Revealing the Truth
“Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean” is a movie about lasting friendships that never die no matter how much time passes by. It reminds us that the past can never be erased and the memories will never cease to exist even as people grow apart and change. Robert Altman directed this film which is based a play with the same name by Ed Graczyk’s. The wonderful cast includes Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black and Kathy Bates, who star as women reunited in their high school hangout diner on the 20th anniversary of their James Dean’s death and he had been their idol. What starts out as a nostalgic reunion unfolds into a shocking revelation of the secrets and lies that each character holds within themselves.
Here is a film that looks at many social issues such as femininity, homosexuality, false identities, and the fleeting illusion of fame. It is a film that limits the boundaries of cinema and takes place entirely in one location juxtaposing two very distinct time periods, the 1950s, “a time when Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson grabbed all the headlines, and muscle cars and Elvis Presley ruled youth culture, and the 1970s, when the U.S. was in a recession during one of America’s darkest periods, following the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal”. That was a time when many realized that the dreams of the past were gone and what was left was a country sliding into decline.
Altman used events of the past to remind us that the past can be an ugly and haunt us and that change comes no matter what. The nostalgia and 50s doo-wop atmosphere add a special ambience to the story that is filled with emotions and unsolved issues between old friends.
(Mona) Sandy Dennis is a forlorn woman in her 40s, still obsessed over her teenage idol and unable to let go of the past, Jo (Karen Black) is the character that is the most “normal” of the bunch but has the biggest secret. Mona has changed the least over the years and her remembrance of the past is forever distorted by the fantasies she has created. The past here is not idealized and it is through Mona’s life, loves and her recollections and present that we come to understand the dangers of not confronting reality. The innocent perception of the past is further darkened by Jo’ who 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. We see that even those that lived lives of privilege in that society were easily crippled by the dream of America back then.
The claustrophobic nature of the set and the occasionally melodramatic performances provide 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 adored James Dean and is made fun of for this, 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.
Because the set is so artificial, the actors are what make this movie as great as it is. Cher as Sissy is still working at the 5 & 10 after all these years, still dreaming of getting out of the town and still proud of and bragging about her “boobies”. However as good as the cat this, Sudie Bond as Juanita steals the film and puts it in her back pocket. Juanita owns the 5 & 10 with such realism that we really think she does. She is a righteous Christian widow whose values cannot be corrupted, even if it means the denial of what her husband really was. Also in the cast are Marta Heflin as the mousy and feeble Edna Louise, and Kathy Bates as the rambunctious and slightly clichéd Stella Mae.
Altman used his genius to get great performances yet the film was not his best and it is certainly not perfect. Suddenly we get a surprise with the arrival of Joanne, a mysterious stranger but her presence seems to prove that everyone is living in a state of denial in a place called Denial where little by little secrets are exposed, the same secrets that some of them didn’t even know about themselves.