One of the best experiences is going into a movie blind and realizing that what you are watching is a masterpiece. This was my experience with Robert Altman’s incredible adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. The deceptively simple story centers on a James Dean fan club reuniting 20 years after the actor’s death. Decades-old secrets and revelations come to light through a series of flashbacks juxtaposed with their 1975 reunion. This dual narrative, framed to great effect with a two-way mirror, highlights the struggle the characters face between past and present. Truth and lies. Love and hate.
The film features a powerful ensemble. The central character in the film is Mona (Sandy Dennis), the last true-blue believer in the fan club. She has kept a flame for James Dean ever since he fathered her son Jimmy shortly before his fatal car accident. The evangelical and moralistic owner of the five and dime Juanita (Sudie Bond) tends the dying store with her only employee Sissy (Cher). Horror icon and gay Hollywood trailblazer Mark Patton appears in several flashbacks as the pre-transition version of Joanne (Karen Black). Meanwhile, we have the brash Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and the mousy Edna Louise (Marta Heflin). Despite being smaller roles, they add a great dynamic to the group and add to the cohesion of the ensemble.
There are obviously some dated and dangerous ideas about trans women here, like equating transition with surgery. However, Joanne’s story feels incredibly authentic. Black gives Joanne such compassion, class, and vulnerability. Her story, a transwoman returning to her small Texas town, feels so real. She fields inappropriate questions from her old friends with a cutting charm. She gazes about her old haunt in her designer clothes as if her past self in dusty overalls will leap through the mirror at any moment. Joanne is made strong by her past, but in her eyes, you can see the scars still linger.
Throughout Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Mona talks about the small replica of the house from Giant 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 away old bricks and tiles that she salvages from the debris.
This house says everything about Mona and her life: all of her hopes and dreams come from a lie. A lie that she is in love with and tends to with the utmost care. Throughout the film, this lie gets picked and prodded at until Mona has to face the truth: the James Dean she is in love with doesn’t exist. Even when the true father of Jimmy Dean is sobbing on her shoulder, Mona cannot bear to face the truth.
Come Back to the 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 away inside. But the truth will always come to tear it down. All of these characters are liars, and the film does a fantastic job of eking out the truth over the course of its runtime. In the final, heartbreaking shots, we see the five and dime abandoned; the shelves are sandy and bare, the wind howls through the broken windows. The characters who gave this place life for so long have vanished 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.