By Craig Leask
In 1983 the age of the Yuppie was just beginning its rise. Thirty-something individuals had become focused and obsessed with success and all of the material trappings that came along with it. These are the same people who had protested in the 1960’s against established institutions, conformity and all things government, and it is these people who are the focus of Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill. The film not only mourns the demise of “The Summer of Love”, it confronts the beginning of the yuppie era, while asking the questions of “what happened to us” and “who are we now”.
The film follows a group of close knit, formerly rebellious college friends who had connected during the 1960’s while studying at the University of Michigan, as they reconvene 15 years after graduation for the funeral of one of their group. Following the eulogy at a small picturesque Baptist church in South Carolina, Karen (JoBeth Williams) approaches the church organ and begins to play The Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, which is oddly ironic considering their friend’s death was a suicide. This moment, and this particular song, foreshadows the theme of their upcoming reunion weekend at an idealistic antebellum vacation house in Beaufort.
The group comprises of seven relatively successful friends who have all abandoned the social idealism and beliefs of their youth in their pursuit of happiness via the all mighty dollar. Each character’s personality is cleverly introduced in an early montage through a voyeuristic view of the personal items each are packing for the weekend. The entire scene is set to Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard it Through The Grapevine” which introduces the films perfect Motown soundtrack.
Each of the characters have found their own successes and disappointments in life and, through the brilliance of Lawrence Kasdan’s and Barbara Benedek’s screenplay, each character is provided with at least one big scene through which to build their story. Each of the friends begin to question the choices they had made, discuss where their lives have led and speculate on what happened to the idealism of their youth. Writer and director Lawrence Kasdan revealed that in developing the screenplay, he based the characters on people he knew from his days boarding at the Eugene V. Debs Cooperative House while studying at the University of Michigan.
The viewer is introduced to each character who, throughout the film, reveals their inner feelings, desires and disappointments: Sam (Tom Berenger) is a Magnum P.I. type television actor who feels his work lacks meaning and purpose; Michael (Jeff Goldbum) is a journalist who has given up dreams of becoming a novelist, instead writing for People Magazine and holds aspirations of opening the club he dreamed about while at school; Meg (Mary Kay Place), a former public defender who claimed her clients were basically scum and were usually guilty, is now a successful corporate attorney, reasoning that she made the transition as “their offices were clean and their clients were only raping the land”. We learn through the course of the film that Meg’s career aspirations had overshadowed her ability to have a child which she is greatly regretting; Karen (JoBeth Williams) had aspired to become a writer, yet abandoned her dreams for the security of a loveless marriage with a successful businessman (Don Galloway); Nick (William Hurt) a former Vietnam vet who had once been a radio personality psychologist pursuing his doctorate in psychology, threw everything away to float aimlessly, surviving through selling and using illicit drugs.
The most stable (and most affluent) of the group are Sarah (Glenn Close), a physician and her husband Harold (Kevin Kline) a businessman and owner of a chain of sporting goods stores. Together they have a couple of children and a couple of houses, but their lives are not as perfect as they appear as demonstrated by the admission of an earlier and hurtful affair Sarah had had with the now deceased Alex.
Alex Marshall, played by an uncredited Kevin Costner, is the only one of the group who stayed true to the ideals of his youth, turning down a prestigious and career-launching fellowship at Rutledge, choosing instead to stay with his dedication to social work. Alex had retained his original life path resisting corporate pressures. He was lost, disillusioned and the only one of the group who ended up taking his own life as a result.
And finally there is Chloe (Meg Tilly), Alex’s much younger and intellectually naive girlfriend who represents the innocence of a younger generation and the idealistic values the group has inadvertently and cynically lost.
The entire movie revolves around the suicide of Alex, the unseen college friend whose funeral is the catalyst for the reunion weekend. The character of Alex was originally planned to be shown throughout the film in flashbacks providing actor Kevin Costner with a career launching break. Director Kasdan, after viewing the rushes, realized the flashback scenes added confusion to the plot rather than adding structure to the movie’s storyline. As a result, only Costner’s wrists and feet made it into the movie.
When first released in 1983 The Big Chill really connected with thirty something boomers taking them back to a place in time, ideals and feelings long forgotten. The film resonated for them as it was about them, their relationships and their peers. It seemed to legitimize their own sense of disillusionment and longing for the simplistic and idealistic time of their youth – before life got crazy and working to pay bills took precedent over fulfilling aspirations and before dreams were cast aside as childish fantasies. Life had morphed before they knew it and it made perfect sense to mourn the loss of that idealistic world. Interestingly, in 1979 John Sayles had a similar story to tell in his Return Of The Secaucus 7, a film which explored very similar relationships and a sense of nostalgia with a group of friends over the course of a weekend. Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan however had adamantly denied having seen Return of the Secaucus 7 prior to working on the oddly similar The Big Chill.
What makes this movie a success is not the story – in actuality, there really is no story. It is the combination of the acting, the setting, the soundtrack and most importantly, the dialogue. Watching The Big Chill one has the honest feeling of friends who have shared a common history. A fictional bond established through the direction of Kasdan who instructed the cast to spend an evening in character making and sharing a dinner. This allowed for a five-hour opportunity for the ensemble to establish their own rapport while in character, without interference from the writer or director. This formed the basis of the famous scene of the group rocking around the kitchen to The Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”. The scene was credited for boosting The Big Chill soundtrack into the top 20 on the Billboard chart in 1983.
I have to be perfectly honest in revealing that in re-watching The Big Chill in preparation for writing this article, I started to get a little miffed at the pettiness of each of the character’s self-induced hardships – the sense that their hopes and dreams had been lost and their ideals had been betrayed as if they had become inadvertent victims in life’s cruel plan. Thereby they take no real ownership of their own unhappiness or sense of disillusionment and take no real action to make a change. In the end, nothing is really discovered, or settled as they all leave and head back into their previous lives. At first, I thought this was a real weakness of the film, but perhaps this is in actuality the movie’s real message.
The Big Chill was adapted for television as Hometown (1985-86), a series which failed to find an audience and lasted only 9 episodes. A subsequent effort resulted in the much better received TV series Thirtysomething (1987-91).
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.