A note from Lindsey: I couldn’t resist the temptation to be a total cornball and post a review of a movie with “September 30” in the title on September 30. Please forgive me.
When we meet Arkansas undergrad Jimmy J. (Richard Thomas), he is enraptured by a film, so wrapped up in the power of it that he gets teary-eyed. He’s sitting in a theater watching the latest James Dean film, East of Eden — a pretty normal thing for a teen boy to be doing on an average night in 1955, though his reaction is stronger than most.
We will soon learn that Jimmy is no average movie-goer, though. He’s a James Dean superfan, idolizing the actor.
A short time later, on September 30, 1955, Jimmy is at sports practice when he hears on the radio that James Dean has died. The news sends him into a frenzy, along with his film-obsessed friend Billie Jean (Lisa Blount, in her debut role). Jimmy and his friends (Deborah Benson, Dennis Christopher, Tom Hulce, Dennis Quaid etc.) decide to hold a wake for Dean, which takes a tragic and boozy turn.
James Bridges (the man who brought us Urban Cowboy) wrote and directed 1977’s September 30, 1955.
I find the premise of this film to be fascinating. Though it was released over 30 years ago and is set nearly sixty years ago, its commentary on movie stardom and fandom is even more relevant today than it was in 1977 or 1955. I can only imagine how much crazier, how much more obsessed Jimmy would have been with James Dean if he’d had access to Tumblr, Wikipedia, IMDb, blogs, fansites and all of the other treasure troves of fan obsession that the internet holds.
The commentary is largely made through the character of Jimmy himself, through his own dialogue. He describes feeling “robbed” of all of the great things James Dean could have accomplished had he survived, pointing out the selfishness of fanatics. He describes feeling weird for reacting so strongly to James’ death, fully acknowledging that it isn’t “normal” to be so attached to films or film stars. He and Billie Jean both see it as a “sign” when they try to connect with James’ spirit and hear dogs barking, emphasizing the illogical and, again, abnormal qualities of super-fanship.
Though I don’t feel as strongly as Jimmy about any certain actor/actress/celebrity, I’m hesitant to call him out as completely crazy. Everyone sees him as a little bit nutty, and in that sense I can relate to him. After all, I run a blog about films nearly as old as my grandparents and watch more films in a month than some people see in an entire year. Some people would consider me “obsessed,” and I’ve been asked on more than one occasion, “Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?”
I’m inclined to wonder if this film seemed strange or overly melodramatic to audiences of 1977. In today’s world, we’re at the very least accustomed to seeing news stories about the crazy things fans do. On top of that, many of us have taken part in or witnessed some sort of fan activity, be it blogging or attending festivals and conventions. How common was it, before the internet, for fans as devoted as Jimmy and Billie Jean to exist? Has this type of fan always been around in some form, with the internet only making us more aware of them? There were clubs and zines and gossip for fans to enjoy, and we remember the frenzied young girls who swarmed Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles during the height of their popularity, but how common were truly obsessive, Jimmy-esque characters?
As I’m sure you can tell by now, September 30, 1955 was a surprisingly thought-provoking watch for me, as well as entertaining. Richard Thomas and Lisa Blount give great performances, and the film also captures the period decently. I would definitely consider it worthy of a watch; for anyone interested, it’s available for streaming on Netflix (free with subscription) and Amazon ($2.99 for a 48-hour rental).