Back to Black

Back to Black

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Karen Black in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)


Michael Koresky

In this excerpt from his book Films of Endearment: A Mother, A Son, and the ’80s Films That Defined Us, Michael Koresky reconsiders Karen Black’s landmark performance as Joanne in Robert Altman’s 1982 film Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean screens at Metrograph from April 7 as part of the series Also Starring… Karen Black.

As a boy I knew nothing of Robert Altman, though by the time I was an eighteen-year-old heading to school to study film, he had become a favorite of mine. With Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Altman was in his experimental eighties phase, wading somewhere between the critical and commercial breakouts of his seventies films like M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Nashville, and his nineties resurgence with The Player and Short Cuts. As the seventies came to a close, Altman’s idiosyncratic style—large ensemble casts, complexly recorded and often overlapping dialogue, and curiously roving camerawork—was growing out of fashion, and this coincided with the shift in the American movie industry from ambitious, director-driven films to more commercial, less risky studio efforts intended to appeal to the widest possible audiences, typified by Jaws and Star Wars. Altman also was the rare director of the era to give prominent, complex roles equally to men and women. His dreamlike 1977 film Three Women, for instance, featuring unforgettable performances by Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall as southwest outcasts who undergo an almost supernatural personality swap, is now widely considered a masterpiece, though at the time, despite earning Duvall an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival, was a commercial failure and indication that oddball auteur visions were on their way out. In the early eighties, one project after another fell apart for Altman, and he found himself increasingly disinterested in trying to create products that the major studios would be willing to finance.

Altman’s years in the wilderness drove him to the theater for a spell. He accepted an invitation to direct a pair of one-act plays at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, the first time he had worked on the stage since the fifties, back when he was in Kansas City. His reignited passion for theater led him to Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, written by Ed Graczyk in 1976. Altman was enticed enough to bring this odd chamber piece to Broadway, even if, as he said in an interview in the 2006 book Altman on Altman, “I didn’t think it was a great play.”

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Sandy Dennis, Cher, and Karen Black in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

Come Back appealed to Altman for its visual and dramatic possibilities, but even more as a showcase for its female ensemble, who would have a chance to sink their incisors into a heaping helping of psychological warfare. “It had a Tennessee Williams/William Inge aspect to it, with each character having their say,” the director continued. “And I thought that would be interesting for the actresses.” On-screen Altman doubles down on the theatricality of the work. If the film feels unmistakably like theater, with heightened artificial sets and clear dramatic entrances and exits, that’s because Altman literally shot the film one week after the play ended its short Broadway run—just fifty-two performances—with the same cast, on two adjacent sets that were mirror images of each other, less than a million dollars on super 16mm film. Hardly a mere gimmick, the constant negotiation between the past and present creates a distinct, porous visual style, but it also speaks to one of the play’s underlying themes, which is the ongoing dialogue between the fifties, marked by hope and political naïveté, and the seventies, an era of political and social disillusionment, of Watergate and the Vietnam War.

This bold gambit pays off: the roles feel deeply lived-in, and the actresses were already accustomed to the muscular choreography that Altman conceived for stage and screen, utilizing an elaborate network of mirrors and lighting effects that allows the narrative to take place in both time periods at once. On the page, the revelations and confrontations could become exhausting, but the mesmerizing women make the play’s excesses often exhilarating. Sandy Dennis—already an Oscar winner for playing the mousy Honey, victimized by George and Martha in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—stars as Mona, who seems to live in a kind of fugue state, claiming to have given birth to the son of James Dean after a one-night stand that took place while he was filming Giant in Marfa. Alongside her are two eventual Oscar winners giving hints of the film careers to come: Cher, in her first dramatic role following more than a decade as a pop and television star, as open-hearted sexpot Sissy, who’s hidden a life- and body-altering illness from everyone; and Kathy Bates as tougher-than-nails bully Stella Mae, who’s married into big money and hasn’t lost her nasty edge. Others who have returned for the Disciples of James Dean reunion include milquetoast Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), pregnant with her seventh child, and the older Juanita (Sudie Bond), an intolerant Bible-thumper who has never come to terms with her late husband’s alcoholism—she’s a character who feels situated on the cusp of the American evangelical movement that would flower throughout Reagan’s presidential term.

Towering over all of them—both in my child’s eye and in my contemporary estimation—is Karen Black’s mysterious arrival Joanne. Dressed in a sophisticated white pantsuit with matching leather gloves and stylish sunglasses, Joanne is an ethereal presence, unrecognizable to the other women yet oddly familiar and somehow armed with a wealth of knowledge about them: much to Juanita’s chagrin, she knows where her ex-husband stashed his secret bottles of liquor behind the counter. Arriving in a yellow sports car and giving off an air of urban sophistication, Joanne is clearly a fish out of water. It becomes evident that Joanne is the reunion’s missing piece.

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Cher and Sandy Dennis in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)

As she gradually reveals, Joanne was once Joe, the mild-mannered teenage store clerk (played in flashback by Mark Patton) who was the only male member of the Disciples. Mercilessly teased and bullied by the community for his effeminacy, he had been fired by the bigoted Juanita and her husband for being “shameful” and “not right.” In the mirrored flashbacks, Joe is wilting, tearful, and tremulous; Joanne, however, is confident, fierce, and unafraid of a stare-down. It’s initially unclear why she’s returned to the site of such trauma, but Joanne suddenly has the fearsome strut of a cigarette-smoking avenging angel. And this out-of-towner’s got a killer line for these Texas bumpkins: “Unlike all of you, I have undergone a change.”

