Director: Robert Altman
Stars: Karen Black, Cher, Sandy Dennis
The weather is scorching. Being a hopeless cinephile, a heatwave first and foremost gets me thinking about ‘hot’ films. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Wake In Fright. Body Heat etc. Movies defined by sweltering climates, in which the air seems sticky and the actors perspire for our pleasure.
Robert Altman’s adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play isn’t among the first wave that spring to mind, but the film’s recent re-release by Eureka! as part of their Masters Of Cinema range allows for a timely revisit, and lo, Come Back To The 5 And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean does fit the bill as a ‘hot’ film.
With a split timeline, this ensemble character study takes place on stifling Texas days in 1955 and 1975 respectively. Set entirely within a dusty ol’ branch of Woolworth’s, the ’55 scenes are accompanied by a thundering summer storm and the humid hush of rainfall, while the summer of ’75 finds the store breathless in a drought, with sand at the doorstep. Adding to the aura of heat is Altman’s choice of film stock. Jimmy Dean (as I’ll refer to it from here on) is shot on Super 16 negative transposed to a 35mm print. This gives the film an enduring grainy quality, as though viewed through dirty glass. The effect intensifies the sense of nostalgia (a key theme), while also casting it in a similar haze to Altman’s 3 Women (another ‘hot’ film).
Jimmy Dean is the first of Altman’s string of theatrical adaptations that defined his 80’s output, and probably the best. Following the critical and commercial failure of Popeye, its easy to view Jimmy Dean and the work that followed as a retreat. But I’d counter that this film feels like a continuation of themes Altman returned to throughout his career, with the likes of That Cold Day In The Park, Images and the aforementioned 3 Women – its kindred spirits. In the main, these are the pictures in which Altman takes the guise of a more feminine filmmaker, as though transforming himself. These films feature female leads, and each investigates different aspects of female psychology. And indeed, transformation is key to Jimmy Dean.
The story concerns the reunion of a group of women who, in ’55, were linked by their shared enthusiasm for movie star James Dean; soon to be filming Giant (another ‘hot’ flick) near to the store. Twenty years later, these women reunite and have to come to terms with how much some things have changed, and how other things have stayed the same.
Cher seriously kicked-off her acting career here as Sissy, the town floozy who hasn’t changed at all in the intervening years. Prideful of her looks (and her bust), Sissy’s entire persona seems wrapped up in her reputation as being sexy and attainable, but the reunion will test her suppressed dissatisfaction at having never made more of herself.
Then there’s Mona (Sandy Dennis), a repressed, judgemental and tightly-wound counterpart to Sissy; the introvert to her extrovert. Mona is even more resentful that her life has come to nothing, because she is more scornful of herself, more prone to self-reflection and bitterness. Mona’s love for James Dean is her blinding, yet gossamer thin protection. Brash Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and ditzy Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) round out the group, but the reunion is given a surprising twist by the arrival of a mysterious yet familiar stranger played by Karen Black.
I know Karen Black best from Dan Curtis horror flicks of the era, like Trilogy Of Terror and Burnt Offerings. She’s a great actor. Her androgynous visage makes her casting here a master-stroke, as her Joanne is revealed to be the grown-up Joe (Mark Patton). She had been through sexual reassignment surgery. Joe, the young victim of bullying for his perceived weakness and femininity, has transformed into Joanne; a confident, successful and glamorous southern woman.
This rather significant change excites and alarms the group, and it is telling where Joanne is accepted and where she is not. Stella Mae is bluntly fascinated to the point of rudeness, gleefully likening Joanne to a carnival act. Mona is disgusted, but her disgust is a mixture of conservative shock and her own roiling demons, aware that she has built her own identity around a lie she’s partway convinced herself of. Sissy is just Sissy.
Jimmy Dean stands as a minor landmark in trans representation in cinema; something not commonly covered with any degree of intelligence or integrity in 1982. The slasher boom of the same time period frequently equated being transgender with violent mania, for instance. Graczyk’s screenplay, Altman’s film and Karen Black’s performance are exceedingly sympathetic to the character, even as her presence and continuing revelations detonate the lives of those around her. Altman shows her as brave, and her detractors as raving and stuck – figuratively and literally – in another time. He also uses the dual timeline to repeatedly overlay Joe and Joanne, showing them, literally, as one and the same.
Joe was always Joanne.
Her reveal appears some fifty minutes into the film – nearly half way – and consumes the picture for a little while as the other characters react. This period of the film also serves to educate the public, and gets through this rather smoothly. It then defers to Mona, recalling her brief encounter with James Dean; a rehearsed performance of a memory that gets challenged by Joanne, setting sparks flying once again.
The memory of James Dean’s death being announced on the radio tilts the film into its final act. Here Sandy Dennis takes centre stage as Mona’s fragile facade crumbles. Sissy, too, goes through the wringer. A storm brewing in the evening sky echoes the heady, claustrophobic atmosphere brewing in the store.
Altman doesn’t quite vault the hurdle of having his film look like a play transposed. The view of outside visible through the windows and open door is less believable than one you might find on a cheap soap opera set. But Altman makes up for this with his by-this-point trademark roaming camera, which seeks out his actors from distances, zooming in on them, picking out tells in the faces of his cast; moments of emotional nakedness. The portrait painted is of a director hopelessly enamoured by his actors, in love with the intricacies of great performance.
There’s a sense of the inescapable about Jimmy Dean. It’s there in the confines of its single location. So too in the emotional bonds its characters have bound themselves in. But its also there in the film’s stifling sense of heat. It’s “118 in the shade” says Sissy (that’s 47 celsius to British folks). You can feel it, too. Jimmy Dean is a Texan hothouse of a movie. Watch it with the blind down and the fan on and an ice-cold lemonade laced with your favourite spirit.