Body Talk is an ongoing series of conversations between Caden Gardner and I about Transgender Cinema as we prepare to write a book on the subject. Part two is on the 1982 Robert Altman film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
CADEN GARDNER: Robert Altman’s 1982 film Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (an adaptation of a short-lived play by Ed Graczyk that Altman directed and most of the film’s original cast were in) was always intriguing to me as a title before I even saw it. I remember seeing a preview of it on the old version of AMC, when they were competing with Turner Classic Movies as a classic movie channel. I knew it was about a group of friends who loved James Dean and that Cher was in it. Those were the things I knew before Robert Altman, Karen Black, or Sandy Dennis officially being in my orbit as a cinephile. I was a James Dean fan first but never got around to watching it. That was before DVR and Tivo, but it’s a title (likely a play off of William Inge’s play Come Back Little Sheba) that stuck in my mind. Willow, how did you come across this film? For me, personally, even once I realize Altman directed this film, I still wasn’t urgent to check this out before say, McCabe & Mrs. Miller or The Long Goodbye.
Willow Maclay: I came to cinema through the internet for the most part by cutting my teeth on various film forums. The first of these was the now defunct Rotten Tomatoes message board. Over time that place became toxic and the majority of the members on that website who posted in social chat threads moved on to splinter forums of splinter forums, but throughout my entire time there I’ve been in contact with a handful of people for more than a decade now who have influenced my taste in movies to one degree or another. One of those people was film critic, Justine Smith. I immediately gravitated towards her taste in movies, because it felt parallel to my own interests as a cinephile. When I was younger I learned a lot about movies simply by looking up to people who I felt knew more than me, and over the years I’ve followed Justine’s writing, which I’ve always respected. I bring her up, because she’s vital in bringing the film to my attention. She wrote an essay for Sound on Sight (now popoptiq) that originally drew my attention to the film. It was the words “contextually sympathetic portrayal of a transgender character” that caught my eye. I had to watch this movie, because at the time I didn’t think I had seen much in the way of positive representations of transgender characters in cinema. It was Justine who initially brought the film to my attention through her writing and luckily I like the film and the character a lot more than she did.
CG: I too caught wind of the fact that Karen Black was portraying a transgender character before actually watching the film. By then I had acclimated myself into more works by Robert Altman, the major ones he had in the 1970s such as Nashville, 3 Women, McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I had been curious about how the character would be treated and also guarded. A director that was emerging as a favorite of mine was approaching this subject matter and character that has and still is under-represented. I haven’t watched Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons for reasons that amount to: I love Fassbinder, and I could see where he could be attracted to the subject matter of a trans woman. but I am not rushing to seek it out. I am skeptical, and afraid of feeling like I will not take to it, and that he may misfired on the subject matter and character. But Five & Dime was somewhat of an improvement for not portraying a trans woman as a man in drag, but instead having Black a cisgender woman play the role of a post-op trans woman.I had heard mixed word of the characterizations of Black, herself becoming a favorite of mine as I watched her turns in Five Easy Pieces and Nashville, being “exaggerated” but also heard that she played the character of Joanne with dignity. But it amounted to me finally seeing it and I was knocked out. Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is an ensemble film that wears its play roots proudly in staging and conceit, with the past and the then present, 1955 and 1975, in conversation with one another among a group of friends who have changed, have not changed, are facing disappointment, denial of reality, and trauma in different forms. It’s a film very much about womanhood and while there are a lot of knots in the conceit around Joanne that I do want to pick apart, I do want to say, I think the fact the film treats her journey and story with the same seriousness and being right alongside the stories of these other women for its time was impressive and refreshing.
WM: Come Back to the Five and Dime also wasn’t my first Robert Altman film. Not even close. I watched Nashville, 3 Women, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and even lesser movies like Thieves Like Us and Popeye before checking out 5 and Dime. If I had heard about Karen Black playing a trans woman earlier I likely would have gotten around to watching the film sooner, but I think coming to the movie later actually helped me appreciate it more, because I knew what to expect from a Robert Altman film. You’re absolutely right about the film wearing its stage play leanings right on its sleeve. When I watched the movie for the first time I was completely blown away by the image of Sandy Dennis’ character Mona reminiscing about old times while holding an old photograph of the Jimmy Dean Disciples and behind her through a mirror the moment that picture was taken plays out in real time. As if she’s bringing this memory to life. It’s a moment, and an image that still makes me cry to this day if I’m watching the movie. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and a pure cinematic conjuring of what I think this movie is ultimately going for in its winding narrative(s) and theater background.
