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Chilly Scenes of Winter

by Glenn Erickson Mar 28, 2023

We never miss an opportunity to see John Heard perform. A ‘difficult’ movie that nonetheless made its mark, Joan Micklin Silver’s adaptation of Ann Beattie’s novel looks at modern romance through a realistic lens, relatable to young adults in the late 1970s: people are problematic constructs with built-in barriers to Happily Ever After outcomes. John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt lead an excellent cast that includes Peter Riegert, Kenneth McMillan, Gloria Grahame, Nora Heflin and Jerry Hardin. An initial release went nowhere, but United Artists Classics’ revised reissue three years later proved a success.


Chilly Scenes of Winter
Blu-ray
The Criterion Collection 1176
1979 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 95 min. / Head over Heels / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 29, 2023 / 39.95
Starring: John Heard, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Riegert, Kenneth McMillan, Gloria Grahame, Nora Heflin, Jerry Hardin, Tarah Nutter, Mark Metcalf, Allen Joseph, Frances Bay, Griffin Dunne, Anne Beattie.
Cinematography: Bobby Byrne
Production Designer: Peter Jamison
Film Editor: Cynthia Scheider
Costume Design: Rosanna Norton
Music: Ken Lauber
From the novel by Ann Beattie
Produced by Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, Amy Robinson
Written and Directed by
Joan Micklin Silver

One of the brightest new directors of the 1970s, Joan Micklin Silver debuted with Hester Street. We also enjoyed her comic follow-up shows Bernice Bobs her Hair (1976) and Between the Lines (1977).

Author Anne Beattie was barely in her twenties when she began getting published in magazines like The New Yorker. Her early work was described as chronicling ‘the behavior of post-counterculture yuppies.’ Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter was adapted from Beattie’s first novel. The movie has the distinction of being released twice. United Artists premiered it in 1979 with the quizzical title Head over Heels, in a misbegotten attempt to market it as a ‘zany’ romantic comedy. It made little impact, and was presumed abandoned forever. But three years later the new division United Artists Classics picked it up for reissue under its original title, and with a different ending. The film’s main character is played by actor John Heard, whose Cutter & Bone was also reissued by UA under a different title, Cutter’s Way. It didn’t do well the first time out the gate, but a second release secured its critical reputation and cult status. Chilly Scenes of Winter is said to have performed well on its reissue.

 

Chilly Scenes tells the story of Charles Richardson (John Heard), a single thirty year-old in Salt Lake City. He has a modest income from his civil service job, which he describes as ‘making reports out of other reports.’ He owns a house inherited from his grandmother, and shares it with his sister Susan (Tarah Nutter). Also living there is Charles’s best friend Sam (Peter Riegert of Animal House and Local Hero), who is chronically unemployed and undependable. Charles is convinced that life is absurd. His slightly deranged mother Clara (Gloria Grahame) drinks too much, goes into fits of depression and has a bad habit of taking baths with her clothes on. She’s tended to by Pete (Kenneth McMillan of Dune), a sweetheart who can’t do much with her but is extremely loyal.

About a year ago Charles fell in love with a married but separated woman he met at work, Laura Conley (Mary Beth Hurt). She moved in with him for a while. They got along well until she decided to go back to her husband, Ox (Mark Metcalf), and her small child. Charles has been suffering under the hope/delusion that he’ll get back together with Laura, a need that is turning into an obsession. He keeps finding excuses to see her, eventually becoming so obnoxious about it that Laura begins to get scared. In hopes of learning more about Laura, Charles feigns an interest her co-worker Betty (Nora Heflin). He also inadvertently spills out his angst at the blind newsvendor in his building (Allen Joseph). Nothing Charles does gets him what he wants. When he tries to tell Laura how important she is to him, she complains that he’s being unrealistic — like him, she also doubts her self-worth:

“You have this exalted view of me, and I hate it. If you think I’m that great then there must be something wrong with you.”

 

A character piece about ‘ordinary’ yet highly individualized people, Chilly Scenes of Winter plays like an extended magazine piece concerned with the mundane issues that drive people crazy. Charles has a full slate of family problems. He is normally a cheerful, amiable giver to those around him, albeit with a droll sense of humor. He encourages his sister Susan (Tarah Nutter), who in pursuit of ‘normal’ is becoming serious with a fussy med student (Griffin Dunne). Charles puts up with the sarcastic Sam, even when the freeloader abuses his hospitality. He comes to his mother Clara’s emotional rescue at least once a week. Charles sometimes lets the ‘giving’ go too far. His boss (Jerry Hardin of The Second Civil War) ropes him into offering advice to his son, who wants to improve his sex life.

John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt generate a terrific chemistry together. Charles initially comes on in a way Laura can’t resist — he’s exactly what she needs to feel better about herself. Laura has an open, playful smile; she’s looking for something sweet in her life even though she knows it can’t go anywhere: at some point she’ll have to go back to make good on her previous marriage bargain. Winter is setting in, and Salt Lake City looks like a dreadfully lonely place when one isn’t attached and wants to be. Charles is convinced that they’re a perfect match and that she’s being unreasonable. All would be well if she didn’t have this family to return to. Chilly Scenes doesn’t pretend that solutions exist for problems like this.

