Note: This essay features excerpts from Daniel Kremer’s forthcoming book Joan Micklin Silver: From Hester Street to Hollywood.
It’s no wonder the studio didn’t know what to do with it back in 1979. Silver, who fought the proposed Head Over Heels title change, and so decried it for sounding like a Walt Disney movie, recalls, “The crew, bless them all, were as upset as the rest of us over the name change. They got up a petition and presented it to UA and their marketing department. I'd never heard of a crew doing something like that before and it really touched me.”
Nothing about the United Artists advertising department impressed Silver in their efforts to sell her film. “I remember the trailer that they did, and I said, ‘You know, for good or for ill, my movie has a certain tone, and those people who might respond to it would like to see that tone in the trailer.’ And they said, ‘If we did that, nobody would come.’ I mean they just didn’t like the movie at all.”
Despite novelist Ann Beattie’s distaste for the original studio-imposed title (“It's deplorable. It sounds like Fred Astaire will dance across the film credits.”), she had nothing but love for what Silver and her team did with her material. “It's a knockout! I trusted them. My only fear was that they'd sell out, but they didn't.”
Tennessee Williams, who referred to Silver’s Hester Street as “a dream movie” and “an amalgamation of every fabulous image I’d ever had of New York,” did not withhold similar praise in discussing Chilly Scenes of Winter with his biographer James Grissom: “The humor of that film is so fresh. I felt for those people.” Williams then issued a proclamation: “I am ready for more women to direct my plays. I would like the experience of working on a film with a woman director. My life has been guided and controlled by the feminine, and I would willingly subject my work to that influence. I am ready to be saved again.” He named two women who he felt were apt to the task: Joan Micklin Silver and Lina Wertmuller. This is recounted in Grissom’s 2009 book Follies of God: Tennessee Williams and the Women of the Fog.
“If I had known about that then, I would have done something about it,” Silver regrets.
In November 2014, Chilly Scenes of Winter played to a sold-out crowd at New York City's IFC Center. The emcee at that event, Chris Welles, opened his remarks before the film stating, “You get one of two reactions when you mention this film in mixed company. The first is, ‘I’ve never heard of it.’ The other is, ‘It’s my favorite film of all time.’”
Thankfully, the film has lived a rich legacy well beyond its aborted 1979 release, and this February Twilight Time release could not have been scheduled for a better time. There is a day in February when many Charleses might look to drown their sorrows and sentimental pessimism in a work that speaks to their angst…specifically the inherent comedy of that angst.
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.