By John H. Foote
23. THE BIG CHILL (1983)
After his success with Body Heat (1981), the electrifying film noir, Lawrence Kasdan turned his attentions to a very different group of people. Gathering for a funeral of one of their own who has taken his life, they are adults who were best friends during their college years in the sixties, a time of great change. At their gathering for the weekend we realize how terribly desperate they are for their lives to have meaning. Not just meaning, but deep life altering meaning. Each is terrified they are sellouts in some way, and they spend the weekend remembering their dead friend Alex (Kevin Costner), smoking pot, eating and drinking, arguing, and playing music from their youth.
The Big Chill was one of the big premieres to land at the Toronto International Film Festival, exploding out of the then named Festival of Festivals, all the way to the Oscar race with a nomination for Best Picture. It is a beautifully acted, directed and written film, a solid study of human behavior and perhaps even familiar to us because if we went to college, those friends then were the best we ever had, loyal, steadfast to the end. At least mine are. Watching The Big Chill it is easy to think back and imagine Dan Woods (Degrassi Mr. Raditch), Kevin Fox, Kevin McDonald (yes, Kids in the Hall Kevin), Ian, Sharon, Gillian and I hanging out talking about our lives and our dreams. Artists, actors and a director all, those were the some of the best times of my life. When my wife died, they gathered around me like a protective shield, and a few years later we did the same for Danny, and a couple years later for Kevin Fox. Yes, three of our happy group are widowers, and we landed in the love and warm embrace of these friends from 40 years ago.
The film opens with the song “You Can’t Always Get What you Want” by the Rolling Stones as the friends gather for Alex’s funeral, after the opening credits have also shown the undertaker dressing Alex, carefully covering the vertical slashes on his wrists – he meant business. Sam (Kevin Kline) speaks of his friend, and then they gather back at Sam’s home which he shares with his wife Sarah (Glenn Close). Sam owns a running shoe company, something big such as Reebok, about to go public and bring in untold millions, while Sarah is a doctor. They are affluent and well known and respected in the community.
Their guests are all old college friends, whom they consider family. There is Sam (Tom Berenger) who has found success on TV as a sort of Magnum PI detective on a show called J.T. Lancer, and Karen (JoBeth Williams) who was always hot for Sam, but nothing was never consummated. In tow with Karen, and not particularly liked or wanted there is her husband, the dreary Richard (Don Galloway). Meg (Mary Kay Place) is an unmarried, childless lawyer defending the scum of the streets, much to her shame, while Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is a writer for “People” magazine, though there are snickers from all when he calls himself a journalist given the publication he writes for.
Nick (William Hurt) is the most damaged of the group, both physically and mentally, wounded in Vietnam, and left impotent – without his equipment he appears to drift through his life struggling financially and dealing drugs. He was once a famous gonzo radio D.J. and had quite a following for his acerbic advice. Among them was Alex’s much younger and very lovely girlfriend Chloe (Meg Tilly), who despite a 10 or so year age difference, loved Alex very much. They lived close to Harold and Sarah, and the hosting couple are trying to build their marriage back after an affair Sarah had with Alex. Interestingly the affair is no secret to any of their friends, all who believe they were on the path to it since their college days.
Over the course of the weekend, profound moments come to each of the characters. Sarah, in a profound act of love, asks Harold to father a child with Meg, loving him enough at last to know he can do this. Michael comes to terms with his dead-end career at “People” and longs for substantial writing. Sam and Karen hook up, but the next day it is as if nothing happened, and clearly she is returning to Richard, despite Sam wanting her. And Nick, poor damaged Nick, finds a former fan in Chloe, and a kindred spirit who sleeps with him knowing she cannot pleasure him, but he can her. They rekindle the bond they once had and, though Harold And Nick have a nasty battle over Nick being arrested for being a smartass to a local cop, they make amends. After establishing a deep connection between one another, Nick and Chloe decide to stay and finish the cottage she and Alex were building.
His presence haunting the film, it is interesting Alex was the glue that kept the group together in the sixties and brings them back together years later, holding them together as family.
I suppose the least likable character among the group is Michael, who is both lecherous and self-absorbed, the entire world revolves around him. Jeff Goldblum, in one of his finest performances, plays him as such, but also is rather sad because he is never sure if he belongs.
Nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Glenn Close is very good as Sarah, the kind and decent doctor who sees a chance to help her friend Meg, allowing her husband to impregnate her friend, but also a chance to give back to Harold, making up, she hopes, for her affair with the late Alex. It is a fine performance but not so very different from a string of characters Close would portray giving her a mother earth reputation, which she shattered with Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988).
The finest performance in the film came from William Hurt as the damaged, cocky Nick to whom laws mean nothing, who is drifting through his life after Vietnam looking for something he cannot find. Often very funny, he explodes in delight at the chance to watch JT Lancer, Sam’s TV show, with his friends, and after holding up his fists to fight Harold, in a mocking way, bolts. Watch him put on the running shows Harold has delivered for all of them, watch the absolute delight he takes in putting them on and standing in them, taking a step before announcing he loves them and is never taking them off. His crazy interview with himself, or a version of himself which he records on video thinking no one is listening is hilarious, but his connection with the much younger Chloe is deep, on a soulful level. Two wounded people somehow find each other and know inherently they can heal each other if given time. Hurt too deserved a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, brilliant and this went along in establishing him as this generation’s finest new actor.
Kevin Kline, Tom Berenger, JoBeth Williams and Mary Kay Place do exceptional work, for each of them no surprise as they are all wonderful actors, but aside from Kline we never really see deep into their characters. The attempt is there, just not the desired results.
Kasdan filled the film with many iconic, intimate moments, beginning with the group doing the dishes after their first meal together, rocking in the kitchen. In Harold’s home, only sixties music is played, stuck in time. Many of them believe their best years were together at the University of Michigan, that they peaked then. Alex, was on a downward spiral after school, never recovering, never finding the brilliance he had as a student. Another beautiful scene is Nick and Chloe just talking, until her eyes fill with tears, and he realizes there is so much more to this wounded girl, so well played by the elegant Meg Tilly, than he first thought.
The Big Chill won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, which began the tradition of that award almost always leading to an Academy Award nomination as Best Picture. The Big Chill earned three Oscar nominations – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. Had the Screen Actors Guild been established at that time, it seems likely the film would have been nominated for Best Ensemble as it remains one of the greatest ensemble films of the decade.
Watching The Big Chill, I immediately smile at once. In each of them I see what my college was together back in the eighties when we were together. Filled with hopes and dreams of the future, were we our best selves then? No, I think we all became better people as time marched on, just as I think the characters within The Big Chill are better people at the time of their gathering for the funeral. The ghost of Alex is what holds them together, and even when Alex was still alive one of them muses, “We lost Alex a long time ago”. True words. The film feels like nostalgia, it defines friendship, forgiveness, and love. That was what the sixties were all about.
Were the eighties?
Kasdan has had an up and down career as a filmmaker, helming after this film, Silverado (1985), The Accidental Tourist (1988) which isarguably his finest film, again with William Hurt, and then failed with I Love You to Death (1990), Grand Canyon (1991), Wyatt Earp (1994), French Kiss (1995) and more recently Darling Companion (2012). Before he began directing he was highly regarded as a screenwriter, working on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) for George Lucas, returning for the Star Wars series with Star Wars – The Force Awakens (2015).
Considered one of the rising directing talents in the eighties, he never really achieved being permitted into the upper echelon.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.