by Billie Doux
"It's a cold world out there. Sometimes I feel like I'm getting a little frosty myself."
This is one of my absolute favorite movies. I've watched it over a dozen times, and I've loved it, every single time.
The Big Chill is about a circle of old college friends reuniting at the funeral of one of their own, who has committed suicide. They spend the weekend together revisiting their past closeness. There is grief. There is sex. There are one-liners. But what The Big Chill is really about is how the idealism of our youth turns into materialism as we age. We want to hang on to our ideals, but it's tough to do so in this cold, hard world.
What makes this movie special is exceptional writing, interpreted by an ensemble cast of outstanding actors giving pretty much perfect performances. Because there were no lead actors, the Academy didn't know quite what to do with this movie. I've always thought they should have just given them a group Oscar, but of course, they don't do that.
A movie about eight people can be fragmented and lack depth if it isn't well done. Director and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (who is probably best known for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; he's working on Episode Seven right now) gives us perfect little character moments, starting with the opening credits as each of them reacts to the news about Alex's suicide, that continue throughout pretty much every frame of the movie. I always appreciated the care and attention that went into every scene, even a small thing like each character unpacking their suitcase. (My favorite is Karen tossing her diaphragm on top of the magazine with Sam on the cover. Although I wonder to this day why Michael had harmonicas in his bag with his briefs and his condoms.)
The strongest character is the physically and emotionally damaged Nick, played beautifully by William Hurt. Nick is the one who experiences the most change during the course of the weekend, because he is currently where the late Alex once was: depressed and suicidal, with his best prospects in life already gone. (Nick is the one that says that for some, suicide isn't a matter of why, but of why not.)
Impotent because of something that happened in Vietnam and dulled by the drugs he deals, Nick starts to express his true feelings while filming himself, a wonderful plot device that continues with the other characters throughout the rest of the movie. In the end, Nick takes Alex's place in restoring the "old house" for Harold. It feels like, instead of being the literal dead end that it was for Alex, it will be salvation for Nick and Chloe.
Chloe, younger than the rest of the characters and not a member of their little circle, speaks the truth without a filter. She punctures the somewhat pompous inclusiveness of the seven friends and their self-absorption in their feelings while keeping her emotional distance. Many of her lines come out of left field, like, I wanted to ride in the limo. Like, I haven't met that many happy people in my life, how do they act? Meg Tilly does an excellent job with this character; you can see glimpses of Chloe's true self slowly emerging right up until the end.
Like Chloe, Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is an outlier. Although the circle of friends all like him, they acknowledge that Michael can be a predatory jerk and they keep him at a bit of a distance and tend to make fun of him. It's especially unpleasant to watch Michael pursuing Chloe, a vulnerable young woman whose boyfriend just killed himself. And yet, Michael has his good moments. I especially like the ambiguity in the way he talks about how hurt he is by their distrust.
Harold and Sarah (Kevin Kline and Glenn Close) are pretty much the backbone of the story, since Alex lived with them and the weekend takes place at their house. They have a strong but far from perfect marriage. Sarah's grief for Alex is the strongest, since she was once in love with him. I've always liked the way Sarah chooses to heal herself and make amends for her affair with Alex by "giving" her husband to Meg.
As much as I love the work of all of the other actors -- especially Kevin Kline, who made what could have been the least interesting character very lovable -- Meg (Mary Kay Place) is my favorite. A lawyer sick of dating who has given up on finding Mister Right, Meg is cynical, sweet and funny, and Mary Kay Place shines in every one of her scenes. She has two of the best monologues in the movie, as well as what were probably the most difficult scenes to play. I mean, how do you gently ask one old friend after another to get you pregnant? Yeah, reaffirming life after a funeral is a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason.
The Karen/Sam love affair is probably my least favorite part of the movie. Not that there's anything wrong with it, and I think JoBeth Williams and Tom Berenger did a good job portraying the unhappy housewife and the second-rate television star who were lying to themselves and to each other about what they really wanted. What I liked best about it, though, was Karen's bland husband Richard lecturing Sam and Nick on life with "Nobody said it was going to be fun" while eating the blandest of white food -- mayo on white bread, with milk.