I think what makes your final point so strong, and this movie in general, especially with regards to its place in something resembling a transgender canon, is that there is an equality in her struggles. She isn’t a sideshow or a sidekick narrative. It isn’t there for shock value or anything repulsive (which is fucking incredible for 1982). She’s there, because she was always a part of this sorority, and the film understands that while she has changed, and her relationship to these people has morphed into something different, there is still an essential familial connection that brings these people together despite their differences. To put it very bluntly she’s just one of the girls. Another woman in a narrative comprised entirely of them with the lone exception being the metaphysical ghost of James Dean.
CG: I definitely would have gotten to this movie earlier had I known about Karen Black’s character too. I keep thinking back to those old AMC promos that were promoting it in the early 2000s and thinking how none of it that, something that takes over the second-half of the film, is teased nor indicated. I remember looking at older reviews of the film and found the overly dismissive Vincent Canby review (that’s redundant) and he called Joanne’s ‘secret’ to be ‘the film’s biggest antclimax’. I’d like to know what the hell a climax is for Vincent Canby, but perhaps what surprised him was because the character of Joanne is not made out to be a joke or tragic figure or, as other transgender roles have been treated, a misunderstood martyr.
This is not to say Joanne is not misunderstood. The film does present her before being out as a trans woman and before transitioning as Joe (Mark Patton), who takes a lot of abuse from men and women for behavior that were these little steps Joanne made towards who she ultimately got to live her life as in full. In the flashbacks of Joe, known as the lone boy of the group at the time and wears nothing but overalls in the Texas heat- with the exception of The Disciples of James Dean red windbreaker that all the club members wear- cross-dressing is mentioned, name-calling that amount to referring to Joe as a woman are mentioned, and the fact Joe is in a group with Sandy Dennis’ Mona and Cher’s Sissy as a trio who perform songs of The McGuire Sisters, an all girl trio. Patton, best known as the lead in the cult classic and homoerotic A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, is not just simply a placeholder for Karen Black’s character to emerge from a shell. His body language and movements for the character of Joe are in conversation with Karen Black’s Joanne. Joe is not just a sissy but somebody with a lot of heart, pent up frustration, and hurt over being attacked and ostracized, and that does turn violent. Joe has had enough but not without trying to reach out to Mona, somebody who was protective of Joe (she says something to the effect that if God does not believe in Joe then she cannot believe in God). But her heart is with James Dean, who in the flashbacks is announced to be filming Giant in a town nearby the film’s setting of McCarthy, Texas and Mona desperately wants to be an extra on the film.
WM: You bring up Mark Patton and I want to talk about him a little bit. I got to know the actor first through A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, which is also a performance of anxieties surrounding a latent queerness the character is hiding within, and I was really struck by that performance. On top of being a great final girl, with a scream that could rip the paint off of a wall, he’s really great at conveying this deeply traumatic interior self due to real world circumstances of something he can’t really hide. As an actor, I think he’s brilliant in these two roles and I think they’re within the same ballpark and are strong for some of the same reasons. In A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 his anxieties surrounding his own queerness manifest itself through the body horror of becoming Freddy Krueger. Which is a brilliant play on internalized homophobia and the trauma of growing up queer. I’m not sure if the film has been reclaimed as a horror classic yet, but I think we’re definitely getting there and so much of that has to do with Mark Patton. It’s a great performance.
|A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
CG: To return back to the subject of martyrdom, James Dean is the ultimate martyr as a Christ-like figure for the story. There’s a cutout of him from Giant, not actually in the film, but in the promo stills, (a film that opened when Dean was already dead from a car accident) that hangs in the Five & Dime like Christ on a cross. Altman two decades earlier did The James Dean Story, an experimental documentary that dealt with James Dean’s instant fame and posthumous legend that surrounded him. That documentary, in fact, opens with the solemn film premiere of Giant where fans of Dean were gathered to see him one last time on-screen. With that, Altman was the perfect director to tap into this specific piece of fanaticism and cult figure/folk hero of James Dean that’s present in this play and film. Sandy Dennis’ Mona is teasingly referred to as Mona Magdalene by Cher’s Sissy for the fact that Sandy Dennis claimed to have mothered James Dean’s son, Jimmy Dean (who we never see). Her level of worship is something of a pathology that I do liken to a Tennessee Williams heroine and it is slowly revealed that she is in denial about Jimmy Dean’s parentage and quite possibly has denied her son, a son she claims to be mentally retarded, any agency as Sissy declares that the boy is normal and Mona mistreats him because the truth is, her Jimmy Dean is not the son of James Dean.
This revelation in other hands would probably be the most grotesque thing, but with Dennis’ the stuttering and bipolarity of the character feels real, sad, and tragic. Karen Black gives one of the great turns in all of film, but Dennis is just as good. Cher as Sissy is a strong-willed woman but has a lot of insecurities and disappointments that happen to her body and in her relationship with a lost lover. Like most of Cher’s on-screen roles, she’s tough and good-humored, but Cher always makes sure to slowly open up her vulnerabilities in a natural way. It arguably goes against the more theatrical and melodramatic arcs and performances of Dennis and Black, but for me it all works. There are so many shots of Cher just laying on a table absorbing the drama and tension that pervade the Five & Dime store, and it feels just right and true. Altman’s always been a great director of actresses and it makes sense that even though the play with this cast failed on stage that he believed in it enough to film them. These close-ups of Black, Dennis, and Cher just stick in my mind so much.
WM: I think you’re absolutely right here about the casting. There’s no one they could have hired who would have been better in these roles than Karen Black, Cher and Sandy Dennis.
I’m struck by Mark Patton’s turn in this film as well, as the earliest incarnation of Joanne. She is stricken with this very powerful sense of femininity that the character is unsure of engaging with on the same level as her friends. She knows that there’s this real struggle within herself to accommodate the belief systems of small town Bible Belt Texas with how she’s feeling herself. She’s the town queer and everyone knows it. Cis people know before we do sometimes. When I was in middle school I went by the name Chris, because my middle name used to be Christopher, and I was called Christine all the time and bullied endlessly for my own femininity. I think of the Laura Jane Grace lyric “they hold their breath not to catch your sick” on Transgender Dysphoria Blues and Patton is exemplary at locking into that mindset. I think he fundamentally understands that as an LGBT person himself. Joe’s really comfortable around other women, because the character Patton’s playing is one, but there’s also the weight of societal impositions holding Joe back, because it’s blatantly disgusting in the eyes of just about everybody in the 1950s to have been gay or transgender. Growing up in similar circumstances I can see a lot of myself in the characterization, but I don’t think it’s only great because of relatability. It’s wonderful, because there’s depth to what Patton is doing as an actor as it relates to his surroundings and the mindset of this young woman whose body and life are in chaos. I get that, and I think it’s a really potent idea with depth relating to transgender cinema specifically.
You bring up the fact that Patton and Karen are working together in unison. That’s a tremendous point, because in rewatching the film recently I got the sense that there was no disconnect between the two women I was seeing portrayed on screen. The body language is the same, the hesitation is identical and the shadow cast by Texas, time and trauma hangs over both in this very specific way that they both understand. Karen’s characterization is really beaten down by the years, but Patton’s is too. The thing about trans people is they’re born adults for better or worse stripped of a childhood in some cases, but more often than not aware of a problem within their body at a young age that works as a cross that no child should ever have to bear. I think both actors understand this somehow, because it’s very visible in the body language of their performances. Who would have thought a movie could have 2 good cisgender performances of transgender characters??? That’s almost unheard of.
CG: I remember trying to research the choices behind the casting of Joe and Joanne in the play and in the film. In the supplements of the film’s American BluRay, the writer Ed Graczyk is interviewed. He does not really go into why he wrote on a trans character but noted the casting process specified Joe was to be played by a man and Joanne would be played by a woman, with Altman and Graczyk both saying no to actress Sally Kellerman’s suggestion that she, up for the role of Joanne, could play both roles (this often is the norm for cis men in playing transwomen but later in 1986, there was that time Vanessa Redgrave in that TV movie on trans tennis player Renne Richards called Second Serve played Richards prior to transitioning and after). And, unfortunately, that is where my research dried up. The play and film did not really get enough exposure in its time to really hear more in-depth from both Patton and Black about their choices, any research Altman and Graczyk did, or if there was any assistance from trans women in the work.
