The Crank is a graduate student organization that runs weekly screenings of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s extensive holdings. The Crank shows films that either are not widely available on video or are such spectacular specimens of nitrate and celluloid that merely to see them on a television set would be a crime both to the student of film and to the canon of film history.
As the 1970s came to a close, Robert Altman, the critics’ darling and occasional box office success, found himself on rocky ground. Fox had refused to give his films A Perfect Couple (1979) and Health (1980) legitimate theatrical releases, while Altman’s other work, including Popeye (1980), had not fared well critically. Altman left Hollywood in disgust, saying, “They’re in the bottom-line, money-making business and they cannot endure. I’m going to be working, profitably and productively, when they’re no longer working.”
In the following years, Altman found work directing in the theater and occasionally filming the stage plays for television. During this time, he discovered Ed Graczyk’s play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in an Off-Off-Broadway performance and directed it himself on Broadway. Although the show closed early and was critically panned, entertainment conglomerate Viacom left open its offer to finance filming it to use as original content for its cable television subsidiary Showtime. Unlike his other stage adaptations, Altman used his $800,000 budget to create a dynamic feature film, rather than recording a live performance. Altman shot the film in 19 days on Super 16mm film for an inexpensive blow-up to a 35mm print. Subverting the original intention to create television content, Altman submitted the film to various festivals; it won the Chicago International Film Festival’s top prize, which helped eventually secure limited theatrical distribution.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean details the reunion of a James Dean fan club in a small Texas town 20 years after the actor’s death. Moving back and forth in time between 1955 and 1975, Altman perhaps takes a page from Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) by locating trauma in the sexual repression of the 1950s. The film explores the hidden past and present trials of its largely female cast as they gather in the single setting of the local Woolworth’s store. As usual, Altman captures engrossing performances from his actors, including 1970s character actor Karen Black and pop star Cher. This film marked Cher’s move into serious acting, as she received an Oscar nomination the next year for her performance in Mike Nichols’s Silkwood (1983). Other surprises include an early performance from Kathy Bates, who, like the other actors, had starred in the play’s Broadway run.
Many critics praised the film upon its release, commenting that the content seemed more suited to Altman’s cinematic touch rather than the theater. Los Angeles Times critic Sheila Benson applauded the film’s ensemble cast and claimed, “As liberated onto film, Jimmy Dean…simply glows.” While New York Times critic Vincent Canby, like some others, took issue with Graczyk’s play, he still applauded the film’s low budget and alternative means of production. Gary Arnold at The Washington Post heralded the film as Altman’s resurgence and argued, “While inspiring him to fresh technical innovations, Come Back also seems to revitalize the sense of emotional identification with lonely, self-deceiving characters and the genius for pathos that distinguished Altman at his most affecting.”
Possibly the most apparent auteurist consideration Come Back warrants concerns Altman’s often controversial depictions of women. Critics have frequently considered Altman’s treatment of women in films such as M*A*S*H (1970) to be problematic. Yet film scholars Robin Wood and Robert T. Self find that Come Back intelligently explores the negative impact of a patriarchal authority on sexuality and female identity. Wood praises the film’s exploration of the “patriarchy’s dread of sexual deviation and gender ambiguity,” while Self calls it an exorcism of “the engendered stereotypes of negative female sexuality.”
Although the 1980s may not be considered a dominant time period for Altman, he continuously invested his reminiscent themes in stage-to-film adaptations such as Streamers (1983) and Secret Honor (1984). Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean stands as an overlooked film that not only sheds light on Altman’s varied career but also restates his ability to direct a talented ensemble cast through a different method of production.
Special thanks to Janet Bergstrom, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, and the Program in Cinema and Media Studies.
Arnold, Gary. “Riding the ‘Come Back’ Trail.” The Washington Post 19 November 1982: E1. Print.
Benson, Sheila. “Movie Review: ‘Come Back To 5 & Dime’ from Robert Altman.” Los Angeles Times 12 November 1982: J1. Print.
Blum, David J. “Robert Altman’s Escape from Hollywood.” The Wall Street Journal 15 January 1982: 25. Print.
Canby, Vincent. “Film: ‘Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean’.” The New York Times 12 November 1982: C8. Print.
Cook, David A. Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970-1979. New York: C. Scribner, 2000. Print.
“Relaxed Altman Follows His Fancy.” Screen International 11 September 1982: 10. Print.
Self, Robert T. Robert Altman’s Subliminal Reality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2002. Print.
Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. Print.
Zuckoff, Mitchell. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.