‘The Big Chill’: Yuppies From Hell

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Let’s go back in time to September 1983… Kiss appeared for the first time without makeup… Vanessa Williams became the first African American to be crowned Miss America. In the weeks’ ahead, the first Hooters restaurant opened in Clearwater, Fla.

And on September 28, Columbia Pictures released a film whose name – decades later – still connotes a spirit of a generation of yuppies – the term had been coined just one year earlier – for thirty-somethings, dealing with the adjustments of adulthood, of life and death, of careers and friendships.

The film, of course, is The Big Chill. It starred an ensemble cast, most of whom were right in the “sweet spot” of their mid-30s. The plot centered around a group of University of Michigan classmates who reunite after 15 years, because of the sudden death of a fellow alum.

When the film opened in theaters, Kevin Kline and his on-screen wife, Glenn Close – who host the reunion – were 35 and 36, respectively. William Hurt was 33. Jeff Goldblum was only 30. Mary Kay Place had just turned 36. Tom Berenger, who played a TV star was 34. JoBeth Williams was also just 34. Meg Tilly, 23, played the dead classmate’s much younger girlfriend.

The film’s director and screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan, was one of them; he was also 34 when the film was released. If you don’t recognize his name, you surely know his credits. Earlier that decade, he had written the screenplays for such blockbusters as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark (and subsequently wrote The BodyguardStar Wars: The Force Awakens, and many more).

The movie’s advertising taglines seem quaint now. “How much love, sex, fun and friendship can a person take?” And playing on the film’s title, another read: “In a cold world you need your friends to keep you warm.”

That kitchen!

After their classmate’s burial, the group head to their hosts’ vacation home (with that great big kitchen) for the weekend, where a series of one-on-one conversations and plenty of group activities – sharing a joint, cooking – unspool for the film’s 105 minutes. Their characters include: a writer for People, an attorney, a Vietnam War vet, a housewife.

“It’s only out here in the world that it gets tough,” says Hurt’s character.

Watch the trailer

The Big Chill got a fairly mixed reception from the critics. The New York Times said it was a “very accomplished, serious comedy.” Time called it a “funny and ferociously smart movie.” Roger Ebert noted: “There’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere.” The Chicago Reader wrote: “There is no place for depth or nuance in this slickly engineered complacency machine.”

Made on a minuscule $8 million budget, The Big Chill received a warm success at the box-office. While its $56 million take may not seem big, it was large enough to be 1983’s #13 largest. To put things in perspective, only two titles that year earned over $100 million.

And then there was the music. The original soundtrack, released by Motown, featured classics from the Temptations (“My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”), Aretha Franklin (“[You Make Me Feel Like] A Natural Woman”) and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles (“I Second That Emotion,” “The Tracks of My Tears”). In the film, but not cleared for inclusion on the album, was the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

[Though the album peaked on the sales chart at just #17, it was a big success and continued to sell as a catalog item: it’s been certified 6x Platinum.]

And, of course, there was Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine.”

When we hear the song in the opening credits, there’s a tear rolling down Close’s cheek. In between shots of the other classmates, we see a man getting dressed in a pinstriped suit. It’s only when we see the final shot of the man – we’ve never seen his face – we discover that he’s being dressed at a funeral parlor.

Watch the opening scene

The actor who played the deceased classmate had all of his scenes cut and thus never appeared in the film. His name? Kevin Costner.

The Big Chill was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Close) and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Kasdan).

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