Note: This essay features excerpts from Daniel Kremer’s forthcoming book Joan Micklin Silver: From Hester Street to Hollywood.
It is difficult to imagine the role of Charles in the hands of the role’s other early contenders, as John Heard is so quintessentially forlorn as our heroic schlemeil. United Artists initially suggested Robin Williams, Treat Williams, John Ritter, Richard Dreyfuss and Gary Busey. However, Silver and her intrepid producers insisted on signing Heard, who had starred in Silver's previous feature, the 1977 ensemble comedy Between the Lines. In following the lives and loves of the reporters and editors at an underground Boston newspaper, Between the Lines drew up a blueprint for the themes further probed in Chilly Scenes of Winter. Heard’s characters in both films are restless and quixotic. That Silver twice cast Heard as this key figure speaks to his qualities as a performer, and to something that specifically Silver sees in him. As Silver directs him in these roles, they resonate with depth and longing, especially in the case of Chilly Scenes of Winter.
Silver explains, “John works as sort of a tragic hero in those two comedies that I made with him because, unlike other actors who just figure out their own character and say a line the way they say it, he really listens to everyone during the scene, very intently, and he’s very attentive to signals he gets from others, but there’s also this certain sad and lovable, lost quality in his eyes. It’s easy to connect with the whole package he’s got as an actor. It’s a Gary Cooper quality, and Cooper played a lot of tragic heroes too.”
If his character Harry Lucas in Between the Lines was the experimental prototype for Silver’s Ultimate Sentimental Man, then Heard’s character Charles in Chilly Scenes of Winter is the full-scale model. He is defiant in his refusal to recognize his grand romance with dream-girl Laura as a relic of the past, and actually lashes out in anger, rage, and desperation when that is made too clear for comfort.
So how does Charles end up? Do we as humans ever truly “get over” anything? In the original release of the film, under the dubious title Head Over Heels (imposed on the film by the studio), he winds up with Laura. For the 1982 rerelease, under the permanent title Chilly Scenes of Winter, Silver hacked off the last scene and Charles winds up alone. Silver explains, “You didn’t want [Laura] to come back. What really gave you pleasure was to feel that he was free of his obsession. And by lopping off that last scene, everything made more sense.”
This new and final ending reveals the film’s true identity, as a comedy about loss. In the center of the narrative is a key exchange of dialogue between Charles, his roommate Sam, and his sister Susan. When Susan confronts Charles about buying new clothes for his upcoming meeting with Laura, Sam scoffs at the suggestion, roasting her with, “What do you want from a child her age? She never even went to Woodstock!” Charles, at first puzzled, replies, “Neither did we.” Sam pauses before clarifying his meaning in a way that suggests the obviousness of what he intimates: “We could have.” Charles ponders before conceding, “That’s true.” In the sixties, a romantic notion meant the orchestration of a successful revolution and, through this, freeing every other part of the self. In the de-radicalized seventies, lonely Charles’s new romantic notion is to change his own world by rescuing lovely Laura from a neglectful husband.
Film scholar Danny Peary is keen in his observation that the film is about loss: “Charles has lost Laura; Charles and sister Susan have lost their natural father and are losing their mother to insanity; their mother, who lost her first husband, is losing her mind; stepfather Pete is losing his wife; Laura has lost her husband and stepdaughter; Rebecca has lost her stepmother; Sam has lost his job, his apartment, and his knack for attracting women; Mr. Patterson’s son has lost his chance to go to Harvard; the young characters have lost the sixties.”
After any loss is the struggle of surviving the loss. Therein lies the comfort of sentimental pessimism, when all else fails. The apt term is weltschmerz (literally “world misery,” but meaning “depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state”). Put that in a cocktail with offbeat humor and you have something approaching Chilly Scenes of Winter.
Daniel Kremer lives in San Francisco, California. He has written for Filmmaker Magazine and Keyframe, and is the author of the book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films (available through Patrick McGilligan’s Screen Classics Series). He is currently writing a book about the life and films of Joan Micklin Silver, due in 2018. Starring John Heard, Mary Beth Hurt, Peter Riegert, Kenneth McMillan and Gloria Grahame, Chilly Scenes of Winter, featuring an Audio Commentary with writer/director Silver and producer Ann Robinson, plus an Isolated Track of Ken Lauber’s score that includes some unused music positioned as originally intended, debuts on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray February 14. Preorders open February 1.