September 30, 1955 (1977)

“Jimmy J. and Billie Jean are just exactly alike. All they do is talk about movies and movie stars, ’til you think there’s nothin’ else. They go off to the movies — they come back and act out the movies. Life imitates art around here, let me tell you.”

Synopsis:
Teenager “Jimmy J.” (Richard Thomas) is devastated when he hears the news of James Dean’s untimely death. He and his ex-girlfriend (Lisa Blount) host a late-night vigil in Dean’s honor, which quickly turns to tragedy.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
While Peary claims that this “odd film” makes for “uncomfortable viewing”, I disagree. Unlike Peary, I didn’t find it “hard not to get exasperated with Jimmy J.”, and, while the “concept of star-worship and star-identification” is indeed “scary”, I didn’t necessarily think that Jimmy could have controlled his grief any better. Indeed, Jimmy’s idolatry of Dean reflects the need we all have to project our fantasies and fears onto larger-than-life heroes — and his grief rings true. As Peary notes, “What’s most striking is how the film conveys the sadness, loneliness, and frustration that a teenager feels when no one shares his emotions about something meaningful.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The opening scene, as Jimmy J. is watching East of Eden for the third time
  • The final scene, when Jimmy J. describes Rebel Without a Cause to Billie Jean

Must See?
No, but it’s worth seeking out.

Links:

One Response to “September 30, 1955 (1977)”

  1. A once-must – as a unique film almost totally aiming for the hearts of real ffs.

    First viewing.

    This very obscure flick walks on very tricky terrain and, had it been handled with pedestrian care, could easily be seen as a complete embarrassment. It’s testament to all those involved in it that this is not the case.

    On seeing this film, many viewers these days could possibly find themselves reacting as some of Jimmy J.’s friends do – why get so upset over the death of a movie star? Some may not fully realize the kind of force James Dean was when he burst on the screen scene with three major, back-to-back films (by three top directors) – only one of which was released before his death. At least two of them – ‘East of Eden’ and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ – spoke volumes to a whole generation of teenagers, represented by this film’s protagonist. Off-screen, Dean may or may not have been the kind of person one would want to pal around with. But, as an actor, he gave voice to what many young people of his era were privately thrashing around in their minds.

    As the Dean wannabe, Thomas actually does some of his best work here (on the level of his memorable performance in ‘Last Summer’). In fact, director/screenwriter James Bridges does a fine job with the entire cast. In a small but significant role as Jimmy J.’s mom, Collin Wilcox (Mayella in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’!) is quietly controlled and effective. Given a rare opportunity to be seen as attractive and warm, Susan Tyrrell is refreshing as Billie Jean’s mom. As Billie Jean, Blount is appropriately sensitive, internal and withdrawn (and, as a goth, will remind viewers of Winona Ryder in ‘Beetlejuice’).

    But I suppose – aside from the specter of James Dean – the real ‘star’ here is the way the film is served up. Attention to both period detail and sentiment are spot-on. Composer Leonard Rosenman – who scored both ‘East of Eden’ and ‘Rebel’ – was cleverly brought on-board. Best of all, the film gets an exquisite look thanks to DP Gordon Willis (sandwiching this project in between frequent-collaborator Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Interiors’). [While watching this, I wondered what kind of elevated look Willis might have brought to Bridges’ ‘Mike’s Murder’, had he shot that.]

    No, this is not a great movie – and most will probably see it as once-and-done – but it does succeed in its elegiac depiction of a specific time.

    RIP Susan Tyrrell 6/16/12

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