Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Written by Ed Graczyk
Directed by Robert Altman
Self-delusion is one of the scariest things you can experience. It’s a pretty big problem in our culture and has been for a long time. People become terrified of what they would have to do if they acknowledged reality, so they construct false realities that are more emotionally comforting. There is rarely a consideration of the harm these lies can have on the believer and the people around them; if someone is lost in their happiness, then we accept to some point that it’s okay. Media and the concept of celebrity have led to some particular types of self-delusion with fans becoming stalkers and some times even wishing violence on a figure they once adored. If a star dies tragically and/or young, they can elicit an even more fanatical response from admirers.
It’s 1975, and the now-grown members of the Disciples of Jimmy Dean club are reuniting at the Woolworth’s in McCarthy, Texas. Half the women have moved on to places with better opportunities while the other half have stuck around, watching McCarthy fall into irrelevance. Sissy (Cher) is still working behind the soda counter and continues to present herself as a bold, raunchy person. That contrasts her with soft-spoken and demure Mona (Sandy Dennis), who is coming in late after making her annual pilgrimage to Marfa. When these women were in their late teens, the film Giant was made in Marfa, and Mona was able to get herself in a few crowd shots. The Woolworth’s contains a shrine composed of photographs and fragments of the mansion exterior from the movie, which has been left to crumble in the harsh Texas sun.
As the film goes on, director Robert Altman uses reflections in the mirror to send us back to the 1950s, where we see the events that led up to these characters’ life choices. We watch Mona return from college, citing health problems and a doctor’s recommendation as to why she came back. It becomes clear that Mona is terrified of the world outside McCarthy & Woolworth’s. Eventually, the audience learns that Mona has a nineteen-year-old son (unseen in the film) who is named James Dean and whom she claims is the son of the late actor. There’s a story Mona tells again and again about the night she spent with Dean while he was filming in Marfa, a sort of serendipitous meeting.
Another member of the Disciples appears to be absent, and no one expects him. This is Joe, the only member who was male, and through those flashbacks, we see that Joe experienced the full brunt of hate towards LGBTQ people in that era of America. Joe participates in the school talent show where he dresses in drag with Sissy and Mona to perform the McGuire Sisters’ “Sincerely.” This leads to Joe going to a school dance dressed as a woman and going off with a popular boy. The result of that incident is Joe being attacked and subsequently raped by this young man out of revenge. Eventually, Joe is fired from his job at the 5 & Dime because of his gender and sexuality, Mona abandons her friendship with him, and he drifts away.
The horror here is a mix of both Joe’s experience as a marginalized person in McCarthy and Mona’s brutal delusion. When Mona first learns that Joe has been fired from Woolworth’s, she passionately defends her friend, even saying that if God doesn’t love Joe, then she won’t love God. But her fears of the outside world are going to keep her trapped in McCarthy, and that proves a problem for her tolerance and acceptance. When Joe finally has enough and asks Mona to leave with him; she refuses, Mona doesn’t believe she can survive in a world that is changing so drastically.
Instead, she rots away in McCarthy with her son James Dean, whom she claims is mentally handicapped. There is an obsessive refrain that everyone in the town makes fun of James, laughing at him, which is continuously rebutted by Sissy. Slowly but surely, it becomes clear that Mona is the one with the cognitive issues, returning from college because she felt overwhelmed but creating a lie to protect herself. Inevitably it becomes clear that her son isn’t James Dean’s child, and this is the delusion that, when it breaks, will ultimately shatter everything Mona has left.