The Big Chill

Mar 12, 1991

The Big Chill, Lawrence Kasdan’s second directorial effort, is his most personal movie. Like the characters in his film, he attended the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in the late sixties. After spending a few years as an advertising copywriter, Kasdan broke into film, writing scripts for the highly commercial Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Then with the critical success of his first directorial outing, Body Heat, the time seemed right for him to write the story he had wanted to film for years—the story of his generation.

The sixties were a time of collective rebellion. Inspired by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, college students embraced the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, drugs, sexual freedom and women’s liberation. The times were a-changin’. Somewhere along the line, however, much of the Woodstock generation slipped away from its utopian quest and joined the establishment. People cut their hair, traded public sector jobs for the more lucrative private sector, got married, had families.

What did it all mean? Was all this youthful idealism just fashion? These were some of the issues Lawrence Kasdan addressed in his screenplay for The Big Chill.

Despite warm responses to the script Kasdan wrote with his lawyer’s wife, Barbara Benedek, plus a commitment from Body Heat star William Hurt to play a major role, the story was turned down as uncommercial. The Ladd Company, producers of Body Heat, passed on the project as did top executives at Paramount, Universal, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. It was Marcia Nasatir, then president of Carson Films, who finally persuaded Columbia chairman Frank Price and president Guy McElwaine to back the project. Chosen to open the prestigious New York Film Festival in 1983, The Big Chill went on to earn Oscar nominations for Glenn Close (Best Actress), for Best Original Screenplay, and for Best Picture.

The Big Chill is not the first film to contrast the past and present lives of a group of school friends. Sidney Lumet’s The Group did it for eight Vassar graduates. In American Graffiti, a closely-knit coterie of high school graduates ponders the future during one long night in 1962. John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus 7 most closely resembles The Big Chill, dealing as it does with aging veterans of the sixties. But no previous film so cleverly captured the tenor of the times, intertwining melancholy nostalgia with contemporary concerns ranging from ticking biological clocks to fears of selling out.

The title refers to the cold world of adult reality, as well as, of course, to the Chill of mortality. Seven college friends: a doctor; her husband, a wealthy manufacturer of running shoes; a wounded drugtaking Vietnam vet; a corporate lawyer; a bored housewife; a writer for People magazine; and a television actor gather one weekend in the early eighties for the funeral of the eighth member of their group, a suicide. During the weekend, the friends, joined by the dead man’s much younger girlfriend, reminisce about their past and sort through their present lives.

Kasdan and Benedek drew upon memories of their own college friends to create the characters.  The ensemble of Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jeff Goldblum and Meg Tilly work together with the familiarity of old friends. In order to create this intimacy, Kasdan brought his cast to South Carolina, the setting of the movie, for a month’s rehearsal in a house outfitted with sixties memorabilia.

In addition to the easy comradery of the excellent, attractive cast, the funny-poignant episodes and the bright dialogue, The Big Chill has a terrific soundtrack brimming over with Motown and other sixties hits. Meg Kasdan, the wife of the director, and also a performer in the film, put together music by the Rolling Stones, Three Dog Night, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson and others which functions as a kind of Proustian shorthand to set the mood, comment on the action and spark private memories in the viewer. John Bailey’s photography and Ida Random’s production design add to the pleasures of this companionable film.

One of the first films to crystallize the dilemmas of baby boomers, The Big Chill’s influence can be seen in everything from the prevalent use of Greatest Hits soundtracks to the ensemble cast of television’s thirtysomething and L.A. Law. Although ostensibly about sixties survivors, the film’s exploration of the deeper issues of friendship, loss and changing values ensure The Big Chill’s continuing appeal to all generations.