DVD Review: Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

FiveandDimeDVDSTUDIO: Olive | DIRECTOR: Robert Altman | CAST: Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Sudie Bond, Kathy Bates, Marta Heflin, Mark Patton
RELEASE DATE: 11/18/14 | PRICE: DVD $34.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: interview with playwright Ed Graczyk
SPECS: PG | 110 min. | Drama | 1:78 widescreen | mono |

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

 

After the critical drubbing and perceived box-office failure of Popeye (1980), Robert Altman “couldn’t get arrested” in Hollywood, so he went to work directing plays and filming them in a characteristically challenging fashion. The brilliant 1982 film Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, finally making its DVD debut from Olive, was the first feature in a series of “filmed plays” that Altman made throughout the Eighties.

The play he adapts here is a sort of unsentimental, anti-Steel Magnolias, in which a group of women celebrate a 20th anniversary reunion of their James Dean fan club at their old five and dime. Their leader, Mona (Sandy Dennis, That Cold Day in the Park), became locally famous in the Fifties for giving birth to James Dean’s “lovechild,” but a statuesque stranger (Karen Black, Nashville) wanders into the reunion ready to tell the truth to all in attendance.

The film offers a fascinating take on fandom and the cult of celebrity. It also focuses in turn on the six-woman ensemble cast — the same sextet that had starred in Altman’s Broadway production of the play. Mark Patton is the sole male in the cast, playing the 1950s version of Karen Black’s character (the transgender aspect is carefully woven into the play and doesn’t come off as a dramatic “gimmick”).

Sandy Dennis, Karen Black and Cher in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Karen Black, Kathy Bates and Cher in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Altman’s staging is beautifully worked out — the actresses appear as their characters’ middle-aged selves in the five and dime, but in the big mirror behind the soda counter it is 1955 and they are teenagers. There is never a point, though, where one questions the fact that older actresses are playing teens because Altman’s situates the flashbacks as the characters’ thoughts, thus making the fluid camera movement between their pasts and present into a particularly pungent comment on both the power of memory and the way in which America’s “innocent” memories of the Fifties are filled with deception and delusion.

As is true of any good piece of theater, the weight here is on the actresses. Altman decisively keeps the camera at a distance from four of the actresses — including Cher (Mask), in her first serious, post-Sonny acting role. He closes in on the faces of Dennis and Black throughout the film, as they represent the two poles of the story, the delusional liar and the honest-to-a-fault truth teller. All of the actresses do wonderful work, with each getting her moment in the spotlight.

The most impressive thing about the film is that Altman was able to get it made in the first place. As noted, he was out of fashion in Hollywood in the Eighties and the Broadway version of the play had failed both critically and at the box office. His survival skills kicked in, however, and he found funding for the film version of the play through game show mogul Mark Goodson, who helped get the film released with the participation of Viacom.

The background details of the play’s tortuous history are recounted in a supplemental interview with playwright Ed Graczyk. He refers to Altman as “Mickey Mouse” throughout the piece, because Graczyk “didn’t care if Mickey Mouse ended up directing,” as long as the play got to be produced in New York.

He personally hated the technique of seeing the actresses play their younger selves in the mirror, as his play calls for two sets of actresses, old and young. He admits it works excellently in the film, and he also clarifies stories about a disagreement he had with Altman, who suggested he give up author’s royalties to keep the play open a while longer.

He moves through the history of the play, discussing a period in which it was to be directed by director-actress Barbara Loden and produced by her husband Elia Kazan. He also reveals that the Mona character was based on a real woman in Texas who claimed to have given birth to James Dean’s child.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”