How to lose a woman in one easy lesson.

The back story is revealed in careful flashbacks by Charles, who narrates and sometimes talks to the camera, Alfie- style. He’s convinced that his fortunes can be turned around, yet tends to obsess over what went wrong. The ugly arguments arrive when Charles begins to crowd Laura about their relationship. He fears that she’ll leave him, a prophecy that comes true when he becomes paranoid about her movements. Laura felt unfulfilled by one man, and the last thing she needs is to be controlled by a neurotic. Charles unfortunately thinks that some kind of contract is being broken, that Laura somehow owes him a life of companionship. But relationships just don’t work that way: you get a number of shots at happiness, and if the gears don’t mesh right, that person you think can’t live without you will take her parade someone else.

 

Joan Micklin Silver adapted as well as directed Chilly Scenes of Winter, taking the approach that the most important element is to animate author Ann Beattie’s worldview. The cast seems committed to the same story-first idea. We can’t tell whether Laura and Charles will get back together, and we’re not at all sure if that’s even a good thing. We watch to see if the characterizations remain true, if the situations maintain believability. Chilly Scenes is like watching people we know. It never descends into bathos or asks for undue sympathy for anybody — thinking of this show as a Rom-Com is not at all helpful. Charles is often his own worst enemy. Most everybody can tell that the relationship is unhealthy, especially Susan, who seems eager to escape from her brother Charles, to find a separate life of her own.

Fans of Cutter’s Way will be happy to see John Heard take such a meaty, worthwhile part — Charles is nothing at all like the tragically maladjusted Alex Cutter. Heard didn’t get many worthwhile leading roles, and years later was providing unrewarding support in otherwise good movies: Big,  The Package. Mary Beth Hurt got her innings in with promising pictures like The World According to Garp; but her exciting roles are also few and far between. It’s quite a pleasure to see them working together.

The modest production uses two of its producers in supporting parts, and author Anne Beattie shows up in a cameo as a waitress. The gullible office girl Betty is played to perfection by Nora Heflin, a niece of actor Van Heflin. Her role is essential, as Betty is infatuated with Charles, and used fairly callously by him. That very believable detail keeps us from seeing Charles as an innocent martyr. The movie is quite adult and mature that way — most every successful ‘romantic’ pairing leaves somebody out of the running, disappointed and in need of recovery.

 


 

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Chilly Scenes of Winter is a new restored 4K digital transfer. Clean and handsome, it presents Salt Lake City in cold, snowy conditions. We’re told that the production became concerned that the winter snow wouldn’t arrive when the schedule needed it to. For once in the history of moviemaking, it did.

Joan Micklin Silver passed away in 2020. She comes off as forever young and vital in a charming 2005 interview with the Directors’ Guild. She cites Shadow of a Doubt and Pather Panchali as pictures that convinced her that she wanted to direct. She downplays the notion of being a woman director, while also noting that there were so few in the 1970s, she went to see every woman-directed film the moment it was released.

Some of the same information is covered in a German-language documentary, filmed in 1983, which also has input from Silver’s husband and frequent producer, Raphael ‘Ray’ Silver. The folding insert contains an essay by Shonni Enelow, which places Beattie’s book and Silver’s film in the context of ’70s relationship culture. She calls what Charles is doing to Laura love bombing, a term I was apparently supposed to be familiar with 40 years ago.

 

A new item is an interview with Chilly Scenes of Winter’s three producers Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, and Amy Robinson. They’re happy to say how the experience helped them develop their careers — for instance, Dunne’s acting career jumped into gear right after this project. Amy Robinson has producing credits on Baby It’s You,  After Hours,  Running on Empty and  Julie and Julia. The three co-producers seem to have enjoyed a terrific creative relationship.

The disc for the first time gives us the film’s alternate, original Head Over Heels conclusion, a short scene that we’re told is how the book ends as well. The director tells us that United Artists Classics agreed that it should be changed for the reissue. A Rom-Com must get lovers back together again, whereas Chilly’s revised ending sees Charles progressing past his obsession, a thematically more appropriate finale.

The trailer included misrepresents the movie as a romantic laugh fest, so I was surprised to see that it was for the film’s re-issue. The trailer script’s forced jokes remind me of the Cannon trailers we had to cook up, cheating scenes to create interest and suggest excitement where none was present. I can see anybody pulled in by this trailer being very surprised to see Silver’s ruminative, somewhat downbeat film.

The inactive Twilight Time company had great taste in its releases. Back in 2017 they issued a fine disc of Chilly Scenes of Winter, carrying an isolated music track and an audio commentary with Joan Micklin Silver and producer Amy Robinson. But it didn’t include the alternate ending seen here.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Chilly Scenes of Winter
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
New program featuring producers Griffin Dunne, Mark Metcalf, and Amy Robinson
German-language documentary from 1983 by Katja Raganelli about director Joan Micklin Silver
Excerpts from a 2005 Directors Guild of America interview with Micklin Silver
Original ending of the film, cut by Micklin Silver for its rerelease in 1982
Trailer
Insert foldout essay by Shonni Enelow.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
March 26, 2023
(6906chil)
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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