In 1983, filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan, famous for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) did something unexpected: he made a film about real life. Comedy-drama The Big Chill follows a group of once-close Michigan college friends, now in their 30s, who reunite for a weekend of shared grief, soul searching, and Motown music after their college friend Alex commits suicide. With the old gang back together, each one of them, now yuppified members of Boomer culture, is forced to face the loss, not just of their friend, but of their idealistic notions of youth.
The Big Chill’s title can be summed up in a pivotal scene between three men of the group who gather in the kitchen for a late-night snack. “You have to set your priorities. That’s the way life is. I wonder if Alex knew that,” one of them says, biting into a sandwich. ”One thing’s for sure — he couldn’t live with it, but the thing is, no one said it was going to be fun — at least nobody told me.” A chilling silence fills the room as each character contemplates their life choices up until that moment.
The Big Chill is a masterclass in acting with a dream cast that includes Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, and Jeff Goldblum. In the early ’80s, this group of young actors represented their generation and spoke on behalf of the Baby Boomers. There’s Sam (Tom Berenger), the ’60s radical-turned-Knight Rider-style TV star; Meg (Mary Kay Place), the single, successful lawyer who secretly wants a baby; Nick (William Hurt), the pill-popping drug dealer, Karen (JoBeth Williams) the stay-at-home mom who wants more out of life; and Chloe (Meg Tilly) Alex’s child-like girlfriend, the newest member of the group. Though the youngest and initially written off as an airhead, Chloe ultimately acts as the voice of reason for the group’s self-absorption. “I don’t like talking about my past as much as you guys do,” she simply says, after a little too much talk of the glory days.
Lastly, there’s Sarah (Glenn Close), a doctor and Harold (Kevin Kline), a shoe manufacturing mogul. They’re the responsible married couple, the glue that keeps everyone in contact. None of these flawed characters are assigned the role of protagonist or antagonist. They’re simply free to appreciate and bump into each other’s quirks and eccentricities.
Many popular films from the ’80s explored the dynamics of friend groups, but most haven’t held up to the bar that The Big Chill set. For example, there was Barry Levinson‘s Diner (1982), which explored male bonding and the reluctance to take responsibility, and Joel Schumacher‘s St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), with the same stereotypically self-absorbed characters of yuppie culture. Neither explored the depth of issues like mortality or mid-life crisis head-on. The Big Chill’s realness may jar viewers to this day, where the distractions and escapism of technology know no bounds. The blunt suggestion that one may not have lived up to their younger self’s dreams or morals is uncomfortable to ponder. Though it’s a lot to face, it’s a universal feeling, which may be why The Big Chill was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Close at the 1984 Oscars.
The uncomfortable feelings the film stirred in critics became apparent when Roger Ebert gave it just two and a half stars, justifying his rating by saying, “The Big Chill is a splendid technical exercise. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts, and ambitions. But there’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere.”
Ebert was correct in his analysis that there isn’t a traditional Hollywood payoff we’ve come to expect. By The Big Chill’s end, their friend is still tragically deceased, and it’s unclear whether any character walks away from that weekend with a life-changing epiphany or a new direction. That’s The Big Chill‘s point: there is no magic. The audience is invited to view a snapshot of the characters’ lives in a way they can relate to and identify with themselves. Though a lack of a grand finalé may be viewed as a weakness by some, others embrace the film like a warm blanket they can curl up with to take comfort that they aren’t alone in their fears about mortality or failure.
While bearing the weight of making a personal film, Kasdan knew The Big Chill wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea — especially after his success in the action arena. He still had to answer a very important question when making this film: Should the audience meet Alex, the man who took his own life (and why has this group traveled far and wide to reunite)?
“One of the first ideas I had was that the movie would end with a flashback to the same group in college on Thanksgiving and you’d see the life they’d been talking about up until then and you would see Alex and the part he played in this group,” explained Kasdan during the Big Chill reunion in 1999. However, when Kasdan cut the flashback, added it to the end of the film, and then showed it to a group of friends, they discovered that it confused the story. Suddenly, the film was redundant, and nothing aligned, so he had no choice but to cut it out.
With foresight, it’s unfortunate that the actor he’d cast as Alex was the then-unknown Kevin Costner. The Big Chill was set to be his first big break. Shattering the young actor’s dreams would be one of the worst things Kasdan would have to do in his career. However, Kasdan had a thought after fully cutting Costner out of the film (except for shots of his body in an open funeral casket). He’d been so impressed by the depth of Costner’s performance he knew he’d have to make amends.
“I felt so bad about that, my brother and I wrote a part for him in Silverado,” Kasdan explained at the Toronto International Film Festival 30th Anniversary of The Big Chill. “It turned out to be a very important part for him, and then we made several movies together.” The two collaborated on four films in years to come, including The Bodyguard (1992), which gave Costner one of his most iconic roles.
The Big Chill seems to be a film we can’t forget, as 40 years on, it’s still revisited and borrowed from. It’s the inspiration behind the ’90s Primetime hit Thirtysomething and Sam Taylor-Johnson‘s 2018 drama, A Million Little Pieces. With its multiple cast reunions and undying popularity, it’s evident that perhaps what a film-watching public appreciates more than anything is honesty, even when it’s ugly. Though escapism plays an important role in cinema, a rare film that encourages one to examine their existence as The Big Chill does, can be a refreshing change.
Though many of us may not have attended a Midwest University, be white middle-class boomers, or even keep in touch with friends from college, there’s something we may find oddly familiar about The Big Chill. Likely, it’s the presence of our flawed humanity reflected back at us. The ongoing fascination with The Big Chill is that ambitions, dreams, and disappointments never change with each generation. In real life, there is no magic or fairytale ending, but at least we get to experience the joys and struggles of being alive.