significantly their America, their universe, has seismically shifted.
In truth, Jimmy Dean could be just as much about Altman and his career as a melancholic paean to a lost, pre-60’s America. Graczyk’s screenplay is filled with characters lamenting the past, lamenting their choices, their missed opportunities, which have grounded almost all of them within their Texan bubble. The world moved on around them. Altman’s film uses James Dean as a prism to explore these aspects, the actor representing lightning in a bottle for a period of American history that didn’t last long – brimming with post-war optimism as a young generation rejected the austerity and conservatism of their forebears, which by the 70’s—when this is set—became corrupted by lost hopes, dreams and a fugue of compromised truths. Altman became lost himself as a filmmaker and perhaps felt kinship with characters who just wants to go back to how it was.
Altman’s play was not well received on Broadway, but he was nevertheless convinced it would work on film, where in his words it became “more emotional”. The sadness is certainly prevalent, overcoming an undercurrent of bawdiness given the core concept revolves around the mockery of an ‘immaculate conception’, of sorts. Altman presses the comparison of James Dean to Christ – the lionised figure of hope who impregnated Mona, who acts as his venerating apostle, recounting the story of their union she vociferously believes. This is all the more pointed given the midwestern setting, with the God-fearing Juanita horrified by Sissy’s raucousness and ultimately the arrival of Joanne, who confronts all of them with modern-day life choices that seem out of another world. These conflagrations broil under the script and story.
What keeps Jimmy Dean alive, principally, are the central performances. Dennis is unsympathetic as Mona, who has powerfully created a fantasy around her life and her unseen son, but she gives a strong central performance as a woman around which the plot pivots the most. Cher, who made her stage debut in the play, shows the promise as an actress she would display across principally the 1980’s, lending a sassy Southern turn, while Black fills out the strong central players with the trickiest performance; necessarily arch and distant before confronting the past they all share. Altman draws out these turns while pulling out the emotion with plenty of close ups designed to show what these woman are experiencing. His direction is necessarily un-showy but you need a steady hand on the tiller to make something lacking in cinematic movement work in this way.
This release from Eureka Entertainment gives us a window into understanding Altman’s process, thanks to an audio commentary with film historian Lee Gambin, ‘Cutting Jimmy Dean’ – a 25 minute interview with editor Jason Rosenfeld, ‘Designing Jimmy Dean’ – an 11 minute interview with art director David Gropman, and a collector’s booklet with a new essay by film critic Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, plus the original trailer. There is enough here to emerge with a comprehensive understanding of this lesser known of Altman’s films.
Jimmy Dean feels acutely out of time, which undoubtedly was the point. It could line up with more of the melodramatic potboilers of the 60’s or the tauter, character-led cinema of the 70’s, and its position at the start of the 80’s gives it an old-world sheen.
An elegy not just for an America long gone, but perhaps for Robert Altman and his place as a filmmaker at this time.
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is now available from Eureka Entertainment.