Saturday, August 17, 2013

Many Thanks, Robert Altman, Robert Altman

A crumbling relic of the past, which was never built to be anything but a facade in the first place, is far from a foundation on which to base a life and an identity. That’s the theme of Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the little-seen 1982 film based on a play by Ed Graczyk and directed by Robert Altman. Currently unavailable through any mainstream DVD-on-demand service, lovers of this film must content themselves with scratchy VHS transfers offered by those lucky enough to buy the film when it was still in circulation more than two decades ago. (And thank goodness for that crumbling relic of a videotape which allowed this film lover to enjoy this remarkable little film once again.)

Black, Bates and Cher—Disciples of James Dean
A quirky piece, even for the king of quirk himself, the great Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, The Player), Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is a forgotten gem of a film, featuring a collection of strong and dimensional women’s roles brought to life by an eclectic group of fine actors. Here is where film fans will find Sandy Dennis in her last great role and superstar Cher in her first, plus startling turns by a young Kathy Bates, Marta Heflin, and a Karen Black as you’ve never seen her before.

Sudie Bond, Sandy Dennis and Cher
Based on a 1976 play by Ed Graczyk, Jimmy Dean takes place in a dusty and arid one-horse Texas town several hundred miles from Marfa, where scenes from the 1956 George Stevens epic Giant were filmed. It is now two decades since these local Texans experienced their brief brush with Hollywood magic, and the members of a local fan club, the Disciples of James Dean, are scheduled to meet at the local dime store where they originally held their meetings, 20 years after Giant and the young star’s untimely death. All that's left of the past are crumbling bits of the fictional Reata Ranch, which Mona collects during a yearly pilgrimage to the long-abandoned film location.

By the late ‘70s, the “well-made play” as popularized by Ibsen and continued by Tennessee Williams and William Inge had fallen out of favor, and Graczyk’s play was considered old-fashioned and derivative with its rhythmic and formulaic uncovering of secrets and revelations, culminating in a transformational climax, but within this well-worn structure actors are allowed to shine.

Edna Louise (Heflin), Mona (Dennis) and Juanita (Bond)

Mona, Joe (Patton) and Juanita

A tense moment for Mona, Joanne and Sissy
Lacking the operatic and often Shakespearean spectacle of Robert Altman’s most well-known films, this one is a curiousity, with its claustrophobic single setting of a faded drugstore interior sweltering in a Texas heatwave. Altman also uses the stage conventions of lighting and the reflection of a mirror behind the counter to differentiate the 1955 flashback scenes with the present action. But fans of the filmed stage play genre will appreciate Robert Altman’s loving focus on his actors. Having also directed the play on the Broadway stage with the same cast, the director chooses to allow them to tell the story.

Sandy Dennis as the high-strung Mona
As the troubled and dreamy Mona, chosen as an extra for a few of Giant’s large crowd scenes and still starry-eyed from her mythic encounter with James Dean, Sandy Dennis gives one of her most layered and complicated performances. Look up the word neurotic in the dictionary and you’re bound to find a picture of Ms. Dennis in any of her iconic film performances, perhaps in her Oscar-winning turn as Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, or as Jack Lemmon’s beleaguered wife in Neil Simon’s The Out-of-Towners. Mona is a crowning achievement for Dennis, who did very few films after this one.

Karen Black reveals an uncomfortable secret as Joanne
The versatile Karen Black, who worked so well with director Altman in the legendary 1975 country music epic Nashville, gives one of the most arresting performances of her career in the difficult role of Joanne, the transsexual visitor who serves as catalyst for the destruction of Mona’s fragile facade of untruth. Joanne’s “Edie Gormé” monologue, delivered while perched against the rusted jukebox, is an iconic moment for Karen Black fans.

Cher's acting debut, as the sassy yet vulnerable Sissy
Jimmy Dean also marks the film acting debut of Cher—no, her appearances with Sonny in specialty movies Good Times and Chastity don’t count! Already a seasoned performer, Cher makes the transition from musical variety to drama seamlessly and skillfully, recreating her stage triumph as the brassy, bawdy and big-bosomed Sissy.

The smaller roles are standouts, too, particularly plaintive-voiced veteran character actress Sudie Bond as Juanita, the hyper-religious proprietress of the drugstore; Altman stalwart Marta Heflin as a shy wallflower, and Kathy Bates as her pushy, loud-mouthed former BFF. The only male role in the story, their gay friend Joe, is played in the flashbacks by Mark Patton. Unseen by the audience is the title character, the supposed offspring of Mona and the movie star, a half-wit who became a cause celebre when used to promote Texas tourism after James Dean’s sudden death.

Watching these wonderful actors work together under the direction of a creative risk-taker like Altman is a joy. Even if this film is ultimately deemed a failure by film historians, it’s an experimental work of of movie art designed for lovers of acting and theatrical storytelling.  

Robert Altman with his stars 
"Sincerely" by the McGuire Sisters


Ken Anderson said...

As usual, our tastes in movies seems to intersect. I'm so pleased you chose to review this film! It's a favorite I've seen many, many times, but it's been over 10 years since I last saw it.
It's one of Altman's best, but such an interesting departure from his trademark style. And what a cast!
Of course the Karen Black connection is a draw for me, but wow...Sandy Dennis and Cher!
Thanks for bringing attention to a somewhat forgotten film. Hope it appears on DVD someday soon. Your post really brought back memories!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - the dvd transfer I got was obviously from someone who videotaped it off of HBO or something - it's the full film but somewhat grainy, the sound quality a bit lacking...but the performances are as vivid as ever.

As I mentioned on your blog, I watched this film just a few days before Ms. Black passed away, and again marveled at her versatility, her courage and commitment to every role she played. I'm looking forward to seeing her in Day of the Locust...that's next on my list of must-finds. Your recommendations always prove such pleasing revelations for me.

rico said...

I love the performers in this movie.
Originally Altman wanted Cher to play Black's role, but either he or she decided on the role of Sissy.

Love the little moment where Cher's character mocks Dennis' twitchy mannerisms ; )

All the ladies are great here...the only reason this isn't out on DVD must be some sort of copyright issue, I hope! Because it should be!

angelman66 said...

Rico, I totally love that moment too--Cher is hilarious mocking Dennis's famously neurotic delivery!!

Did not know that Cher wanted to play the transsexual.She would have been great, but I LOVE Karen Black's interpretation!

angelman66 said...

Yayy, this film IS now available on DVD and Blu-Ray!