I was always really struck with the understanding that both Patton and Black had about using their body and sense of alienation to really capture the trans experience, often posited as being defined by the transition. To transition medically is costly and is not available to a lot of trans people immediately. I myself am very lucky to have a job that won’t fire me for being trans and health insurance that helps pay for some but not all of my transition, but I had to save for years to be able to afford to do this. That’s not without sacrifice and feeling that in a lot of situations and opportunities that I had to make decisions out of survival and caution, holding back. Joanne is able to transition because she lucked out on her mother’s death giving her an inheritance of insurance money. It’s something that helped her medically transition and also saved her life, leave town and get away from people who only saw her as an object of scorn.
WM: I couldn’t really find anything either of these actors said about their roles in this film either or what went into their preparation or even why they wanted to play a transgender character. One unfortunate side effect of how slow general acceptance of transgender people has been is that Karen Black died before we were ever really a topic of discussion in the mainstream media. It’s a shame, because I think now is the time to reclaim 5 and Dime as a masterpiece and specifically her performance, but she won’t be here to see that happen. It’s really depressing.
CG: Let’s get into Joanne and Karen Black. What I love about Karen Black’s entrance in this film is her walking back into the Five & Dime, in a way, testing if she can be recognized. How stealth she is to this group, Mona later on projecting the image of Joe on Joanne. I think you asked me once about going stealth as far as simply presenting as male without my trans status known. I never answered you directly but it’s a complicated situation for me where, due to my circumstances of finances and certain securities that I do have, I have to stay where I am and that situation usually results in people who have known me for years see me going through ‘the change’. I’ve never gone through the level of trauma that Joanne has and know how lucky I am, but when I was beginning my transition and the coming out process there was this impulse that I had in grappling with, that if shit hits the fan, should I leave and could I leave my surroundings? That is often a trans narrative, and one I was privileged enough to work around, but has its continuous hiccups. I have friends and family who are slippery on pronouns and name, just like Joanne’s friends are with her in this film. We give those folks leeway because it’s not out of malice, and they are people we love and care about. Joanne is the same, she gives her friends some rope and is able to forgive, with the exceptions of a snicker of ‘Sister or Mister?’ query by Sissy where she gives a very controlled response of, ‘Sister!’ and when Kathy Bates’ Stella Mae makes invasive questions about whether or not, Joanne’s half-man/half-woman like she saw on TV (editor’s note: gotta love trans rep on tv!), Joanne, again, so cool and collected, states plainly, ‘Just tell them I’m a freak. They know what that is.’
WM: I think the thing I love the most about Karen Black’s performance, and I do think it’s the best ever given by a cisgender person playing a transgender role, is that she fundamentally understands the mindset of her character as it relates to her situation and her body. You’re absolutely right that she’s testing just how far she can go in terms of being “stealth”. Stealth for those of you who don’t know is a term we use when a person can function in society and be perceived as cisgender 100% of the time and for the most part rarely has to deal with the burdens of being transgender. I love her entrance, because she’s trampling through her old stomping ground and they can’t quite put their finger on why this woman feels familiar, but they immediately recognize her as a woman, and that’s very telling. They gender her correctly 100% of the time, and It only becomes more complicated in their eyes when she outs herself to them. I want to note that I love the way she does this with a wry little “surprise!”. This is hypothetically exactly the way I would out myself to old high school friends at a reunion if I were given the chance. That felt real as hell to me and definitely connected to transness in a way that few movies ever do about the subject. With her body I think she conveys these very specific notes and intricacies of our experiences. Notice the way she’s completely covered up despite having a body to die for. That’s left over internalized transphobia and body hatred. She only uses her body as a tool when she’s absolutely comfortable in the situation, and she knows that she can do that, but otherwise her flesh is guarded by cloth. I always like to note the scene where she’s posing by the jukebox and performing a kind of seductive burlesque as she tells a story about running into her abuser years later. The way she sashays her hips and runs her hands up her body is the flipside of this where she feels she has total control over her skin. That’s rare for a trans person, but not completely out of the question, but there’s a kind of unprecedented joy in knowing she has this power over herself she previously didn’t have at all. I love that. I’ve felt that myself after coming into my body.
