As part of Jeremy's month-long celebration of worthy films not yet available on DVD, over at Moon in the Gutter, I'm contributing a few words about Joan Micklin Silver's Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels). When Robert Osborne introduced the film before a recent airing on TCM, he explained that several years earlier he'd been invited to select a film for inclusion in a festival recognizing films that were "woefully overlooked and under-appreciated." His choice: Chilly Scenes of Winter. I couldn't agree more and hope that its recent addition to the MGM HD line-up is a sign that a DVD is forthcoming.
Based on Ann Beattie's first novel of the same name, Chilly Scenes of Winter was originally released by United Artists under the title Head Over Heels. It's the story of Charles (John Heard), a civil servant in an unnamed northeastern city (relocated to Salt Lake City for the film) who falls for married co-worker Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), and has a brief affair with her, before she returns to her husband. Charles, who's love has turned to obsession, is determined to get her back. Laura is not so sure of what she wants and the question is whether she will stay with a man "who loves her too little" or return to Charles, who "loves her too much."
The film hews closely to the novel, retaining its intimate scope, the biting wit of its protagonists, and their sense of ennui, bitterness, and dissatisfaction. They are casualties of the 1960s, what one Boston critic dubbed, "The Beattie Generation." Beattie rejected the assertion that her stories, particularly Chilly Scenes of Winter, were some kind of commentary on the '60s and the generation that came of age during that time. "Charles is the not the result of the '60s. In any year, he'd be more affected than others by this experience." And, yet, despite Beattie's disavowal, this element gives the story an added resonance and weight.
Charles is sarcastic and self-deprecating, sometimes a little nasty to those around him, and increasingly unhinged as his longing for Laura grows. He lives with his best friend, wise-cracking, unemployed jacket salesman Sam (Peter Riegert) and spends a good deal of time looking after his nutty mother (Gloria Grahame in a marvelous comeback appearance) who regularly makes half-hearted suicide attempts. She has a well-meaning husband (Kenneth McMillan) who tries desperately to win over his stepchildren Charles and Susan (Tarah Nutter). Charles' boss (Jerry Hardin) enlists him to cure his college-aged son's sexual problems (Charles recommends the Janis Joplin song "Get It While You Can") and his smitten co-worker Betty (Nora Heflin) tries to help plan the hors d'oeurves menu for a non-existent "get-together" at his home. I'm charmed by this offbeat universe created by Beattie and shepherded to the screen by Silver and producers Amy Robinson, Mark Metcalf, and Griffin Dunne, but concede that many viewers are probably made uncomfortable by these characters, who despite their "weirdness," are very true to life, often painfully so. That humor, tinged with sadness and pathos, is what brings me back to the film again and again.
The acting, across the board, is superb, with special plaudits reserved for Heard, Hurt, Grahame, McMillan, and Riegert. Heard is one of the finest actors of his generation and it is a shame that he is known as "the dad from Home Alone" to a great majority of the public. Hurt's role is difficult because she has less screen time to show to the audience that she is all that Charles believes she is (impossible, really). Grahame is heartbreaking, particularly when she talks to her son about the premature death of his father. She passed away far too young as did McMillan, who was too often cast in villainous roles. He's a joy to watch here singing "Blue Moon" while twirling an unsuspecting nurse . Riegert is hilarious as Sam, a character who's taken to spending the day in pajamas, but is still able to chastise breadwinner Charles for his inability to forget Laura and move on his with his life. In smaller roles, producers Metcalf and Dunne offer amusing turns as Laura's husband Ox and Susan's uptight med student boyfriend, respectively.
For me, the film's best moments are separate from the central love story: Charles' slow, ultimately touching acceptance of Pete (McMillan, who livened up any production he was involved with); a lovely scene in which Charles assures his mother that he's doing his best to find a wife; the constant banter between Charles and Sam (Charles:"We never went to Woodstock." Sam:"Yeah, but we could have."). Protagonist Charles is resolutely single-minded and focused and Silver does a wonderful job maintaining this theme by keeping the focus squarely on the key figures and their immediate surroundings, so much so that, except for a brief mention of Utah, it's never clear where exactly the story takes place. We know that's it wintry and that's all that is necessary. I really like the way Silver utilizes the subjective voiceover to reveal Charles' inner thoughts (a reminder of the story's literary roots) and how she has him break the fourth wall and converse with the audience as a way to segue into a flashback. The humor is smart, albeit dark, and, for such a "simple" story, the dramatic moments, are quite moving. I think the film's power is due, in part, to what a lot of crew members kept telling Silver as she was making the film: "This is the story of my life."
The film opened on one screen in New York and then moved to Chicago, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles. Though she was more than pleased with the film adaptation of her book (a rare occurrence for an author), calling it "a knockout," Beattie was less impressed with the studio-mandated title change. "It's deplorable. It sounds like Fred Astaire will dance across the credits," she said. Aside from a few positive reviews, most critics categorized the film as insubstantial and meandering. Perhaps due to the unfortunate title or mediocre reviews, or a combination of both, Head Over Heels, was not a financial success. After three different ad campaigns and a gross of approximately$250,000, the film's first run was over.
However, the film made an impression in certain markets. A rave review in the Boston Phoenix (which was the basis for the alternative Boston weekly depicted in Silver's previous film, Between the Lines [also airing on MGM HD] ) led to good business in Boston and a cult following. The film's plucky producers (former actors Robinson, Dunne, and Metcalf) continued to push the film and United Artists Classics (a division of UA) took notice. UA Classics' head honcho Nathaniel Kwit had previous success with two recent revivals, New York, New York and Cutter's Way (also, coincidentally, starring John Heard and the subject of a good article by J.D.), and decided to re-release the film in August 1982 under its original title and with a new ending.
Where Beattie's novel ended with a tentative reconciliation between Charles and Laura, Head Over Heels' ending was less ambiguous and concluded on a triumphant embrace between the two lovers, something which was not consistent with the character of the rest of the film. The new ending was different than the novel's, but close to it in spirit, and reviews the second time around were, on the whole, excellent. This is the version that circulated on VHS and now appears on cable. The film maintains a very good critical reputation, yet more than ten years into the DVD age, the film remains unavailable in that format in any region.
Hopefully, if a DVD is released, it will retain the original "happy ending" and original Head Over Heels title cards as bonus features. I'm fairly certain that this version has aired on television, but as is/was the case with other films that have been recut (i.e. Blade Runner), this "non-Director's cut" is very scarce.
The film's production team Triple Play, reduced to Double Play after Metcalf departed, would go on to produce another story of troubled lovers, Baby It's You. Silver subsequently directed mostly for television, but had feature film success with 1988's Crossing Delancey starring Riegert and Amy Irving. Hurt divorced William Hurt and married Paul Schrader. A stage actress first, she continues to act in film and television, and was very well-received in The World According to Garp. Heard remains a very busy actor with leads in independent films and guest spots on high-profile television shows. After starring in Chilly Scenes, Heard chewed up the screen as Alex Cutter in Cutter's Way (aka Cutter and Bone), but he has not had many subsequent opportunities for top billing in a feature film, which is unfortunate. Hollywood has not, as of yet, produced another film from an Ann Beattie novel.
1982 Reissue Trailer: