What's the Big Deal?: The Big Chill (1983)

It is possible that future editions of this column will address The Big Heat, The Big Sleep, or even The Big Lebowski. But today it's time for The Big Chill, a movie of Baby Boomer nostalgia that remains a cultural touchstone even though it isn't 1983 anymore. Why is The Big Chill a big deal? Let's put some corpse makeup on Kevin Costner and consider.

The praise: At the Oscars, The Big Chill was nominated for best picture, screenplay, and supporting actress (Glenn Close), though it didn't win any of them. (It was the year of Tears of Endearment, Tender Mercies, and The Right Stuff.) But it won the People's Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered, as well as the Writers Guild of America award for best comedy screenplay. Meanwhile, the film's soundtrack -- with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "My Girl," "Good Lovin'," and other hits from the second half of the 1960s -- sold a million copies in only a few months, on its way to a total of more than 6 million.

The context: The trend with nostalgia in entertainment has generally been that you pine for whatever happened 20 years earlier. Thus the 1960s were full of movies set in the 1940s (mostly World War II), the '70s looked back to the '50s (American Graffiti, Happy Days, Grease), and the '80s were all about the '60s. You couldn't turn on the TV or go to the movies without seeing some reminder of the days of the Beatles, hippies, and Vietnam.

The nostalgia in the '80s seemed to be thicker than usual, and for two reasons. For one thing, the 1960s were genuinely a time of huge change and disruption in American culture. There was a lot to relive. Moreover, the reason for the "20 years ago" tendency is that 20 years ago is when the people producing today's entertainment were young. In the 1980s, the new tastemakers were Baby Boomers who'd been born in the late '40s and come of age in the '60s. The Baby Boomers were numerous, they were influential, and they thought there was no more fascinating topic than themselves. Hence, they spent all of the 1980s reliving the '60s, and invited most of pop culture to join them.

The Big ChillOne of the more enduring nostalgia pieces from the early '80s was The Big Chill. It's set in the present (1983), with a group of adults who were in college together in the late '60s reuniting for a weekend. They reflect on how they have changed since then, how their idealism has turned to cynicism, how they've settled for lives less meaningful than they'd hoped for. This resonated with viewers who were approximately the same age as the characters, who'd been in college in the late '60s too.

Then again, such themes are liable to resonate with most viewers in their mid 30s, regardless of what year it was when those viewers went to college. It is the nature of being in your mid 30s that you reflect on how different your life is from what you expected it to be when you were 20. The Baby Boomers didn't invent navel-gazing. They did, however, go through some particularly unusual growing pains. The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, a slew of assassinations, and Watergate all happened in the span of 10 years. If you were, say, 13-23 years old during that time, it would profoundly affect your worldview. You'd be forgiven for thinking your generation was the most troubled and important of all generations.

Lawrence Kasdan, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay (with Barbara Benedek), was drawing from personal experience. Like his characters, he was born in the late 1940s and graduated from college around 1970. After working in advertising, which he hated, Kasdan got into screenwriting, selling his first script in 1976. That particular screenplay wasn't actually produced until 1992 -- it was The Bodyguard -- but in the meantime he co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Return of the Jedi. His directorial debut, Body Heat (1981), was well received. His follow-up was The Big Chill.

The Big ChillThere are eight principal cast members in the film, with no clear protagonist -- a true ensemble. The actors were all the right age for their characters, and there isn't a weak link among them: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams. Of the eight, five of them went on to act in films that would earn them Oscar nominations. Even without The Big Chill, it would be hard to write a biography of 1980s Hollywood without mentioning most of their names.

Knowing that nostalgia would play a part in the film's appeal, Kasdan wisely put together a soundtrack that called to mind the second half of the '60s. Many contemporary reviews mentioned it. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby noted, "The soundtrack is loaded with '60s music that recalls, without sentimentality, everything the friends have grown away from." Time magazine's Richard Corliss said: "It also boasts a great Greatest Hits sound track, which finds just the right comic or dramatic settings for ... fine '60s songs.... Indeed, the entire film is a kind of sock-hop benefit for Approaching Middle Age."

The movie: A fellow named Alex has committed suicide. Seven of his friends from college, plus the too-young-for-him woman he was dating when he died, spend a weekend mourning, reminiscing, talking, and drinking. That is how the grieving process works.

What it influenced: Several films have centered around a reunion like the one here, including Peter's Friends (1992) and this year's Adam Sandler comedy Grown-Ups. The Big Chill didn't invent the scenario -- John Sayles' Return of the Secaucus 7 used the same device in 1980 -- but it was a bigger hit and is more likely to be cited as a source of inspiration.

The CBS TV show Hometown, which ran for nine episodes in 1985, was an obvious product of The Big Chill, set in a similar town and featuring the premise of college friends who have stayed in one another's lives into the '80s. A more successful offspring was thirtysomething, a successful ABC series (1987-91) that also addressed the Baby Boomers' angst over finding themselves in adulthood. That show coined the word "thirtysomething" (which led to "twentysomething") and was one of the first series to be called a "dramedy." thirtysomething was itself influential; one writer notes that it led to other comedies, like Seinfeld, in which the characters basically just sit around talking.

As mentioned, Baby Boomer nostalgia was big in the '80s. (See also: Stand By Me, The Wonder Years, the Woodstock tributes, etc., etc.) The success of The Big Chill fairly early in the decade undoubtedly helped pave the way for it by letting the newly-in-charge Boomers and yuppies know that this sort of thing was good for business.

What to look for: The famous piece of trivia here is that Kevin Costner played Alex, the dead guy, in the funeral scenes, but all of his material was cut. All that's left is over the opening credits, when we see Costner's body (but not his face) being dressed. Costner, born in 1955, was a few years too young to be a contemporary of the others anyway.

What's the big deal: Every generation likes to reflect on the past and worry about the future. Such introspection can be universal, or it can be very specific to that generation. The Big Chill straddles the line, with some angst that Baby Boomers in the early '80s would especially relate to and plenty of old-friends-reminiscing levity that anyone who has old friends can appreciate. The film also made waves by using a classic-rock soundtrack album to capitalize on nostalgia, something that only a few movies (notably American Graffiti) had successfully done before. Much of the way we celebrate pop-culture nostalgia now can trace its roots to The Big Chill and its cohorts.

Eric D. Snider (website) has played a corpse.