Updated: Nov 27, 2022
By Michael Mollicone
James Dean, the ‘50s heart-throb, is not much an actor but more a deity to the young girls of McCarthy, Texas. Fueling their fervent obsession, a gang of these groupie teenagers establish “The Disciples of James Dean,” a fan club run out of a Woolworth’s Five and Dime store. Being only 62 miles from the set of Dean’s new film “Giant,” Mona, one of the group's most passionate members, travels to meet the actor. Upon returning, she claims she made love to him and bears his son.
Twenty years later, the disciples return to McCarthy for the anniversary of Dean’s death. The liveliness of their youth has long passed, and the weight of life bogs down on each of them. Under the sweltering McCarthy heat, the Woolworth’s starts to jog the recessed memories of the women, and the secrets they’ve concealed for decades.
In 1976, “Five and Dime” was originally performed as a play, a common scenario for similar films that transpire in a single room. Ed Graczyk wrote the piece and Robert Altman later directed the material for the stage. In Altman’s 1982 film, he’s able to capture the theatrical experience of seeing the play, while also adapting it to cinema. Cinematography remains unflashy and the bulk of content is dialogue-driven, allowing the full focus to be on the complex character studies that develop.
One of the greatest theatrical elements used was the Woolworth’s set in which the whole film occurs. Flipping from 1975 to 1955 several times, the set changes for each era. To achieve this, the Woolworth’s was built twice, back-to-back, with a two-way mirror separating each. In flashbacks, the camera pushes into the mirror, and “1955 Woolworths” would come to life.
Orange Crush soda, gift shop trinkets, patriotic regalia and jukebox tunes immerse you into a world that only enhances your senses. You imagine the sounds and smells of the dying establishment that don’t even appear on screen. Not only does the Woolworth’s grasp a withering era of five and dime stores, but it’s also reflective of the character Juanita, the elderly shop owner who’s played by Sudie Bond.
Once “The Disciples” reunite after decades, the September morning begins with joyous reminiscing of good memories. As the day drags on and drinks are poured, the memories become much darker. Among the cast is Mona, played by Sandy Dennis, who’s character still remains obsessed with James Dean long after his death. She constantly travels to the decaying set of “Giant” after all these years, taking scraps of it as keepsakes. Mona is a character that’s difficult to admire. She clearly has much to hide, and physically expresses this by hiding behind columns and counters of the shop. She is mentally unwell, being violent, sounding manic in speech, and thinking of herself in a higher regard than the others. This is due to her belief that James Dean chose her specifically to bear his son. Mona practically teeters on insanity for most of the film, even calling the other girls “warped” and “demented” for not believing her.
Sissy, performed by a young Cher, is also a strong player. She’s the sexy small-town girl that never really could leave the small town. Her character is sharp and sympathetic, while also being a voice of reason. Kathy Bates and Marta Heflin are entertaining in their roles as well, despite not being fleshed out as much as other characters. Karen Black also makes an appearance, having a gripping past that might be somewhat predictable. Regardless of predictability, the execution of the narratives is still delicately handled with Altman’s Midas touch. Using dialogue as the key, he withholds information until he is ready to reveal it at the right time.
Another wonderful aspect of Altman is how he’s able to include such progressive themes into his work, presenting them without bias. In “Five and Dime” there’s a transgender female character. Their backstory is of great importance to the plot, and the audience can’t help but sympathize with their pain. Themes of homosexuality and gender clash brutally with Juanita’s old-school Christian values. At one point she says that the homosexual boy, “should be treated before he grows into a communist.” She fails to accept change, maybe in the same way she holds onto the decaying store. Juanita, however, is also a motherly character to an extent and eventually begins to question her own values as well.
“Five and Dime” may not be riveting with its revelations, but it captures American life in a way that only Altman does. Once the doo-wop music dies and the images of a gutted-out Woolworths flutter across the credits screen, you’re left with the somber silence of a lost era, and a sympathy for “The Disciples’” painful lives. Juanita sums it up well in saying “Believing is so funny, isn’t it? Especially when what you believe in doesn’t even know you exist.” The same goes for “The Disciple’s”’ idol, James Dean.