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The Performances I Love: Karen Black in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean”

Karen Black as Joanne

Karen Black’s performance as Joanne in Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982) is the only trans performance by a cisgender person that I love with no reservations. Her work is so precise and hyper-specific that I still wonder to this day how she got to a place that feels so naturalistic in its understanding of transness. Karen Black was not a trans woman, and her work prior to this role was usually more acidic with an outward comfort in playing proud women who were sidekicks for men and their problems like Jack Nicholson’s Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces (1970) or her last act arrival in Easy Rider (1969). but with this performance she is dominant, commanding and whole. It is the finest of her career.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was a stage play before Altman adapted it into a one-set film with a gimmicked mirror to elucidate the shift between past and present. In this movie a gang of women who were in a club called “The Disciples of James Dean” are reuniting twenty years after the death of the actor in their small town of Woolworth, Texas. But there is something the other women don’t know, and it’s that their old friend Joe (Mark Patton, who is great here) is now going by Joanne, and her transformation acts like a lightning bolt of passed time for all these women. With Joanne’s arrival all the old wounds of the past bleed again, and everything these women wish they could have changed or done differently is brought to the forefront. This is the rare film from the 1980s that uses transness as a fulcrum for greater plot embellishment and drama, but does so in a way that allows its trans character to remain a person, and not a convenience. Joanne is not a saint, and she is not a deviant. She’s a woman with baggage, just like everyone else in this movie.

Before Joanne arrives at the old 5 and Dime storefront where the reunion is set to take place her past is recollected upon by her friend Mona (Sandy Dennis). Years ago Joanne stocked the shelves and mopped the floors and was just another one of the girls, but that was a problem in Texas in the 1950s. Hell, it’s a problem in Texas in 2021. She gabbed out about James Dean just like the others and took a road-trip with Mona up to where they were filming Giant (1955, Dean’s last role) in order to take a chance at being in the movie alongside him. In their downtime Jo, Mona and Sissy (Cher, in an incredible debut) liked to sing the songs of the McGuire Sisters and took it one step further by dolling Jo up in a wig and a dress to better play the part for a high school talent show. “He looks so good as a girl”, Mona would say, and it all seemed so very natural that their friendship would result in the trust necessary for Jo to reveal herself in small ways. But the dress was too far and the Bible bent down on Jo’s life and would have eventually ended it had she not gotten out of town all those years ago. Altman deploys this trauma of queerness in spaces where queerness cannot thrive through the loving memory of friends who didn’t know any better, who fought for their friend in little ways, but couldn’t create a home in the minds of bigots who already had their minds made up. But on this hot day in 1975 Joanne is back in town. She hasn’t seen her friends in 20 years and while she’s spent a lifetime coming out of the closet, as all queer people experience, doing so here is a cautious endeavor, because these people mattered to her at one time. They mattered to her a great deal. She wouldn’t be there if they didn’t.

Karen Black plays her first scene with an anxious curiosity. She’s quiet and careful around her words, because she knows that Joanne can only harness her anonymity for a short period of time, before everyone finds out her identity. She walks gently through the corner store, looking downward, as if the weight of the past were flooding back to her. Black’s voice is a little uncertain, shaky, and skids along the banks of tone and register. Trans women usually have two voices; one is casual, usually deeper, and allowed only among friends, while the other is for protection, higher in register, and a performed femininity. This was especially true in the 1980s and the decades prior where social conditioning was a prerequisite to medical transitioning and it is only a recent phenomenon that trans women do not have to “perform” their gender for years before being allowed to have hormones and surgery. This is still the case in some less developed countries like Great Britain. Black’s voice is purposefully faulty, and affected, it’s a little deeper than her usual register in other movies, but only slightly so. She knows that this character is a woman and not a man, so she doesn’t reach for easier performance notes that would make the character feel like a draq queen. Instead, she is operating in the vein of a stealth trans woman, whose transness isn’t entirely visible, but even so, Mona still remarks that her voice is “peculiar” and “strange”. After Joanne stops in her tracks at the shrine of James Dean, Karen Black’s shoulders fall ever so slightly, as if she can relax, because she’s finally found something familiar in her old stomping ground. This isn’t a broad physical response, but something careful and unconscious that makes sense for the character, but it is also mournful in some respects, because it is here where Joanne stops and stares the longest. It’s nostalgic with the briefest notes of tragedy, as if Mary Magdelene had come upon a stained-glass monument of Christ. Her entire past is right there on the surface, and physical, in this collage of James Dean, and she takes out a cigarette to calm herself in the routine of a comforting familiar habit, amid the chaos of her repressed emotions.

The beauty of this scene and her performance in general is witnessing Black’s control of technique. With trans characters in cisgender spaces the actor has to be performing on top of performing. Her inner truth is buried under two layers of performance (the acting and the performed gender role)and it is that much more difficult for the organic liquid quality of becoming the character to rise up out of the knitted fabric of artificiality. There is what the trans person wants to present and who the trans person actually would be if they were more comfortable, and Black’s interpretation of Joanne is exhausted and made weary with this complication. It is paramount when playing a trans woman that the additional layer of performative femininity also be among the stew of characterization and Black understands this as a cis woman, and applies it to Joanne with a stiff, regimented quality that makes her a monument to her own identity so that it could not be argued with. Joanne is almost never loose, but hyper-aware of her surroundings and everyone therein, because she is a trans woman for whom passing as cisgender is necessary. Even so she knows that eventually her identity will become carnival-esque and transgressive in her old hometown. This is familiar for her, and Black understands this somehow, as if something wounded in her own experiences could allow her a way into this character that feels right.

