The Big Chill at 40: rewatching the defining ensemble film of the 1980s

Lost hope: when would you want to watch a film about that? Answer: when that film is The Big Chill.

Released 40 years ago this year, this comedy-drama directed by Star Wars fixture Lawrence Kasdan sees eight friends brought together by the death of a college classmate, Alex (played by Kevin Costner until his performance was entirely cut from the film). Descending on the home of Harold (Kevin Kline) and Sarah Cooper (Glenn Close), the friends – now all in their 30s with careers, partners and a lack of faith in the world – spend the weekend remembering Alex and trying to rediscover the idealism and ambition they felt as students.

With a quintessential starry cast, this Oscar-nominated film is an exemplary example of that age-old rule: show, don’t tell. In one early scene, the camera casts an eye over each individual as they unpack their suitcases – you can tell a lot about a person from how and what they pack – and suddenly it feels as though we already know them. We see the glances of a protective husband, the glint in the eyes of an old flame. Friends fall back on old in jokes, and negotiate niggles of jealously and sparks of attraction as details of affairs and secrets trickle out.

But The Big Chill lacks the melodrama of modern romcoms. Instead these revelations are uttered in quiet streets on morning runs, or in a kitchen in the middle of the night – but almost always broken up with the kind of banter you can only have with friends you’ve known for years.

Meg (Mary Kay Place), a lawyer, wants children but can’t find a suitable man. Journalist Michael (Jeff Goldblum) is fed up with his job at People magazine: “You can’t write anything longer than the average person can read during the average crap.” And actor Sam (Tom Berenger), is sick of feeling as though everyone wants something from him in Hollywood. Karen (JoBeth Williams) is unhappy in marriage and Nick (William Hurt) just can’t find his place. Harold and Sarah (Kline and Close), though clouded by grief, are the glue holding them all together.

Also joining them is Chloe (Meg Tilly), Alex’s younger girlfriend, the outsider looking in on a group of former free spirits heading into middle age.

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As Sarah, who mourns Alex most, Close is vulnerable but warm, deftly switching between being a mother, wife and a friend. Her performance earned her an early-career best actress Oscar nomination.

And then there is the music. Alex’s coffin is carried out of the church to an organ rendition of the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, setting the tone for a soundtrack filled with the sounds of the 60s and dominated by Motown hits, from Marvin Gaye to the Temptations.

The Big Chill is poignant without being cloying. The friends bond, cook together and watch football together – all so authentically that it comes as no surprise that Kasdan had the cast live and rehearse together for several weeks. In between eating Chinese food and too much ice-cream, a line of cocaine here and a joint there, around a kitchen table in a family home, eight friends find the antidote to life’s big chill: each other.