Playing Fri July 15 at 6:00 and Mon July 18 at 1:15 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Q-and-A on July 15 with production designer David Gropman, production executive Peter Newman, distribution executive Ira Deutchman, and Kathryn Altman, widow of Robert Altman
The Film Society of Lincoln Center kicks off a great little festival of UCLA restorations today, including obscurities from Douglas Sirk, Anthony Mann, and Allan Dwan. Altman’s poigant, lovely film has long been unavailable and rarely screened, so this new restoration is a true event – not to mention, ripe material for film writers, as coverage of the film is quite minimal. Get your pencils out kids!
Jan-Christopher Horak gives some background for UCLA:
After the commercial success but critical failure of Popeye (1980), Robert Altman turned away from Hollywood, selling his share in Lion’s Gate studios and directing the play by Ed Graczyk, originally staged in Columbus, Ohio, on which Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was based. Altman not only made a deal with stage producer Peter Newman to retain his original cast, but also the unique set by David Gropman, which featured two identical Texas “5¢ & 10¢’s”, separated by two-way mirrors, allowing his story to move from the present to the past and vice versa. To save costs, Altman shot the film on Super-16mm color negative, then blew up his answer print to 35mm. Rather than bank on a major studio, Altman financed the film through a television company, Viacom Enterprises, and distributed it through a small independent company, Cinecom, which opened the film in New York to critical acclaim. In fact, the film had already received a standing ovation at the Chicago Film Festival.
Starring Sandy Dennis, Cher and Karen Black, the play relates a twenty-year reunion in 1975 of a James Dean fan club, “The Disciples of James Dean.” They meet at the local hangout in a small Texas town, near where Giant was shot in 1955 and where the club had formed decades earlier. The waitress in the soda fountain area is the same, but the fan club members have gotten older, some successful, others beaten down by life. Each of them, as well as other female friends and neighbors relate (often in flashbacks) their dreams, aspirations and failures over the last twenty years. While all of Altman’s actresses give stellar performances, it was Cher who most surprised the critics, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her work and garnering respect as a serious actress for the first time. And given the focus on female fans—only one male appears in flashback in the film—it’s not surprising that the film should tackle themes of feminism, power in gender relations and sexuality.
Armond White for Film Comment, January 1986:
In Jimmy Dean and [follow-up project] Streamers, Altman took one of the worst and best plays of the past ten years and in each case learned and revealed the beauties of dramatic exposition, of performer’s expressiveness, and of film representation. Altman’s technique transcended one’s quibbles with the texts… Jimmy Dean is flawed as literature, but no more so than A Chorus Line or the inane Agnes of God. The big difference is that Altman does not subject his intelligence and imagination to the play. He achieves theater rapture through methods radically different from the purely interpretive skills of Kazan’s era. We see movies, and now theater, better through Altman’s manipulation of their mechanisms and subversion of their guileful constructs and submerged ideologies, as in the arcane films of Pinter and Inge.
While the cracked mirror that Kazan put into Streetcar made sense for its era, today it seems an obvious, stagey device (a leadbacked symbol). Altman uses mirrors in Jimmy Dean to crystallize time, as objects with double images and multiple meanings, we pass through mirrors as through the play’s time-spanning construct. Altman uses theatricality as a frame for human behavior but avoids imposing a limited interpretation, as Kazan did. Altman violates the containment of stage drama and enlivens its premise, like his Jimmy Dean blocking that places Karen Black’s transsexual next to an Incredible Hulk comic. Increasing our interpretive options gives the production unexpected richness similar to Renoir’s The Golden Coach, emphasizing the aestheticism of settings, gestures, and speech, and pulling away to draw parallels to our sense of reality.
Robert Altman, as quoted in Altman on Altman:
When I did readings of the play there were mirrors all round my office, and I kept watching the actresses through these mirrors. That’s how that idea of crossing time through the mirror came about. And it was much easier to do that when I made the film. In the play there were people who played the ‘mirror’ side, while in the film I was able to use the actual reflection. It’s a Mylar mirror that reflects until you put light behind it, and then you see through. I don’t think I could have used Mylar in the theatre – I believe it was just gauze there – but in the studio all those effects were done live.
Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies:
It’s doubtful if a major film director has ever before voluntarily taken on as thoroughgoing a piece of drivel as this one–a play by Ed Graczyk set in a Texas small-town 5 & Dime and centering on the reunion of a James Dean fan club on the 20th anniversary of his death. The movie version shouldn’t work, but it does. When Robert Altman gives a project everything he’s got, his skills are such that he can make poetry out of fake poetry and magic out of fake magic.
Sheila Benson for the Los Angeles Times:
No wonder “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” didn’t work on the New York stage. It was a film all the time, a rich, funny, touching, insightful film. It needed to blend and move, to fade forward and back, to hold one character in the foreground, then shift our focus to another… Robert Altman has fused his extraordinary cast – Cher, Karen Black, Sandy Dennis, Sudie Bond, Kathy Bates, Marta Helfin and Mark Patton – into one of the finest ensembles I can recall in an American film. But then the high-water marks before this were also Altman films.
Harlan Kennedy for Film Comment January, 1984:
Robert Altman’s Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean explores with a cunningly curdled romanticism the time-slips of cinema and the time-denials of movie fans. The mirror is the way back to the past here, as it was in Cocteau; it’s also an analogue for the movie screen. It combines the twin lures of narcissism and nostalgia. The characters in Jimmy Dean aren’t looking back to the youth and beauty of Dean but to their own youth and beauty: and hope. In the very same breath that cinema eternalizes our idols (with the paradoxical help of a well-timed death) it gives us a thumping, graphic reminder of our own age and decay. The grapes of timelessness are flourished Tantalus-like before us, but we’re grimly, salutarily reminded that we can never partake of them.
Michael Blowen for the Boston Globe:
The homesick wail of a train whistle echoes through the dusty bric-a-brac of what seems to be the last five-and-dime in America. The chrome-back stools, Formica counter, penny candy, pinwheels and plastic sunglasses on plastic mannequins set the stage for “Come Back to the Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” – Robert Altman’s best film since “Nashville.”
Based on the failed play of the same name, the movie version comes alive under Altman’s superb style and appropriately overstated performances by the three stars and Kathy Bates. No wonder it bombed as a play, it was always a movie.
The story is a riotously funny sendup of Tennessee Williams and his particular fascination with small-town madness, dusty symbolism, moronic children, oedipal complexes and doomed dreams. The plot is so absolutely ludicrous that it makes “General Hospital” seem like social realism.
After 15 minutes of what seems to be a “serious” film about repressed desires and sordid pasts, Cher turns on the old Wurlitzer jukebox and plays the McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely.” Suddenly the film becomes outrageously funny. Altman has let us in on his wonderfully convoluted joke. Before he’s done, he lovingly hits all the Big Themes – religion, love, friendship, violence and sex.
The action in “Jimmy Dean” all takes place in the five-and-dime. The set gives Altman, who has a tendency to let his films sprawl all over the screen, a focus. The one-room set forces Altman to concentrate on the idiosyncratic lunacy of his characters rather than wandering around searching for something to photograph as he did in films such as “Health.”
Altman is having fun again. He seems more comfortable in a desolate Woolworth’s than he did on the frozen tundra of “Quintet.” In contrast with “A Wedding,” in which Altman cynically patronized his characters, he seems to love these three women. And why not?
The actresses seem comfortable with the 60-year-old filmmaker. They risk everything for him in outrageous parodies of their own screen images. Cher pokes fun at her sexual appeal; Dennis ridicules her image as the ultimate mouseburger; and Black, who often represents sexual perversity (“The Day of the Locusts”), does her best acting since “Five Easy Pieces.”
Altman’s sympathetic camera caresses the signs that nostalgically remind us of the days when root beer was made with “natural juices,” and he seems pleased with his collection of odds and ends that resonate beyond the squeaky screen door of the five-and-dime.
Robert Altman has come back to the movies.