I’m fortunate in the sense that I could go stealth, like Joanne, if I wanted to, and for all intents and purposes I am in day to day life. I’m perceived as a cisgender woman without fail, but I’m similar to Joanne in the sense that I got the fuck out of dodge and left my hometown in the dust. I also experienced a lot of really unfortunate instances of abuse by people back home so leaving was necessary. The Canadian healthcare system gave me easy, affordable access to hormones at an early age and I am grateful for the benefits I have up north, but I do recognize most folks do not have this option. I’m always curious about how my old hometown would feel walking in my own shoes with my perception now. Could I walk in front of family or friends and they have no idea who I am? Could I exist as a woman in a space I otherwise couldn’t earlier in my life? Could I have control where I couldn’t earlier in life? Joanne testing the waters of how she’s perceived where she grew up is the same thing. It’s a really interesting thought process and totally tied into how we’re perceived and what kinds of bodies are considered acceptable by society (being seen as cis gives us an extreme amount or privilege) and that in and of itself is extremely rare in cinema, especially about transgender people oddly enough. The question of transgender cinema, if you’re going to make a film about us, has to be centered around bodies. It’s the entire basis of why we’re different in the first place. That’s where transgender cinema has to go through, both in the perception of transgender people and the interiority of living with a transgender body.
CG: The, “surprise!” line is so amazing. Even just the first image of her looking into the window of the Five & Dime, with her sunglasses at the end of her nose to peek in is just a striking image. I joke it’s a, ‘Surprise, bitch!’ gesture but her purpose to be there is for the 20th anniversary re-congregation of The Disciples of James Dean, her one sense of community that she had and what we are led to guess from her expositions about life after McCarthy, Texas, her only real sense of community, for better and worse.
Going back to hearing original feedback of Black’s performance as Joanne being “exaggerated”, I get a little annoyed. I agree with you that for me she is in complete control of her body. She’s drunk at points in the film, so of course she’ll act a little looser but you feel this is a woman with poise, confidence, and some incredible inner-strength in coming back with a purpose in being accepted again by her tribe without compromise. And she is welcomed back. They love her. They have verbal spats and spars, but it does feel that Joanne is being entrapped by her own nostalgia. We know and can feel the pain and hurt that reverberates as she walks around the place and finds herself at odds with Mona’s mania, Juanita’s prejudices, and Sissy’s blind eye when talking about past events that involved her. You can argue she is hostile with Juanita in calling her dead husband a drunk, but her reasons and hurt are not unfounded. She is not without empathy towards the other women, she cries for Mona in realizing how delusional she is after witnessing that long-winded monologue of meeting James Dean and conceiving her son and she does cry again for Sissy’s own painful personal body revelations. Joanne is not the only story at play, yet she is central and intertwined equally with these other women because her story is a woman’s story.
CG cont. :I was thinking about this film a lot in relation to ever returning to reunions for college, my fifth reunion passed last year. While I have a few friends who know, a lot of people, people who I have admittedly let go of as I was experiencing this because it felt too complicated to let too many people in on, do not know. If I do ever return for a reunion, I expect I am going to think about Joanne. Hell, there are restaurants that I have returned to since transitioning and I keep wondering if I’ll be recognized or not, and I will think, ‘What would Joanne do?’ Joanne is just a character that will always be on my mind. One thing that is key for me in Black’s performance and in Altman’s directorial choices was the sense of the gaze being put on her. She can see Mona looking at her and seeing only Joe, and frankly, it gives her a headache. Ultimately that gaze and literal projection is no longer there. Joanne can look in the mirror, an effect that Altman uses to literally look into the past, and always see Joanne while others around her are still catching up.
This play and film gets some grief in feeling like a rehash of Tennessee Williams and William Inge (playwrights I adore, so of course I was going to love the shit out of this), characters full of trauma, mania, reflecting of mistakes, and the sense of ‘passing through’ melodramas that are Midwest and Southern regionally specific. I think perhaps a large part of the cis audience can miss what we find in this. Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean manages to treat the perceptions characters have on trans people and how a trans person reacts without feeling persecuted or bending to compromise honestly and realistically. Performance is key, of course, with Karen Black and Mark Patton serving Joanne and Joe so well as characters that are not two characters but of one whole person. They portray the rare trans character on-screen that, as a trans man, I strongly responded to in ways where so many other films with trans characters have failed. I also just want to say, I am sad Karen Black couldn’t live to see this movie get more attention. There’s a part of me that always wished I could thank her for this performance. I did notice Five & Dime was playing in Los Angeles during an Altman retrospective and I still feel like this film is ripe for discovery to so many people. It is a film that has many merits beyond the character of Joanne, but for me that character is the heart of the film and does deserve more attention for striking a rare and impressive sweet spot (and again, this was somehow in 1982).
