One of the best experiences is walking into a movie blind and realizing what you’re watching is a masterpiece. This was my experience with Robert Altman’s amazing adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play Back to Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The deceptively simple story centers on the reunion of a James Dean fan club 20 years after the actor’s death. Decades-old secrets and revelations are revealed through a series of flashbacks juxtaposed to their 1975 reunion. This dual narrative, framed to great effect with a one-way mirror, highlights the characters’ struggle between the past and the present. Truth and lies. Love and hate.
The film features a powerful ensemble. The film’s central character is Mona (Sandy Dennis), the fan club’s last blue true believer. She has kept a flame for James Dean ever since he fathered son Jimmy shortly before his fatal car crash. Evangelical and moralistic Five and Dime owner Juanita (Sudie Bond) tends to the dying store with her only employee Sissy (Cher). Horror icon and gay Hollywood pioneer Mark Patton appears in several flashbacks as a pre-transition version of Joanne (Karen Black). Meanwhile, we have the brash Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and mouse Edna Louise (Marta Heflin). Although these are smaller roles, they add great dynamics to the group and add to the cohesion of the whole.
READ: ‘The Fallout’ review: ‘Tragedy, friendship, love and family’
There are obviously some dated and dangerous ideas about trans women here, like equating transitioning with surgery. However, Joanne’s story seems incredibly authentic. Black gives Joanne such compassion, class and vulnerability. Her story, a trans woman returning to her small town in Texas, feels so real. She answers inappropriate questions from her old friends with a sharp charm. She stares at her old haunt in her designer clothes as if her past in dusty overalls is going to jump through the looking glass at any moment. Joanne is made strong by her past, but in her eyes you can see the lingering scars.
All along Go back to 5 & Dime, Mona talks about the small replica of Giant’s house that Juanita keeps in the five and dime. As with most Hollywood sets, the house is a facade; a luxurious southern mansion on one side, but an empty shell on the other. Mona frequents the site where the house once stood, secreting old bricks and tiles that she scavenges from the debris.
This house says it all about Mona and her life: all her hopes and dreams come from a lie. A lie she is in love with and deals with with the utmost care. Throughout the film, this lie is chosen and pushed until Mona must face the truth: the James Dean she is in love with does not exist. Even when Jimmy Dean’s real father is sobbing on her shoulder, Mona can’t bear to face the truth.
Go back to 5 & Dime is a film about how the stories we tell ourselves become the truth. You can build a house of lies and spend your life hiding inside. But the truth will always come down. All of these characters are liars, and the movie does a fantastic job of revealing the truth as it runs. In the heartbreaking final shots, we see the abandoned Five Hundred; the shelves are sandy and bare, the wind howls through the broken panes. The characters that have kept this place alive for so long have crumbled into dust. Their lives, their lies, their love, all lost to time. – Audrey Griffin
Come back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.