When Joanne mentions Mona’s son, who is thought to be the heir of James Dean, her poker face can’t hold back her own sadness. Black’s work as Joanne frequently pushes emotions down, something her character probably learned to do as a boy, and is brushing up against the jagged edges of the trauma of her character. Joanne can’t allow herself to get too closet to what hurts her, at least not while she’s sober, so Black will oftentimes look away to compose herself, and pull up a shield for the bigger emotions she wants to hide. In some ways this is a type of closeting, because she’s allowing Joanne to unconsciously work at lying to herself that it doesn’t hurt, but the acting is so careful that emotions slip to the surface that are only visible for the briefest of periods before they’re tampered down again. Joanne “fathered” Jimmy Dean, and was Mona’s own image of lust for the actor that she could transplant onto the body of Mark Patton’s adolescent queerness. James Dean’s own tragic, worn-down melodrama of testosterone was queer in its own right. His method acting being the emotionally sensitive, touchy feely stuff that wasn’t available with your John Wayne’s and Jimmy Stewart’s of Hollywood’s previous years. His emotional availability made him especially admirable to teenage girls, because he was like a little wounded puppy that could be mothered back to health, and maybe Mona saw that in Jo too, but where James Dean’s identity was only ever in question in the acting sense, Jo’s was shifting into a feminine life-raft that would be the cause of and solution to all of her problems.

When Joanne hears about Jimmy Dean, she cannot help but feel neglect for the child she left behind to pursue her own womanhood. She is wounded in this respect, and a beautifully queer complication arises in this theory of parenthood for trans women, because if child-bearing is seen as an essential part of being a woman by many, then what does it mean for a trans woman to have produced a child, while not being the mother? It’s all too much to bear for Joanne, and some of this is kept private in the internal process of her own thoughts with Black’s choice to corner off certain aspects of the character. She doesn’t give away the answers to this problem. We only know that she is pained by its existence. When she is asked later by Stella May (Kathy Bates) if she regrets anything the closest that Joanne comes to revealing how she really really feels is when she says “only when I think about it”. On the surface it seems to say that she regrets her transition, but this is a barbed wire line-reading whose tangled, sharp knots, reveal the complexities of trans womanhood. We are expected to state that being a woman is the best decision of our lives, and that we are grateful and humbled to be considered as such, but the realities of womanhood for someone who is trans are far sharper than would imply a life without regret. It isn’t the transition itself that is regretful, but much of what resides around it, like the loss of family, of opportunity, and the humanity afforded to cis people. The trauma that one endures through transition does not always equal a death from society or that of medical limitations, as Hollywood likes to suggest, but a cold, numbing, relentless gaze that renders transness separate in the definitive ways of comfort afforded to cis people.

Ironically it is Joanne’s necessary reshaping of her own life that acts as a dividing rod between the other women at the reunion. They see in her a mammoth change and begin to question how they’ve evolved or stagnated in the past twenty years. For some of these characters we don’t get as much information like Stella May, who teases and prods with a good-natured sense of bile, and Edna Louise (Marta Heflin), who has devoted her life to being a mother, and is once again pregnant. Edna Louise and Joanne share one scene together where Joanne remarks that Edna glows brighter than the rest. I believe this is due to Edna knowing what she wanted and the satisfaction she has in her own life. She didn’t need to change much, because she’s doing what she wished, even if it is the humble devotion of motherhood. It’s not a coincidence that Edna seems to see that same sense of satisfaction in body with Joanne either, and her departure results in a goodbye where Edna remarks that Joanne is a very nice lady. Sissy and Mona are the most damaged among the lot, with each having their identities ruptured in ways small and large. There’s a wonderful synchronicity in their shared problems, and it is each separate aspect of womanhood that sews the group together again. They’re all so very different from one another, but they can understand each other’s problems, because there’s a base level empathy between women who grew up as friends. Even with something as titanic as time and loss standing between them they still reverberate off of one another like old times.

Altman’s usage of a two-way gimmicked mirror to shift between past and present also, perhaps unintentionally, reflects a specificity about transness. When you are transgender you become precisely aware of time spent and time lost, and are forced to rummage through the past for what you want to keep when becoming yourself. With the two way mirror we can easily see the direct line between Mark Patton’s Joe and Karen Black’s Joanne. The only mistake of the movie is in the loose underlining that a specific moment of abuse may have caused Joanne to choose to become a woman, when it is made obvious in Patton’s uncomfortable depiction of masculinity. This also allows for Karen Black’s performance to resonate more strongly between eras, because she can use Patton’s mannerisms to inform her own. You can see between them a woman stretching to reinforce her gender role in a pained, elaborate way among her friends, because she’s trying to remove the past from her body, but Black does little things with her eyes that give away who she is, and Altman even goes about superimposing an image of Patton onto her body on more than one occasion. Before she came out, and she does so like that of a model popping out of a birthday cake, her friends said that there was something “strangely familiar” about Joanne. It’s a testament to the work of both Black and Patton that we can see why their friends felt that way.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is one of my favourite films, because it presents a full picture of transness in its form of time and mirrors, and with the performances of Mark Patton and Karen Black. Usually in movies about trans women only a fraction of the woman is shown, and most commonly this is rooted in death, or the start of transition, or both. It is rare to see a trans woman through the ages that suggests so clearly she has a life to live beyond the film. In the movies trans women are like James Dean; beguiling, curious, gravitational, and not meant to last. Karen Black’s Joanne is all of those things too; no wonder Mona could see James Dean in the girl she loved, but Joanne carries on, and seeing this performance not long after I came out gave me hope that I could too.

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is playing virtually at the Metrograph on May 27th at 9:30 pm. Michael Koresky, Caden Mark Gardner and Myself recorded a conversation that will be airing alongside the film.  

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