When James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson come to Marfa, Texas to film the movie Giant in 1955, it’s the chance of a lifetime for teenaged James Dean fan Mona (Sandy Dennis). Mona lives in McCarthy, Texas, not too far from Marfa, and is the head of the Disciples of James Dean, the local James Dean fan club. Mona and her friend Joe (Mark Patton), also a fan club member, drive out to Marfa to see about being cast as extras in Giant.
Mona returns to McCarthy with the wildest story possible — not only was she an extra in Giant, she also had an affair with James Dean and is pregnant with his child. Instead of going off to school, she stays in McCarthy and continues working at the local Five and Dime with Juanita (Sudie Bond). When the baby is born, Mona names him Jimmy Dean and the two of them become local celebrities. Signs are placed along the highway encouraging people to stop at the Five and Dime to see the son of James Dean.
Twenty five years after the death of James Dean, the Disciples of James Dean have a reunion at the Five and Dime in McCarthy. The signs on the highway have faded, the town has been going downhill for years, and not too many people come to the old Five and Dime anymore. But despite the world changing around them, Mona and Juanita haven’t changed much over the years. Mona’s still at the Five and Dime with Juanita and still makes trips out to Marfa to collect pieces of the facade of Reata, which has started crumbling into dust.
Fellow fan club member Sissy (Cher) has moved back to McCarthy and is trying to recapture some of her youth. Stella Mae (Kathy Bates) and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) travel in for the reunion and they’re joined by a mysterious, yet familiar, woman named Joanne (Karen Black). During the reunion, the women are confronted with the truth about secrets from the past and are forced to take a good hard look at the women they have become.
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is one of those great dramas that is unfortunately very overlooked. I recently saw a stage version of Come Back to the Five and Dime…, which I really enjoyed, so naturally I wanted to see how the movie compared. Although I thought it worked better overall as a play, the film version is really deserving of a second look. Director Robert Altman truly seemed to revel in the environment of that dusty, run-down Five and Dime store. Everything about Come Back to the Five and Dime… felt so raw, I loved it. There is nothing glossed-up about the world these characters inhabit; there’s no ultra-flattering lighting or soft focus to be seen here. None of the characters look glamorous. It’s not like the Five and Dime just needs a fresh coat of paint, you can imagine the tumbleweeds blowing on down the road outside.
Much of the movie is told in flashback and Altman had the very clever idea of using a mirror on the wall of the Five and Dime to convey the flashbacks. To do this, a second set was built, a mirror image of the main Five and Dime set, and had a two-way mirror dividing the sets. To film the flashback scenes, the lights were turned on for the second set and the actors stood on the other side of the mirror, creating a flawless reflection effect.
Come Back to the Five and Dime… also features a stellar cast. There isn’t a single role in it that I wish I could have recast. Sandy Dennis was perfect as the neurotic and delusional Mona. Mona is a Norma Desmond type character in the sense that she also built a life around her delusions and clings to them the best she can. But unlike Norma, Mona hasn’t completely and totally lost her grip on her sanity and Sandy Dennis excelled at bringing a very human quality to Mona. Karen Black and Kathy Bates were both excellent in their parts, but my favorite performance in the movie was Cher’s. Cher was wonderfully bold and self-assured, but in the scene where Sissy is telling a heartbreaking story, she really made me feel Sissy’s pain without resorting to over-the-top theatrics.