Last week we told you about a new partnership between VICE and Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation, a company dedicated to preserving classic movies and putting them in the faces of whippersnappers like you who would never see them otherwise. Tonight's screening of Robert Altman's Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, marks the first installment of this new series at Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn. Below is a short essay on Altman and Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean by David Sterritt, who is something of a Robert Altman buff.
The early 1980s were a miserable time for the great Robert Altman, whose career was definitely on the skids. American politics and culture were entering the Reagan era, and moviegoers were hunkered down in conservative mode; the cutting wit and caustic social commentary of MASH and Nashville seemed too ornery for comfort at a time when comfy entertainments like Annie and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial were burning up the box office. Altman had tanked with Quintet in early 1979, made a partial recovery with A Perfect Couple a few months later, then flatlined with HealtH and underperformed with Popeye the following year.
Fearing for his career, Altman beat a tactical retreat, selling his production company, Lion’s Gate Films, and looking for fresh territory to explore. “I feel my time has run out,” he told me in one of our many interviews. “The movies I want to make are movies the studios don’t want.” Taking advantage of the lower stakes (and lower budgets) in theater and television, he directed a pair of one-act plays by Frank South—Precious Blood and Rattlesnake in a Cooler, packaged under the title 2 by South—onstage in Los Angeles and off Broadway, and turned them into TV movies immediately afterward.
Then he made the big time, directing Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in an $850,000 production that opened on February 8, 1982 at the Martin Beck, one of Broadway’s biggest venues. Altman minimized the differences between movie and theater directing, and he conceptualized Graczyk’s drama in visual terms from the start. In the words of a New York magazine article, he was “obsessed” with “the ‘look’ of the play—the way the actors move about the set,” and he repeatedly called the project “a ballet [or] musical,” telling the cast how important the “choreography” was.
Reviews were awful. My critical colleague John Simon, for example, opined in New York that Altman had wasted his time on a second-rate play: “Hit-or-miss directorial bravura and an expensive production are not enough to justify so much ado,” he wrote, adding that “you will not find a million-dollar baby in this five-and-ten-cent store.” The show lasted about a month, racking up a meager 52 performances before lowering the curtain for good. Apparently undaunted, Altman began working on another screen adaptation, this time a super-16mm feature (blown up to 35mm for theatrical prints) with exactly the same cast—Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, et al.—and the same scenic design by David Gropman, employing two identical sets ingeniously divided by a two-way mirror.
The story has lots of surprises, so I’ll try to avoid spoilers. The year is 1975 and the setting is a small Texas community not far from the town where George Stevens’s magnificent epic Giant, shot in 1955 and released in 1956, was filmed. In the local Woolworth’s five-and-ten, the Disciples of James Dean fan club is preparing for a special meeting to memorialize their hero’s death 20 years earlier. Blissfully unbothered by the fact that their club has hardly any members, the faithful few—Juanita (Sudie Bond), who runs the store; Sissy (Cher), who works at a truck stop; and Mona (Dennis), who’s visiting from out of town—chitchat about current concerns and 20-year-old memories with each other and also with newcomer Joanne (Black), who seems to be a stranger but turns out to be the opposite.
A nonstop series of secrets and lies come to light as the narrative unfolds, and it’s brilliantly ironic that the picture’s unofficial theme song is the unforgettable “Sincerely” as sung by the McGuire Sisters, whose 1955 recording is an enduring delight from rock ’n’ roll’s first golden age. As a way of bringing perceptions of the past into full interaction with the present, Graczyk’s screenplay (like the original play) shifts seamlessly between 1955 and 1975, sometimes using conventional flashbacks and occasionally superimposing one period upon the other. The medium of exchange between the eras is the mirror that runs along the store’s length, ordinary in appearance but magical in its expressive power. It literalizes the most famous line in William Faulkner’s highly theatrical novel Requiem for a Nun, never quoted or mentioned in the movie but published the same year Dean died: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Even though his star had dimmed with the Hollywood establishment, Altman secured a welcome for Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean at several important film festivals, from Toronto and Montreal to Venice and Deauville, and its American premiere at the Chicago film fest garnered a long, loud ovation. Reaching theaters as the debut release of the indie distributor Cinecom, the picture did lackluster business but fared better with critics than the stage version did. “This is not a great drama,” the late Roger Ebert wrote in his beautifully balanced Chicago Sun-Times review, “but two things make the movie worth seeing: Altman’s visual inventiveness and the interesting performances given by everyone in the cast.” Pauline Kael, then the most widely respected American film critic, opined in the New Yorker that the enormous talent possessed by Altman, one of her longtime favorites, “can make poetry out of fake poetry and magic out of fake magic.” New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby deemed it a “sincerely preposterous, bathetic, redneck comedy-drama,” but even he commended Altman’s faith in the material and allowed that the director was “remarkably successful in keeping things moving.”
After seeing Altman’s stage production of Graczyk’s play, I wrote that Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was “a peculiar, wildly uneven, but commendably daring comedy.” Although I had similarly mixed feelings about the movie adaptation when I first encountered it in 1982, it looks mighty good to me now. Altman gets first-rate performances from Black, who’d worked with him in Nashville, and Dennis, who’d starred in his first major film, the 1969 melodrama That Cold Day in the Park. Bond is marvelous as Juanita and Cher is easily the best of all, as charismatic and convincing as ever she’s been. Kathy Bates and Marta Heflin are standouts in the fine supporting cast.
Viewed in the context of Altman’s whole career, the movie can’t be called an equal of his most inspired 1970s pictures—it’s not a McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye or Nashville or 3 Women or A Wedding—but it’s leagues beyond some of his other 1980s play adaptations (the overwrought Streamers, the wretched Beyond Therapy) and it’s a precursor, visually if not dramatically, of his very last picture, A Prairie Home Companion, in which moods, memories, tones, and textures again poignantly dominate the screen. Look at Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean with open eyes, open mind, and open heart, and you’ll have a splendid journey in Altman’s cinematic time machine.
David Sterritt is guest editor and chief film critic of Film Quarterly, contributing writer at Cineaste and MovieMaker, film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art, and editor of Robert Altman: Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2000). His writing about Altman has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and the Criterion Collection Current, and he wrote the booklet essay for the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray releases of 3 Women. He has spoken on Altman at the Lee Strasberg Institute and he hosted an evening with Altman and Garrison Keillor at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y shortly before Altman’s death. His essay “Robert Altman” appears in American Directors, edited by Jean-Pierre Coursodon (McGraw-Hill, 1983), and his essay “Breaking the Rules: Altman, Innovation, and the Critics” is forthcoming in A Companion to Robert Altman, edited by Adrian Danks, to be published by Wiley-Blackwell next year.
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Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean