Rob Edelman: Three Decades Past

Sep 2, 2013

Years ago, “older” films that were screened at film festivals included newly-restored versions of silent films or classic Depression-era features: in other words, films that were produced years if not decades before the births of Baby Boomer cineastes.

Times have, indeed, changed. Today, a film that is labeled as “old” may seem downright surprising. Once upon a time, Lawrence Kasdan’s THE BIG CHILL was a new release. Thematically-speaking, it was sobering and, in its way, cutting-edge. But those who recall seeing THE BIG CHILL in theaters may be shocked by the fact that the film was released three decades ago! This anniversary is being celebrated at the Toronto Film Festival, where THE BIG CHILL enjoyed its world premiere. This year, the festival is screening a newly-restored print of the film, as well as hosting a reunion for its cast and crew.

THE BIG CHILL, of course, is the story of a bunch of thirtysomething college buddies who all were political activists at the University of Michigan during the late 1960s. It now is the early 1980s, and they come together for a reunion. But this is no happy occasion. They are reuniting to attend the funeral of one of their own, who has committed suicide.

When you are young, you may think that you somehow are immortal. You can puff away on cigarettes and drink excessively and otherwise abuse your body, but you are young-- so this somehow is OK. Only older people become ill. Only older people die. Old age seems an eternity away.

However, the characters in THE BIG CHILL are being hit with the reality that this simply is not so. The title is meant to mirror the fact that nobody lives forever. You still can be relatively young, yet you may be touched by the death of someone who is not the age of your parents or grandparents. The deceased easily might be your contemporary.

Beyond this fact of life and death, THE BIG CHILL offers a telling portrait of how its once-idealistic characters have evolved. In the film, they mostly have aged into self-absorbed, ever-complaining, materialism-embracing yuppies. One is a lawyer who began her career as a public defender. Now, she works as a real estate attorney, completely on the other side of the ideological fence. Another, a once-radical journalist, has become a People magazine writer who oozes hype and hustle. And yet another, an actor, is the star of a popular but mindless television series.

Sure, these characters no longer are 19 and quixotic, and one does not expect them to pass their lives scraping by on a commune. Still, they need not be wasting away in an America in which Ronald Reagan is president and “liberal” has become a four-letter word. While no one is begrudging them their physical comforts or high salaries, there are ways in which they might revive their now-dormant humanism on a grassroots level and, in so doing, gain much personal satisfaction.

The lawyer might work as an advocate for battered women and children, the aged, the disabled, or the disenfranchised folks on the fringes of society. The writer might become a serious investigative journalist, reporting on the hot and controversial issues of the day. The actor could follow the example of such real-life progressives as Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and, more recently, George Clooney, using his celebrity to support humanist-oriented causes.

But the fact remains that too many real-world versions of these characters ended up embracing crass, consumer lifestyles, becoming what they once might have described as “part of the problem.” And here is where THE BIG CHILL is a chillingly accurate reflection of the failings of a generation.

Finally, on an altogether different note, there is a bit of trivia connected to THE BIG CHILL. The story goes that the character who has died originally appeared onscreen, but his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. All that remains of him is his physical presence as his body is being readied for his funeral. The actor who played him eventually became a Hollywood superstar. His name is Kevin Costner.

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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