In a Woolworth’s Five & Dime store in McCarthy, Texas – a place crammed with memorabilia, magazines and goods for sale – a group of women are gathering to mark the twentieth anniversary of James Death’s death. The group includes Mona (Sandy Denis), a deluded, slightly unstable woman who makes the yearly pilgrimage to Marfa, the town 62 miles away where Dean filmed Giant and who is convinced that her son is the child of Dean; Sissy (Cher) the pretty, brassy girl who masks vulnerability with humour and flirtation; and the mysterious out of-towner (Karen Black) who is linked to the past yet nobody appears to recognise.
Altman, who had previously directed the cast in a run of Ed Graczyk’s 1976 play on Broadway, has retained a strong stage element throughout the production. The film takes place on a single set – a “redressed” version of its stage original – with another reverse-set built for the flashback scenes. Varying lighting techniques were used to create the hazy flashbacks of nostalgia. The set is incredible – it resembles something that can only be found in small towns off the tourist trail owned by people who would rather cling to the past than move with the times – all surfaces are invisible with clutter, and the air is thick with a dust that lingers on every surface and on the mirrors. It is a room of memories, of ghosts and of long-standing secrets and lies that have been buried under all of these layers. Never has the phrase “if walls could talk” be more appropriate.
As the characters reminisce the mirrors reveal a history of indiscretions and revelations, every argument, resentment and tragedy of the past twenty years, swaying our allegiances and toying with our perceptions. The cast is fantastic: their original gentle teasing building to an eventual crescendo in a devastatingly intense fashion where emotions run extremely high. Although Kathy Bates may provide the most consistent humour and Black and Denis the pathos, Cher is fantastic in a role that transcends the “small town slut” stereotype, resulting in a character with incredible emotional depth that masks it all through her appearance.
There’s a moment towards the end of Altman’s Five and Dime when one of the characters says “Believin’ is so funny, isn’t it? When what you believe in doesn’t even know you exist.” It is a perfect statement concerning fandom, icons and movie stars and remains ageless in a culture where both the film and Dean’s legacy have never been more alive.