WM: The film is absolutely about more than Joanne, but you’re right that she’s the focal point. I think everything hinges upon her return and reveal. The entire conversation and mood shifts around her, but the great thing about this movie is that even with Joanne as a centralizing figure where everything kind of runs through her we do get to know all of these other women so fully and intently. It’s a great women’s picture in the aftermath of new hollywood where masculinity kind of cleaved everything else away. I mentioned earlier that the best way to access something resembling successful transgender cinema is to make a film with bodies in mind, but in addition to that I think you need the fully fleshed out writing. A movie won’t be transphobic if the character is written well. I’m a firm believer in that notion and Joanne is absolutely stellar. As are her cisgender sisters, Mona, Sissy, Stella, Edna. All of them really. I think in this movie we fundamentally know all of these women in and out and how they function, and the actors to their credit are so instantly keyed in to these people that it feels like a hangout movie. A tense, oftentimes aggressive hangout movie, but time and unhealed wounds will do that to you.
Time and memory is what I wanted to bring up next. The film obviously, beautifully, conveys this nostalgic glow for a time of the past where things were maybe a little less complicated, for all but Joanne at least. What I love is that we can feel the passage of time through these characters, and with Altman’s filming techniques here we get this really harrowing sense of what exactly has damaged these people and how they do their best to recover and live through their own struggles.
The passage of time is this vital ingredient to transness. Sometimes we focus too much on a before and after, but in that time frame we come into ourselves and become the person we are. It’s like a shroud lifting. The complicated thing about this is that everything beforehand doesn’t just go away, and in this movie that’s reflected through memory and how these characters react to Joanne now considering the memories they have of her in the past. It’s this interesting dynamic where our lives in some respects don’t really start until transition, so there’s this wasted time and regrets of not having a fullness of life. At some point that has to be reconciled with some sort of observed or considered childhood even if it was compromised. I think Joanne accepts her life before she transitioned for what it was, but has regrets that it had to be life she had to live, and she had to leave the only family she ever knew. That’s a nuanced, complicated feeling that’s specific to our struggles and I think Karen Black absolutely nails it. I think this is what she’s referring to when she talks about “regrets” in the movie. Not that she transitioned, but that she was powerless to do anything about her situation beforehand. What do you think? What’s your interpretation of that thorny scene?
CG: When Joanne arrives in town and is just a stranger to Mona, she states, ‘Time is such a nebulous state to wait for’ to which Mona replies, ‘And patience, they say, is a virtue’. I am firmly in Joanne’s mindset. It can feel like such a haze to be in as far as trans experience. So often we see our stories fragmented as a before and after, that we have been corrected by certain therapies and procedures. But that is simplistic. We still carry parts of our past with us even if those past lives had a dissatisfaction and sense of feeling not whole. When I reached my understanding and was able to confront being trans, I felt like there was a sense of relief, but also a feeling that I am running behind (trans time is totally real) and have a lot of catching up to do in life. Time is such a nebulous state to wait for, and at a certain point you cannot wait, you gotta act and Joanne acts to be who she truly is.