As a child, I found this woman—who refuses to be mislabeled and is quick to correct anyone who might not call her a “she”—fascinating, to say the least. Watched today, Altman’s film might not contain the most enlightened embodiment of a trans character: Come Back is too studied and symbolic, too pressurized and reliant on reflections and doublings and high concepts, to function as a realistic portrayal of any woman’s life. For instance, Sissy’s big narrative twist, enacted superbly by Cher—who was initially courted by Altman to play Joanne, but lobbied for Sissy instead—is that she’s been hiding the fact that she had a double mastectomy following a traumatic battle with breast cancer. There’s more than a touch of cruelty, not to mention an overly symmetrical conceit, about this revelation, creating yet another mirroring effect, this time between the two women’s transformed bodies. And Joanne’s relationship to her own body post-surgery, as envisioned by the play’s cisgender male writer, is dubiously reliant on faux psychologizing. When Stella Mae asks her if she ever regrets the decision, Joanne’s response to this nosy intrusion is both vague and complex: “Only when I think about it.”

Nevertheless, the singularity of this character and her centrality in this small but significant work in the career of a major Hollywood director remains remarkable. Simply put, Joanne is a landmark role, one of the extraordinarily few multidimensional trans female characters in American movies, which also includes Roberta Muldoon, the postop former football player played by John Lithgow in The World According to Garp, released just a few months before Altman’s film. At the time of these films’ releases, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, last updated in 1980 (DSM-III), classified transgender people as mentally ill, using the term gender identity disorder. Representation in mainstream cinema was more typified by something like Brian De Palma’s blood-drenched Dressed to Kill, which featured Michael Caine as a murderous Norman Bates–like psychiatrist whose desire to become a woman is depicted as a function of split-personality disorder—when he gets sexually aroused, he assumes the identity of “Bobbi,” a killer blonde wielding a razor blade.

Dressed to Kill

Dressed to Kill (1980)

Exquisitely crafted, terrifying, and utterly disinterested in making concessions to sensitivity, Dressed to Kill would end up making a very big impression on me when my mother—in a lapse of judgment she laughingly regrets to this day—rented it from the video store one fateful night for us to watch. Following the überviolent, erotic fever dream finale, she turned and asked cheerfully, heedlessly, how I liked the movie. As she recalls the incident, I slowly rotated my head toward her, revealing an ashen face that looked as though it had just seen a ghost. To this day, it’s the only incident from our past she says she would classify as “child abuse.”

The existence of a little movie such as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean can do a lot to mitigate the impact of a flashy hit like Dressed to Kill, a film that’s often cited today by trans critics as having been damaging to the trans queer community. (In a 2018 online discussion about the film between trans critics Caden Mark Gardner and Willow Maclay, the latter wrote, “There are more instances of trans women appearing as murderers in movies than there are good films featuring actual trans women in meaty, acceptable, dense roles that approach their humanity with something resembling respect for the difficulty it takes to be trans.”) Joanne, as played fearlessly by Black, is not merely sympathetic—she’s a disruptor and a truth-teller. Before the term pride became a centerpiece of the gay rights movement, Black seems to embody it in much of her performance; it’s in the way she moves through the store, holding herself with an air of grandeur, as though she has narrowly avoided tragedy and wants the other women to know it, to feel it. She’s no victim. Partly due to her experiences as a bullied youth, she’s likely also the kindest of all the women, as evidenced when she takes a beat to say to the mousy, oft-denigrated Edna Mae, “You glow brighter than anybody in the place”—a moment of recognition from one misunderstood, bullied human being to another.

I found—and still find—the strength of all of these women intoxicating, though, and a lot of that has to do with their performativity, a fearless, outrageous style that has its origins in American theater.

Karen Black, who died after a battle with cancer in 2013, was best known for her Oscar-nominated breakout in Five Easy Pieces alongside Jack Nicholson; for other viewers, she’s best remembered for her camp freak-out in the 1975 anthology horror TV movie Trilogy of Terror, in which she’s terrorized by a diminutive “Zuni fetish doll,” a goofy, colonialist revenge story in miniature that surely no one who has seen has ever forgotten. For me, her Joanne is the career-defining role; though one would hope to see an actual trans performer, rather than a cisgender woman, in the part today, Black radiates compassion and psychological curiosity, and her performance all but sets the tone for a film that might have otherwise devolved into delirious melodrama.

I found—and still find—the strength of all of these women intoxicating, though, and a lot of that has to do with their performativity, a fearless, outrageous style that has its origins in American theater. As the eighties wore on, I would see more of this, in a plethora of movies based on plays, many of them featuring casts almost entirely of women who—in the hothouse Tennessee Williams tradition—also seemed to revel in chewing on thick wads of Southern accents: Crimes of the Heart; The Trip to Bountiful; ’night, Mother; Steel Magnolias; and an HBO recording of a play called Vanities, which my mother had taped on VHS. Whether centering on mothers and daughters, sisters, or tight-knit groups of friends, they communicated an appealing sense of intense female togetherness, which would often intensify into the kind of bickering that can flower from intimacy. The unapologetic feminine emotionality of these highly verbal films hit me on a deep level, speaking to some untapped well of identity that went way beyond entertainment value. I knew that, because of my gender, I might always be somehow left on the sidelines, cut out of this sisterhood.

This is an excerpt from Michael Koresky’s Films of Endearment: A Mother, A Son, and the ’80s Films That Defined Us, published by Hanover Square Press. The book is available to purchase from the Metrograph Bookstore.


Michael Koresky is the Editorial Director at Museum of the Moving Image; cofounder and editor of the online film magazine Reverse Shot; a longtime contributor to the Criterion Collection; and the programmer of the series Queersighted for the Criterion Channel. He has taught on the history of American queer cinema at NYU and the New School.

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Karen Black in Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)