‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean’ and the false promise of 1980s America

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Robert Altman’s work of the 1980s saw him exploring new stylistic trends as he ventured to adapt popular plays. These works stand in stark contrast with his earlier films as they were often secluded to single locations, with Altman’s sprawling vision of America confined to either a small interior space or even tied to a single character. The richness of Altman’s best work – The Long Goodbye, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville – stands in stark contrast with this new period of work, their sprawling narratives and settings seeming just a memory amid the very claustrophobic locales of his play adaptations. This transition in style, though, was motivated partially through practical needs that also mirrored his occasional shifts to television. The biggest catalyst in these lower-budget productions was the financial and critical struggles of his most recent work at the time, notably Popeye and HealtH. HealtH, in particular, was Altman’s last collaboration with 20th Century Fox, due to them shelving the film’s release for over two years and numerous other conflicts in the production and distribution stages.

The difficulties in distribution and all the delays were due to the transition in management at 20th Century Fox, no doubt as part of Hollywood’s larger diversion away from independent and challenging cinema. Writing about the film in 1982, Vincent Canby of The New York Times said:

Though it was planned for release during the 1980 Presidential campaign, ”Health” was withheld from showings here until now, reportedly because there was a change in management at 20th Century-Fox, the company that produced it, and the members of the new administration had no great faith in the director. By labeling the film ”unreleasable,” they also would reaffirm their own credentials at the expense of the reputation of the previous management.

Would it be reading too deeply into this era of his work by suggesting that, in contrast with cinema and America of the 1980s, the world was literally getting smaller as opportunities grew thinner and dreamers became outcasts? This is, after all, the era of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the American blockbuster. No longer were morally ambiguous films like The Godfather or The French Connection rising to the top of the box office. They were being replaced by ideologically conservative films that were increasingly uncritical of the American dream, and there was no longer very much space for diversity. Producers and studios were no longer willing to take the same risks on smaller or more pessimistic projects.

Sincere and dark discussions on the state of the America were being confined to small back rooms, so it makes sense that Altman’s cinema would be as well. Additionally, though Altman’s work has always had political implications, Nashville notably offering deep insight into the state of American politics and perhaps even foreshadowing the rise of a celebrity President, in the 1980s he made works like Secret Honor and Tanner 88’ that poked fun and criticized the current state of American politics.

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Altman’s next film after HealtH was Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a drama based on a play of the same name by Ed Graczyck. Remaining very close to the original play (also directed by Altman), the film utilizes a double set separated by two-way mirrors. Altman managed to secure the same cast he had for the Broadway production, among them some of the greatest talents of the era, including Karen Black, Cher, Kathy Bates, and Sandy Dennis in the lead role. The film depicts the 1975 reunion of a group of female friends called the Disciples of James Dean, and utilizes flashbacks to 1955.

Though preceding films like Back to the Future, it feels like a melancholic companion to the hopeful blockbusters of the era which hearken to a more innocent past. Shot on 16 mm, the film has a home movie quality and a soft glow pervades the flashbacks, bringing an edge of nostalgia to the self-reflexive and somewhat clumsy narrative. An ever growing shrine to James Dean is the center of both sets, a constant reminder of Mona’s (Sandy Dennis) obsession. Of all the character’s, Mona is the one who has changed the least over the years, and her remembrance of the past is forever distorted by the fantasies she has created.

The film gently subverts the idealization of the past and the fantasy of cinema by peeling back the layers of illusion. Through Mona’s life, her loves, her recollections and her present, we come to understand the dangers of not confronting reality. The innocent perception of the past is further obscured through Jo’s character, played beautifully by Karen Black. Normatively and ideologically the character poses quite a number of problems in regards to its rather simplistic understanding of gender politics; however, the point is that the conservative past is one that was alienating to those who did not fit the narrow conception of normal. Even those that held a point of privilege in that society were easily crippled by the dream of America during that era, few moving forward and many wrought with disappointment.

The confined nature of the set and the occasionally melodramatic performances lend an appropriate level of artificiality to the proceedings. It poetically evokes the concept of being lost in the idea of cinema, and how easy it is to fall in love with an image on the screen. Mona’s adoration for James Dean is mocked, but she is rarely discouraged from falling into the elaborate fantasies she has created. In some ways, it seems as though the people who surround her feel that there is no real harm in allowing her to believe; this is proven time and time again to not be true, but it is so easy and so comfortable to fall back into constructed realities rather than confronting any real truths.

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This artificial construct also allows the actors to shine. Karen Black and Sandy Dennis are especially compelling, harkening back to the 1950s melodrama and the great performances of actors like Deborah Kerr, Jane Wyman and Lana Turner. In stark contrast to the very simplistic set and mise-en-scene, their energy evokes an otherworldly quality. It reflects on the nature of performance itself, suggesting that cinema shapes our behaviors and inspires us to act out scenarios in our daily lives.

The film remains imperfect overall, with a very weak third act and clumsy handling of a romance. Those who have studied gender politics will be interested in the contextually sympathetic portrayal of a transgender character; it is problematic in many ways, and though brought to life by a talented and charismatic actor, the inconsistencies remain obvious and the character feels more important as a vehicle of the plot than a fleshed out human being. Much like Altman’s other films from this period, Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is both complimented and held back by its claustrophobic narrative. Through the strength of the performances and the poetry of its reflections on the romance of Hollywood of the past, it remains a vital entry in his filmography.

— Justine Smith




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