You are referring to a scene where I believe Sissy asks if she regret transitioning and her response is a quick, ‘Only when I think about it.’ I’m sure there will be some trans people and cis allies who will have alarm bells go off in their brains during that scene, but for me that was a loaded question met with a loaded answer (and also Graczyk is a cis man, so it can be as simply true to just say he fumbled this a little and the rest of the text contradicts it). Joanne gets more and more comfortable being herself and it is clear she is of herself in a way that the many of the other women are not. Sissy has lost a lot and Mona has lost her mind and is possibly abusing and repressing her son. I would say of the trio, Joanne is in the best place. She came back to McCarthy in a goddamn yellow Porsche! But to answer your question directly, I think it is about the fact that what she had to lose and has regrets over that, even if I think Altman and Graczyk acknowledge that there is no way Joanne could have survived another moment in McCarthy. But I think about that last moment Joanne has with Mona, in being romantically rejected and that Mona began insisting the child they conceived together was instead a dead movie star’s child. That is rough and heartbreaking. To have a dead symbol favored over yourself and you were already psychologically struggling. I never experienced anything close to that in my life but I have a lot of regrets of people and opportunities that I have lost along the way because I was internalizing a lot of shame and embarrassment for identifying trans but feeling like I had nobody to turn to, even if the optics of my surroundings would lead people to believe the opposite. I cannot imagine being put into the position of answering people’s questions on my decisions and my gender identity, but people are nosy and curious. And we see Joanne has limits too, but that line about regrets is revealing. Joanne knows this wasn’t an all-curing experience and has complicated feelings. For her to be able to afford this, her mother died. She lost somebody who understood her, or at least a major part of her, and she lost her tribe, because to stay in McCarthy risked its own death sentence for her. So, the power she attains comes at a price, but she had no power prior. Joanne understands this, and seems to be introspective, and in constant meditation over it, another reason why I love her and relate to her.
WM: I think it’s vital to say that transitioning doesn’t fix everything, and I think that also ties into her line about “regrets”, because I know that the consideration with that line is a concern among some viewers, but I think hearing it within the whole context of the film it becomes more complicated than a simple answer would supply. You have to dig deeper. To transition is to save yourself at all costs, but along the way you’ll lose things as well. In my case I lost my hometown and my entire family. These are not easy things to deal with and it’s positively unfair. Like Joanne I knew that staying meant death for me, and I knew I was going to lose everything except myself. I’m fortunate because I’ve blossomed since then with my body nearly being where I want it to be and various other benefits, but I still carry around the scars of trauma and loss from my childhood. Joanne certainly does too. To me she feels like the most lived in transgender character I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen acted by a cis person OR a trans person. There’s something so pinpoint about her while also giving off this tremendous wellspring of gestures with her body and moments of clarity in her dialogue. I think one of the most beautiful things about this movie is that when she comes back things aren’t easy, and they’ve changed, but by the end of the movie it feels like she’s just one of the girls like it always has been. They don’t know how to talk to her because the language isn’t there, but the spirit is. She’s just one of them, and I find that really touching despite all the hell they go through in this haunted chamber piece of ghosts and memory. I think it’s really telling that even Juanita, who thumps her bible proud, refers to her as “miss” when all is said and done.
It’s this huge reconciliation and ultimately a hopeful moment for Joanne, and there’s not a lot of moments like that in other films about transgender characters where usually we come to the end of a film in a body bag or humiliated for the sake of gaining sympathy from cisgender viewers. It’s not a movie where it’s as simple as saying it’s a nice portrayal, because this is a messy, complicated movie, but it’s also compassionate and with a master like Altman at the helm it’s so finely attuned to detail and people. And that’s all we really want to be in movies is just people. Not a thing or a trope or an idea so you can pat your back for having liberal politics, but a person. A human being.
CG: I love that final interaction with Juanita. We see Joanne reach for Juanita in a small prayer, but rejected (it’s so subtle and Cher is talking during this moment, so your attention veers towards Cher but it happens and it feels so true, honest, and sad all at once). But she gets affirmed from Juanita in being called “Miss” while at the same time, Juanita still not able to extend her hand too far. She is God-fearing woman who once feared Joanne to be a communist and yet when faced with her in the now, she does begrudgingly accept her in her own stubborn way with still some ways to go. Yet, as you mentioned, Joanne is accepted by these women, who have not seen her in 20 years. Mostly because she is more of the fully formed, more vibrant version of the person they had always loved. We as the audience feel that and understand that because of masterful approach in direction and performance. The interpersonal dynamics in this have touches of melodrama and theatricality, tied to its play origins, and yet, for me it does feel lived in. You feel like these characters are carrying regrets and belief systems that have been damaged and adjusted over time while also carrying those same stubborn thoughts that they had in 1955. This film as you noted is a hangout movie with hostilities but they are hostilities that come with people you know and love, and with a trans woman at the center it was a Robert Altman film in the 1980s that had an opening space to see a character that we transgender people can identify with, one that was treated like a real person, and played with understanding and nuance that should not be rare, but with that rarity, I treasure it even more.
For additional reading you can check out Caden’s piece on the film, James Dean and Giant here