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30 years of The Big Chill

The opening night event at September’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) was a commemorative celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Big Chill — that most iconic film connected to the University of Michigan. The Big Chill had its world premiere at TIFF in September 1983 and represented a turning point for the still-emerging yearly festival. TIFF head at the time, Wayne Clarkson, in introducing director Lawrence Kasdan, BA ’70, before the “reunion” screening, noted the Columbia Pictures film represented a breakthrough for the festival. It was the first time organizers were able to lure big Hollywood pictures and their stars to Toronto.

Of course that all changed once The Big Chill (winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award) achieved commercial success. These days a slot on the 10-day TIFF screening schedule is a coveted achievement. Each September Toronto’s streets are flooded with high-profile actors, producers, directors, critics, and distributors from around the world.

Times change

An estimated 1500 filmgoers turned up at the Princess of Wales Theater on Sept. 5 for The Big Chill’s big party. Director Kasdan, on surveying the huge audience, exclaimed: “What’s amazing to me is that this movie’s been available in your living room for 30 years, and yet you came out tonight. I really appreciate it.”

And it was altogether an amazing event. The audience was made up of people of all ages, some who surely could not have been born before 1983. And yet, they all seemed to know by heart this classic study of 30-something U-M grads reuniting after the suicide and funeral of another college pal, Alex. Fans appeared to know the film’s dialogue and plot details the way other film fans, say, might know Casablanca or M*A*S*H.  I spotted a couple of Michigan sweatshirts in the crowd, but this screening was different–a real revelation about just how significant The Big Chill has become to pop culture enthusiasts in general.

The audience’s attention was focused on the characters, their dialogue, and the musical soundtrack with its ’60s-’70s pop/rock songs whose lyrics provide clever sub-textual commentary on the action. People roared with laughter at the brilliantly nuanced interplay among the college friends, catching up on one another and re-examining the state of their lives more than a decade after graduation.

It was also apparent that while the audience was re-enjoying a deftly written and acted screen comedy, everyone was very much into the film’s deeper meanings that evolve in the witty, thoughtful conversations of the personable characters. When Kevin Kline was spotted taking his seat before the screening, the crowd erupted in spontaneous applause and cheers. The same thing happened upon the arrival of actors Glenn Close, Meg Tilly, and JoBeth Williams. It was The Big Chill that had set the entire cast on the path to stardom, and the festival goers demonstrated clearly that they do love these stars.

He was a good friend of mine

There are several other reasons The Big Chill has such lasting appeal. It is first and foremost an outstanding example of the “conversation” film genre that was just gaining popularity with filmgoers in the early ’80s. John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980) and Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982) were earlier prototypes for the conversation film where a group of old friends gather and discuss the divergent paths their lives have taken. The Return of the Secaucus 7 charts the reunion in New Hampshire of ’60s-era college liberals who were briefly incarcerated by police in Secaucus, N.J. as they were traveling to an anti-Vietnam rally in Washington. Diner tracks seven young men who hang out and rap about their lives in a Baltimore greasy spoon.

Introspective conversation on the screen can be mesmerizing and timeless, which is certainly the case with The Big Chill. Much of the dialogue centers on angst born of lost principles and values, which the grads shared in their activist years of  ’60s-era Ann Arbor. But much of the self-reflective talk also reveals attitudes toward their professional and personal lives: Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is wasting his talent as a writer for People magazine; Meg (Mary Kay Place) is a public defender-turned real estate lawyer who just wants to have a baby; Sam (Tom Berenger) is an action star, embarrassed by his television fame; Nick (William Hurt) is an impotent Vietnam vet and ex-radio host; Harold (Kevin Kline ) is an ambitious businessman; Sarah (Glenn Close) is Harold’s doctor/wife and mother of their young sons; and Karen (JoBeth Williams) is the unhappily married, but glamorous and wealthy socialite. Secrets from the past emerge, including Sarah’s affair with suicide victim Alex. This bit of information adds titillating back story to the plot, and really draws the audience in. All the self-brooding and probing into each others’ life scenarios makes for engrossing and witty psychological drama, timeless in its appeal.

Ask me anything

In the Q&A which followed the screening, the question of why these characters still resonate with filmgoers today was addressed by director Kasdan who co-wrote the script with Barbara Benadek. “We thought that maybe if we were specific enough there’d be some universality,” he said. “The characters came from studies of people we knew. They were real people.” The 30th anniversary screening undoubtably verified these intentions. There were three standing ovations during the evening, most notably at the end when the audience clapped rhythmically as the credits rolled over the song “Joy to the World.”

Sitting to the right and left of Kasdan on stage during the Q&A were all the principal cast members (with the exception of Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt ) along with writer Barbara Benadek and Meg Kasdan who curated the musical selections, and representatives from Columbia Pictures who went to bat for the film when other studios had expressed little interest in seeing The Big Chill brought to the screen.

One of the final questions from the audience asked about the possibility of a sequel.

The response from the stage? “What would we call it? The Hot Flash?”

Please!  The 30th anniversary celebration proved The Big Chill can live on fine, just as it is.

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