Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

The cast of the Broadway show "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean" celebrate opening night backstage at New York's Martin Beck Theatre, Feb. 19, 1982. From left are, Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black.

USA  (109 mi)  1982  d:  Robert Altman

Altman spent the entire decade of the 80’s recovering from the critical failure of POPEYE (1980), a box office bonanza that grossed nearly $50 million dollars, preferring to make smaller more intimate films, none of which came close to generating even a million dollars, converting a series of plays into movies starting with this one, followed up by STREAMERS (1983), SECRET HONOR (1984), and Fool for Love (1985).  Adapted from the Ed Graczyk play, Altman chose to use the same set from the short-lived original Broadway stage production, which features two identical small town “five-and-dimes” separated by a two-way mirror, which allows simultaneous viewing of both the present and the past, shooting the entire film in a single room.  Normally one might think this would be a disaster in the making, an exhaustive endurance of tedium, but keeping the same Broadway cast, Altman turns this into a tour de force drama, a showcase of acting talent that becomes searingly confessional.  Set in a Woolworth's diner in a near empty town not far from where GIANT (1956) was filmed in Marfa, Texas, this is the site for the reunion of the “Disciples of James Dean” fan club, commemorating the 20th anniversary of his death.  It’s not your typical reunion as these women have not kept in close contact, so as they delve down memory lane, life holds a few surprises in store.  Sandy Dennis, Cher, Kathy Bates, and especially a mysterious appearance by Karen Black add to the building intrigue, as the mood starts off friendly enough, but each woman has highly personalized sequences that likely include mirror flashback sequences, where the initial polite tone of respectful quiet builds to a crashing crescendo of in-your-face drama, literally surprising the hell out of the audience, as something so light and easygoing suddenly takes a turn into the world of a Bergman chamber drama. 

Using the old-fashioned jukebox music of the McGuire Sisters, singing songs like “Sincerely,” this is really one dynamo of a women’s picture, as these women delve into each other’s habits and character flaws, literally dissecting one another onscreen in an attempt to redefine themselves in a new and different way, not as they were, but as they are, or can be, now.  This metamorphosis of change doesn’t come easy, as many, especially Sandy Dennis, kick and scratch the entire way, absolutely refusing to alter her perceptions.  Her near manic stubbornness is like living in a protective bubble with the other women continually poking and prodding until the bubble bursts.  This kind of liberating intensity is not for the squeamish, but it makes for extraordinary theater, resembling Fassbinder or early Cassavetes, as few others make films as blunt as this one, an ensemble work featuring dynamic performances as dramatically powerful as any Altman film, which might surprise a few people, as this is a hard film to see, never released on Video or DVD even after the passing of thirty years.  That situation has been rectified somewhat, as it’s one of the feature films traveling the country in 2011 as part of the UCLA Festival of Film Preservation.  Initially shot on 16 mm, then blown up to 35 mm, again much like early Fassbinder and Cassavetes, this adds a bit of edginess to the raw emotions on display, never looking pretty, but always challenging the audience with the claustrophobic feel of the world closing in.  All seem to be holding dark secrets of some kind, where slowly through the fixated probing of Black, things are not as they seem, where people soon become unglued.  Using a brilliantly innovative set design, the film seamlessly crosses between the 1975 present and the 1955 past, blending revelatory moments in the present with a familiar emotional arc from the past, where each period of time continues to shed light on the other.

Sudie Bond plays Juanita, the widowed elderly owner of the establishment where they all used to work when they were kids, sharing their lives and their traumas together, all conveniently tucked away and nearly forgotten until unearthed by this reunion.  Juanita places her faith in God and takes a hard line against sinners and trespassers.  Cher, in her first meaty role, is surprisingly comfortable in the role of Sissy, something of a sexual floozy in high school and still amazingly candid, with a mouth that speaks her mind, never coy or bashful, quite capable of a full frontal assault, including godlessness.  Sandy Dennis plays Mona, the woman with the most to lose, as like Blanche DuBois, she clings to her dreams of the past, like living in a Glass Menagerie, as her fluttery speech and fragile state of mind appear to feed on her own self-inflicted neuroses and delusions.  The highlight of the reunion is always her recollection of the time she visited Marfa during the filming of GIANT, when she was chosen as an extra and miraculously spent the night with the brilliant young actor himself, naming her own child after Jimmy Dean, the object of their teen idol worship.  Kathy Bates is nothing less than brilliant in her role as Stella Mae, the sassy, straight talking Southern belle who struck it rich marrying a Texas oilman, a woman with a taste for hard liquor and easy living, who never for a second seems satisfied.  Marta Heflin is the quiet one of the bunch, Edna Louise, a bit dimwitted, constantly reminded of that by Stella Mae, but a friend to all, even if they barely know she’s there.  Karen Black as Joanne is the mystery woman with a role that requires unraveling the tightly wound secrets from each person, as she has a special transparency all her own.  She’s startlingly dark, an angel of gloom that seems to hang over each of them like a dark cloud hovering over their own guilty consciences, but she’s anything but happy about it, feeling like she’s continually been dealt a losing hand.  She seems to be the only one paying a price for everyone else’s delusions, as much like Edna Louise, she has become invisible.                
None of these six women would ever see themselves as feminists, yet they stubbornly cling to their own separate beliefs, where this film is a dialogue that challenges all their assumptions.  Something of a free-wheeling emotional slugfest, everyone gets to take their shots, but also gets shot down by the others in this collective group therapy where no one walks out a winner.  Everyone’s artificial façade is exposed, and none too gently, where the drunken and pointedly judgmental tone is strangely familiar with Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), where Dennis is the link to both films. But the Graczyk play here, while confoundingly interesting, full of bracing moments, simply isn’t in the same league as Albee.  While it has its own complexities with some extraordinary intimate moments between women, there is simply not the same kind of depth or realization.  Instead it is a portrait of delusion and loss of faith, where an unending sadness permeates every inch of that room, yet in Altman’s hands it feels magical, as if our own lives will be cleansed by their personal anguish and pain.  It’s a reminder of the kind of interior poetry that few filmmakers can master, that Altman achieves here and perhaps again later with Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, another rarely seen effort.  The 80’s was a decade when Altman went smaller, peering into the bleak and dysfunctional souls of damaged humans who spend their lives covering up their own unbearable pain, which is usually a patchwork job that falls apart all too easily whenever someone gets too close for comfort.  Love is an elusive goal rarely if ever reached, as people are too busy building layers of protection that hide them from the truth about themselves.  Plato said:  Beauty is the splendor of truth—well not from the vantage point of any of these women, where the piercing knife only makes them bleed.   

No comments:

Post a Comment