Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

| December 1, 2014

Adapted from Ed Graczyk’s play of the same title, Robert Altman’s film version of Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Olive Films. Featuring beautiful performances from the likes of Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, and Kathy Bates, Jimmy Dean centers on the reunion of McCarthy, Texas’ Disciples of James Dean club twenty years to the day after the actor’s untimely star’s death. The occasion also marks the 20th anniversary of the club’s last official meeting. And the intervening years have been, shall we say, less than easy for the women who reconvene at the local Woolworth’s to reminisce.

Before I go further, let me preface what I’m about to say by establishing this much about my relationship with the work of Robert Altman: I am an enormous fan of the man’s work, and I’ve even taught a class on his 1970’s output. That said, like most Robert Altman films, my first viewing of Jimmy Dean left me completely dazed. Parts of it perplexed me. Adapted for the screen from Altman’s personal stage production of Graczyk’s play, the film feels incredibly stagey. The film takes place entirely in a single location: the interior of the Woolworth’s where the Disciples once met regularly, and where one of them still works, even after all these years. Given its singular location, the film often feels far more like a play than it does a film, and only during its most intense close-ups does it achieve a distinctly filmic quality. Of course, I would never complain about Altman deciding to commit his stage version of the play to film as I was unable to see it during its run, having not yet been born in 1982.

Even as I continue to find its staginess unsettling, I have the utmost respect for Altman and Graczyk in their willingness to tackle the film’s more provocative subject matter. Jimmy Dean heartbreakingly confronts the stresses and pitfalls of small town living head-on, going beyond the obvious themes related to dead end jobs and the abandoned dreams of those who never moved away. Sure, it addresses those themes too and it does so masterfully. But where the film really hits me at a gut level is in its address of small town bigotry. It shows how the typically conservative small town mentality results in anyone who is even remotely different becoming the target not only of verbal and emotional abuse, but often the target of physical assault as well. It paints the small-mindedness of bigotry in the most unflattering light possible, as a boy who the locals perceive to be gay becomes the victim of a sexual assault. One character tellingly remarks that “He is a sick boy and should be treated before he grows up into a communist,” thereby stressing the blindness with which people traditionally approach the issue of homosexuality. In this, the film speaks powerfully to the obstacles facing those fighting for equal rights even today, obstacles rooted in the fundamentally flawed arguments of a so-called “moral” majority.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was released on Blu-ray a mere week prior to Kino’s releases of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Thieves Like Us (1974), making this one hell of an exciting time for Altman fans. And just as with those releases, I can’t think of a single reason why you shouldn’t order Jimmy Dean right this minute, especially since this is its first home video release since 1989 if I’m not mistaken! By way of special features, Olive Films’ Blu-ray and DVD of Jimmy Dean includes an interview with Ed Graczyk in which the writer relates the fascinating history of behind his play as well as details his rocky working relationship with Altman, who characteristically made extensive alterations to the script to suit his own needs, with little to no regard for Graczyk’s vision.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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