I've been through some tough funerals and their aftermaths, and The Big Chill does such a great job capturing those heightened emotions, the bursts of laughter and inappropriate comments, as well as the genuine grief. It's also a movie about seeing the late 1960s through the eyes of the 1980s. This isn't my generation (I'm a bit younger than that), but I can relate to this movie, anyway. I think nearly everyone can.
And I haven't even mentioned the soundtrack yet. It's one of the best soundtracks ever, and since it was the music of their youth and the time they were closest, it fits beautifully into the story. The most famous scene in the movie is everyone cleaning the kitchen to "Ain't Too Proud to Beg". I was going to insert a clip, but couldn't find one that looked good. But I did find a terrific and very spoilery trailer that included a good bit of it.
Bits and pieces:
-- The huge antebellum mansion in South Carolina where the movie was filmed was also used for The Great Santini.
-- … although someone should have rethought the very pink interior decoration. Hey, it was the eighties.
-- Lawrence Kasdan insisted on a lot of rehearsal time for his ensemble cast before shooting so that they would all feel comfortable with each other. Wise decision.
-- Flashback scenes with Alex were filmed, but cut from the movie. He was played by a (then) unknown named Kevin Costner, who ended up just playing the dead body in the opening credits. Fans of the movie have always wanted to see the deleted footage, but Kasdan has refused to release it. Maybe there's a good reason.
-- There are three lines of Nick's that I particularly love: "Sometimes you have to let art flow over you" (as he was watching an old B movie on television with the sound off), "I'm not hung up on this completion thing" (explaining why he never finished his dissertation), and "I had a small, deeply disturbed following" (regarding his talk radio show).
-- Dan has always loved the battle of the bats. "Okay, now we got a fair fight."
-- I always liked how Meg borrowed Sarah's clothes before she borrowed her husband.
-- J.T. Lancer is obviously Magnum P.I.
-- The only detail that has always bothered me is Meg and Sarah preparing a big dinner while Sam and Karen are out shopping because the fridge is empty. And the next night for dinner, Harold goes for take-out. Why send Sam and Karen out shopping? So that they could talk about what it would have been like if they had gotten married, I suppose.
-- Okay, the second detail that has always bugged me is the size of the bandage that Sarah puts on Sam after he gets hurt jumping into the sports car. If he really needed a dressing that huge, he'd have been hospitalized.
Quotes (and I restrained myself; feel free to add a favorite or two to the comments):
Minister: "Sometimes it is hard for us to believe that the good Lord had a plan."
Minister and Meg together: "This is one of those times."
Meg: "I feel terrible. The last time I spoke with Alex, we had a fight. I yelled at him."
Nick: "That's probably why he killed himself. (pause) What was the argument about?"
Meg: "I told him he was wasting his life."
Michael: (at the reception) "Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come."
Karen: "I know that Richard will always be faithful to me."
Harold: "That's nice. You trust."
Karen: "Fear of herpes."
Meg: "They're either married or gay. And if they're not gay, they've just broken up with the most wonderful woman in the world, or they've just broken up with a bitch who looks exactly like me. They're in transition from a monogamous relationship and they need more space. Or they're tired of space, but they just can't commit. Or they want to commit, but they're afraid to get close. They want to get close, you don't want to get near them."
I love how Mary Kay Place does this little monologue.
Sarah: (about getting pregnant) "It doesn't always happen the first time."
Meg: "That's not what they told us in high school."
Michael: "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex."
Sam: "Oh, come on. Nothing's more important than sex."
Michael: "Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?"
Chloe: "Alex and I made love the night before he died. It was fantastic."
Nick: "He went out with a bang, not a whimper."
Meg: (to Michael, on whether or not he will father her baby) "This is a big decision. I'll get back to you in the third quarter."
Meg: (to Harold) "I feel like I got a great break on a used car."
My favorite line in the movie.
Four out of four white carnations,
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.