You Can Always Get What You Want: On “The Big Chill” and American Politics
By Henry M. J. TonksSeptember 7, 2023
Released 40 years ago this month, The Big Chill, with its spare plot and textured depiction of friendship, has a relatively small cultural footprint, as the lightest scattering of anniversary pieces attests. When it does receive deeper cultural analysis, The Big Chill is most often deprecated as empty, even offensive, baby boomer nostalgia.
Look more closely at the film on its 40th anniversary, however, and one finds an unexpectedly rich document through which to track American politics since the 1960s. The Big Chill helped shape historical mythologies of the baby boomers as a generation of sixties radicals who lost their youthful idealism.
But in revisiting The Big Chill, we can demystify its narrative of radicalism abandoned. The film seems to evoke a shift from idealistic sixties to cynical eighties, a decade in which “neoliberalism” took hold as a political order characterized by financialization, deregulation, and cultural cosmopolitanism. What if this neoliberal era was less a reaction against certain sixties impulses than the fullest possible realization of them?
The Big Chill was co-written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who, like the characters, began attending the University of Michigan in the late 1960s. The film’s release in September 1983 came at something of an artistic and commercial inflection point for Hollywood. The turn of the 1970s into the 1980s witnessed the end of the “New Hollywood” (ca. 1967–80), a period in which filmmakers were granted hitherto unprecedented artistic control over not just the movies themselves but also the movie business. The end of this cinematic era coincided with the political rise of Ronald Reagan and the coming of a free-market realignment.
Along with genre innovations like John Hughes’s high school coming-of-age pictures, the defining films of the 1980s were high-concept blockbusters. They often made use of special effects and sometimes became franchises, from Back to the Future to Top Gun to Ghostbusters. Kasdan directed character-driven genre pieces such as the neo-noir Body Heat (1981), but his career success was predicated on the new blockbuster era: he co-wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and is credited as being the “voice” of Han Solo. Given that it seemed itself to be a prettier, cooler, more commercial mirror image of John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), The Big Chill can be seen as occupying a liminal space between the more artist-driven New Hollywood and the high-concept eighties.
The film enjoyed critical and commercial success at the time. Grossing around $57 million, it was the 13th highest-grossing film of 1983 (Return of the Jedi was number one) and its soundtrack album stayed on Billboard charts for 161 weeks. Three Academy Award nominations followed: for best picture, for Kasdan and Barbara Benedek’s screenplay, and for Glenn Close as supporting actress. The Big Chill has since been overshadowed, as a representation of its cultural moment, by 1980s blockbuster spectacles.
We open on a scene of domesticity—Harold (Kevin Kline) serenading his and Sarah’s (Glenn Close) young son during bath time—disrupted by news of the suicide of Alex, who was staying in their country home. (Kevin Costner’s appearance as Alex was famously cut in postproduction.) Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” shimmers through a montage that shows TV star Sam (Tom Berenger), real estate lawyer Meg (Mary Kay Place), housewife Karen (JoBeth Williams), celebrity-magazine writer Michael (Jeff Goldblum), and burnout Nick (William Hurt) converging on South Carolina for Alex’s funeral. The friends decide to stay at Harold and Sarah’s for a weekend of reminiscence. Karen’s square husband is swiftly dispensed of. The troupe is rounded out by Alex’s young girlfriend, Chloe (Meg Tilly).
For the rest of the film, the characters rethread old entanglements and comment on their yuppie ennui. Meg plans to recruit a one-time partner for single-motherhood (this subplot’s denouement is cringe-inducingly ill-conceived). Michael flirts with opening a club—like Elaine’s, but hip. Karen, Nick’s lover in college, pursues a flirtation with Sam, who has pined after her for years. (Though his role lacks clear emotional significance, compared to Hurt’s or Place’s, Berenger excels at conveying Sam’s stumbling awareness of his own vacuity.) The enjoyment of (re)watching the film comes from the characters’ interplay more than these subplots’ details. The dialogue is arch and peppered with cultural references, but it does not feel overwritten: it seems organic to well-observed, highly self-conscious characters. Both actors and dialogue insightfully capture the dynamic of many long-standing, yet abraded, friendships in which affection is genuine, but is based on a highly specific social context that is now in the past.
