by Anthony King
On February 8, 1982 the curtain rose at the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) for previews of a play written by Ed Graczyk, directed by Robert Altman, and starring Karen Black, Cher, Sandy Dennis, Kathy Bates, Sudie Bond, and a young man making his Broadway debut named Mark Patton. Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was hated – most notably Frank Rich of The New York Times. It only lasted 12 previews and 52 performances.
After the box office flop of Popeye, Robert Altman sold his production company, and unable to secure any sort of sizable financing, the writer/director/producer turned to the stage. He acquired the rights for Jimmy Dean, taking it all the way to Broadway. Around the same time, Altman directed Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress at the University of Michigan while also teaching a course on his films. But he couldn't ignore the siren calls of screens both big and small, so with what little financing he could secure Altman filmed or adapted several plays for television and film: Rattlesnake in a Cooler and Precious Blood for PBS, and Secret Honor, Streamers, and Jimmy Dean for the big screen.
While the story jumps back and forth from the 1950s to the 1970s, we never leave the tiny Woolworth's in the middle of a small, dusty town in Texas. Mona (Sandy Dennis) is the woman who claims to have had James Dean's child, a mentally disabled boy whom she appropriately named Jimmy Dean. Sissy (Cher) is the sexy friend who flaunts her boobs and legs with anyone who will give her the attention. Although both women had dreams of leaving their small town, neither one was able to escape, and both still work at the Woolworth's owned by Juanita (Sudie Bond), an elderly, bible-thumping woman who is in denial that her late husband was a drunk and a sexual predator. Rounding out the Disciples are Stella Mae (Kathy Bates), a lush who likes to laugh and have a good time, and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), a downtrodden, pregnant housewife, both of whom have managed to escape the small town.
The friends catch up while we as viewers are privy to the past through beautifully-transitioned and magically-photographed flashbacks (Altman makes expert use of mirrors and windows). Enter Joanne (Karen Black). Nobody knows who she is until... well, I encourage you to watch and find out for yourself. Joanne is the wrench in the machine, for better or worse. The film is a portrait of a small town with small-minded people who don't necessarily realize their selfish and petty ways. Mark Patton (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge), in his first movie role, plays a young gay man and an original Disciple. But that small town abused him and drove him away. Many of the flashbacks include him, and while his youthfulness on screen shows, it's a heartbreaking portrait of someone who won't be completely included no matter how hard he tries.
On top of the pressure each woman feels to present herself in a way the world wants her to be, we're in a cluttered, small space with a dust storm brewing on a 118-degree day in Texas. You sweat with these women. Altman makes no effort to hide the fact that these actresses are melting on screen. Their brows drip and their chests shine with perspiration. Each time one of the ladies walks out the front door of the store she disappears into a rust-colored cloud of dust swirling around. You feel the grit between your fingers and on your teeth. You smell the smoke when Joanne lights a cigarette. You taste the Orange Crush and Lone Star. When it's over, you're left in a haze, asking yourself, “Was that real?”