Monday, February 2, 2009

M.I.A. on Region 1 DVD Tribute: Chilly Scenes of Winter (aka Head Over Heels, 1979/1982, Joan Micklin Silver)

Love does strange things to people.  And Charles is a little strange to start with.
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:


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Awesome...thanks for participating and I will get this link posted.

© John Warwick Arden said...

A superb estimation of an 'underappreciated' film; although I must say that I have seen this, and so many other favourites on tape so many times, ('Uforia' is one that comes to mind as yet unreleased on DVD but much loved) to me it is as though they were 'blockbusters'. I am torn on the one hand between wishing films like this were better understood and embraced, and on the other hand embracing them like orphaned children and loving them as they should be loved, regardless of the opinions of others. In this case, however, you have summed this film up, and your love and appreciation for it, beautifully.

So, as some other bigger budgeted blockbuster films come and go, and our memories of them fade like tears in rain, people like us still regard films like 'chilly' as family; what better fate could a film ask for, in the long run- but a 'long run' in the minds of true fans like us?

(BTW I hate the happy ending- it is like the trite ending Woody writes for himself in the stage play at the end of 'Annie Hall'; I usually stop the tape before the hollywood ending. But up to that point- superb. Hopefully when the DVD comes out we will have the option of viewing both versions. In any event, the definitive version lives on in my memory...)

Ned Merrill said...


As always, thanks for the thumbs-up and the link on your site.


Your kind appraisal of the article is very much appreciated. I can completely understand your tendency to group these films as "blockbusters" in your own mind. I am the same way and CHILLY SCENES belongs in this category for me as well. These are the films I make sure to introduce to new friends (both romantic and platonic). I feel that even if CHILLY SCENES is released on DVD, it will retain this quality--it will pick up some new admirers, but it will never become an overly exposed "next big thing." I add this last part happily.

I've never seen the happy ending, but I would like to have the opportunity. Finally, I liked and understood your "tears in the rain" reference.

© John Warwick Arden said...

Yes, I do have the tendency to lean toward the 'poetic' sometimes...the source material from whence that quote originates has always struck me as the ultimate 'love story'- what could be more intriguing than an 'artificial' being's capacity for love? The ultimate love- the love of one's life? (A.I. had a crack at this, too, and I am going to go against the grain and say I loved it, as did Bicentennial Man; flawed genius is better than no genius at all...)

One more thing; I thought of 'chilly' last night while I was watching the passable 'Love is a Drug'. It got me thinking about movies about obsession. There aren't really many of them done like 'chilly', that do not end up in bloodshed and disaster, are there? I think what strikes me is that is it so damned...realistic??

I hate to admit I have been there; and I doubt a film has ever summed up better that strange purgatory a break-up can put you in when you love a person, and they don't love you. It immediately gets me thinking about the conundrum- at what point does un dying love and devotion become 'creepy', or 'stalking'?

Perhaps we love 'love' so much because it (like the movies we love) is the ultimate denial of death- the frail human yearning for 'a little bit of immortality'?

Just a thought.

'Live with the question'...

(BTW speaking of underrated- what about the amazing work of one Griffin Dunne, whose one stab at puncturing the balloon of popular consciousness was 'werewolf'? I need not list his other worthy achievements- I feel confident you know them well...)

Ned Merrill said...

Haven't seen AI or BICENTENNIAL MAN, but I share your affinity for BLADE RUNNER and its beautiful final scene with Roy Batty (which shows the great things Rutger Hauer is capable of).

Very true about movies about obsession and the fact that this one ends in a way that is actually truthful, as opposed to the many stories that inevitably turn violent. I think everyone's felt the way Charles does at some point in their lives. The fact is that most people don't want to watch films that remind them of the bad or embarrassing parts of themselves--the reason why a CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER is a "sleeper" and not a blockbuster.

As for the "creepy" aspect, I think there's a few scenes that hint at Charles' potential for going to a dark place. Ultimately, of course, he doesn't go there.

Griffin Dunne is a great talent, indeed--not surprising when you consider his lineage. When I think of him, I can't help but be reminded of the sad fate of his little sister, Dominique. As for Griffin's acting roles, AFTER HOURS is an obvious favorite. WEREWOLF is great too. Haven't seen his directorial efforts.

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Ned Merrill said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ruth. Comments like yours are what push me to be better about updating the site.

Zack Smith said...

This is an excellent post on a great, underrated film.

I recently discovered the HEAD OVER HEELS ending was posted on YouTube:

It's interesting to see, but I like the revised ending better. Charles doesn't get the girl, but he moves on from what is a very unhealthy relationship that's dragging him down. In real life, that's usually what you have to do. I really would love to do a screening that had both endings and let audiences vote...and of course, see a DVD.

Dean Treadway said...

A really great, informative and heartfelt post about a movie I love so much, I made it the first film I blogged about (after a lengthy autobio) on filmicability. See it here at

I keep needling the Criterion people on Facebook to look into releasing this, because I think it possibly the most realistic film about relationships (with maybe ALL THE RIGHT GIRLS coming in there) released in my lifetime. Of course, I prefer the "sad" (or "resigned") ending, but I was happy to see the happy ending and posted it as a PS on my blog post. It is great to have these little secret movies to show to people who you're just getting to know; it can be a real litmus test for future friendship. Me, if I were to show somebody CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER and they didn't react with a modicum of enthusiasm, I'd think a deep rift would eventually come between us.

Ned Merrill said...


Thanks for your response. Yes, CHILLY SCENES is indeed a "litmus test" film for me as well. That said, my ex-wife really liked this film when I showed it to her early on in our relationship (along with many others, of course), so such tests don't always have perfect results in the long run...