Since the camera’s fixedness on the actors can seem televisual, it is easy to overlook the film's visual effectiveness. Often dominated by warm, darker hues of brown, red, and green, The Big Chill’s style conjures an autumnal season and mood. The filmmakers expertly evoke, as well, a sense of place, not simply of geographic setting, but of the home as a space of warmth and sociability and tension and restriction. (It is telling that cinematographer John Bailey previously shot both domestic melodrama Ordinary People and exhilaratingly stylish neo-noir American Gigolo, both released in 1980.) The soundtrack, far from being emptily nostalgic, is used smartly to deepen a scene’s mood, as in a marvelous sequence when the Band’s “The Weight” plays while the hungover friends congregate in the kitchen for breakfast.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering their self-consciousness, the characters seem obscurely aware of their roles as characters in a story. A casual conversation in front of the television transforms into staged repartee; a grocery store run is laced with commentary on the task of buying groceries; unfunny one-liners about Alex’s suicide are incessantly repeated (“It’s a dead subject”). In one of the movie’s most famous sequences, Nick films himself giving a talk show–style interview about his own restless post-Vietnam life. (He also records a touching “interview” with Chloe, and later, Sarah and Michael have a brilliant back-and-forth in front of this diegetic camera.)
This self-consciousness reflects how postwar Americans’ social relations were not only structured by television—whether spatially, such as in the layout of communal spaces, or temporally, by the alignment of routines around TV programming—but were also constructed using the contents and forms of mass entertainment as models.
“Baby boomers” (those born ca. 1946–64) as a category of sociological and historical, as opposed to simply demographic, analysis was effectively debuted by Landon Y. Jones in Great Expectations: America & the Baby Boom Generation (1980). (In a delicious coincidence, Jones was the managing editor of People—the very magazine for which Michael writes frothy celebrity profiles.) The Big Chill pioneered cultural depictions of characters as generationally sharing cultural tastes, social manners, and political orientations. The generational idea retains political utility: commentators from both the right and liberal left charge that boomers as a generation are to blame for our present discontents.
This generational construction elides “the baby boom” with certain predominantly white, middle-class, college-educated members. In a seamless joining of generational to 1960s mythology, we are to understand the baby boomers as a group who engaged in radical politics that sought to transform the United States through movements of social liberation. The generational imbrication of the personal and political is hilariously conveyed when Michael, offering to get Meg pregnant, reminds her in an amorous tone that their last tryst took place during the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Indeed, opposition to the Vietnam War looms particularly large in boomer mythologies; the member of The Big Chill’s group who served, Nick, is impotent as a result of psychological trauma.
Yet if the generational pop sociology of The Big Chill has enduringly shaped both cultural constructions of American generations and our political understanding of the baby boomers, it obscures as much as it reveals. The social and cultural ferment of the 1960s was not mainly stirred up by a narrow slice of boomer radicals. Younger leaders of the era’s social movements, from Gloria Steinem to John Lewis to Tom Hayden, were not boomers themselves. Moreover, the baby boomers were actually the age group most supportive of the Vietnam War (and “some 40 percent of the males of their generation” served).
Cultural depictions such as The Big Chill often submerge a variety of politics into a farrago of “1960s radicalism,” but in fact what we find here is specifically a portrait of an aging “New Left.” This movement originated in universities and championed a wide range of causes (anti-war activism, feminist and gay liberations, civil rights, environmentalism) while sharing a core political emphasis on “nonhierarchical […] direct democracy.” Due to its origins within higher education (although it was not simply restricted to university campuses) it was a predominantly middle-class political orientation. And it was a genuine force. But the lastingly influential myth crafted in The Big Chill is that this radicalism was a specifically generational, baby boomer phenomenon, when in fact it was shaped more along class than generational lines.
Generational mythology not only erases class distinctions but also creates concatenating mythologies about the decade in question. The idea of the 1960s as a coherent historical period is itself arguably illusory. As Peter Fonda’s villain says in The Limey (1999), another film about regret, memory, and the passage of time, “Have you ever dreamed about a place […] that maybe only exists in your imagination? […] That was the sixties. No. It wasn’t that either. It was just ’66 and early ’67. That’s all there was.”
The crux of The Big Chill’s political narrative is that the postwar generation abandoned their sixties idealism and “sold out.” “Who would’ve thought we’d both make so much bread?” Harold asks Sam. “Two revolutionaries,” muses the TV star. “Good thing it’s not important to us,” Harold shoots back, wryly. Nowhere is the notion of sixties idealism betrayed more transparently than when Meg explains how she left work as a public defender because so many of her clients were guilty. When Michael asks who she thought she would be defending, Sam answers for her: “Huey [Newton] and Bobby [Seale].” And Alex plainly serves as an archetype of sixties idealism and its tragic end, Harold describing him as “too good for this world.”
The Big Chill’s Michigan graduates are all erstwhile New Left student radicals, and the point of their melancholic reflections is that, in the years from 1968 to ’83, they lost their radical commitments. For critics of the film, it reveals that these radical commitments were always superficial.
Nothing, in fact, could be more mistaken.
What The Big Chill helps us understand is that the Reagan era, far from precipitating the characters’ loss of radicalism, was its logical culmination. “Neoliberalism” emerged in part from the radicalism upon which The Big Chill reflects.
Consider two characters: Kevin Kline’s Harold and William Hurt’s Nick. Harold—a representative of the New South whose mildly countercultural aesthetic and buccaneering entrepreneurialism perfectly anticipated the first baby boomer president—is a consummate yuppie. His midsized shoe company (a delightful Running Dog Athletic Footwear logo appears in the movie) is about to bought by an unidentified multinational. Harold’s embrace of the incipient eighties spirit is underscored when he illegally urges Nick to buy Running Dog stock before its sale. Harold is blithely unconcerned with the ethics of insider trading. (In a faintly disturbing detail, we learn he gave the same illegal advice to Alex.) Greed, after all, is good.
It is therefore unsurprising that Harold never voices disappointment at the end of the group’s youthful idealism. But this is because he never explicitly rejects it.
In fact, Harold is arguably the only character who is reconciled to their sixties past. Whereas, say, Karen and Michael each suggest they have betrayed its ideals and ambitions—or disillusioned Nick denies that the time and its ideals ever had substantial meaning—Harold celebrates, commemorates, and fondly remembers the 1960s. The famous nostalgia-trap soundtrack is illustrative in this regard. It is Harold who turns on the film’s diegetic tracks, and, when Michael playfully deprecates these outmoded sonic preferences, cheerfully replies “There is no other music.” Harold, who would seem to represent a rejection of the sixties spirit, figuratively valorizes it. And his relationship with Alex—the representative of the sixties—is symbolic: Harold genuinely accepts Alex’s affair with Sarah, and while others fretfully second-guess the true depth of their friendship with the deceased, Harold uncomplicatedly celebrates it and him.
Harold, then, is the film’s most settled and content character not because he has moved on from the sixties and embraced the Reagan era—but because he embraces both. Ascendant right-wing politicians won popularity by assailing student-movement excesses (one of California Governor Ronald Reagan’s favorite rhetorical foils was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement), but New Left radicalism and free-market conservative individualism actually shared a common antagonist: that of the liberal, bureaucratic postwar state. Harold is settled and content because his goals as student “revolutionary” and as businessman are fundamentally the same: to undercut institutions and elevate individual choice.
Nick represents the other political culmination of the student movement impulses, championing the translation of 1960s radicalism into a quest for self-healing and individual fulfillment, as foretold by his spell as a radio psychologist. The late William Hurt, who rescues a potentially contrived character through his magnificent performance, at first seems to be playing a very similar character to the unseen Alex. (In one poignant moment, Chloe remarks upon this similarity, to which Nick replies, “I ain’t him.”) Like Alex, Nick is disillusioned. There is also an unconfirmed possibility that Alex may have served in Vietnam, like Nick.
However, unlike Alex (who was a social worker), Nick does not continue to pursue some form of social change. In fact, whereas Alex’s stay with Harold and Sarah could not forestall suicidal disillusionment, Nick’s final decision to stay with them is presented by the film, with unequivocal hopefulness, as a form of redemption. While Harold has been able to reconcile sixties radicalism with eighties market liberalism, Nick resolves the pursuit of social justice as a pursuit of personal liberation and fulfillment. If Harold’s trajectory is continuous with, rather than disjunctive from, New Left radicalism, then Nick’s illustrates how these particular radical politics could also be resolved into narratives of depoliticized, individual liberation.
While contemporary critics dismiss The Big Chill as politically naive, empty, or muddled, it remains an affecting study of friendship and time, as well as a revealing lens through which to reconsider the historical meanings of the 1960s. It is important to note that the student radicalism of the film’s characters should not be seen as universal, nor as a straightforwardly generational phenomenon. “Radicalism” in the film’s context refers to a particular manifestation of university-associated New Left radicalism, in predominantly middle-class milieux.
Revisiting The Big Chill 40 years later, we can see how this particular strain of liberatory radicalism was not undone by but helped to shape the equally radical energies of an era of market liberalism. In Reality Bites (1994), a Gen X analogue to Kasdan’s film, twentysomething Lelaina (Winona Ryder)—thinking, one likes to imagine, of Harold in The Big Chill—castigates an older generation who “disembowel[ed] their revolution for a pair of running shoes.”
Perhaps the revolution was the pair of running shoes all along.
Henry M. J. Tonks is a PhD candidate at Boston University, where he researches the history of the Democratic Party from the 1970s to the 1990s. His research is concerned with how modern American liberalism was reshaped at the intersection of global politics and national industrial decline.
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