Charles had an affair with Laura. Laura returned to her husband and stepchild. As time slides by, Charles romanticizes the relationship more and more, coming to believe that getting Laura back will be his salvation.
He gets her back. Or maybe he doesn’t.
That depends on which version of the film you see.
No, I’m not talking about Clue, with its gimmick multiple endings. This is Chilly Scenes of Winter, based on the novel by Ann Beattie and directed by Joan Micklin Silver. Or maybe it’s Head Over Heels.
Both films have drifted into relative obscurity. But they’ve influenced me like no other film(s) has/have.
OK: First, about those two versions.
The film, starring John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt, was originally released as Head Over Heels and featured a happy-ish ending true to the content of the book but not its spirit. That film tanked.
It was then re-released with the same title as its source novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, with the happy-ish ending lopped off.
I first encountered the film around 1980. I was still in high school and had doctored the cable box on my TV in order to get free HBO. (Once I left for college, my mother was busted for my crimes and had to subscribe to every cable channel for six months).
It was still Head Over Heels at the time. And even though the ending read false to me, what led up to it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Here was an unheroic leading man — funny, awkward, self-loathing and without direction. Opposite him was a beautiful (yes, I had a crush on Hurt here and in The World According to Garp) and articulate but somehow lost woman, with something uncertain missing from her life. And there was Sam, the layabout best friend who wouldn’t leave (Peter Riegert at his best). And a needy mom (I didn’t recognize at the time that it was Gloria Grahame from It’s a Wonderful Life) and her accommodating man (Kenneth McMillan, perfectly cast). And a small universe of other largely unhappy folks.
A film about a romantic relationship that didn’t hinge on my desire to see the couple get together for happily ever after? Is that allowed? Is it just Heard’s knowing smirk that allowed me to engage with a guy who could be so selfish and sad and sometimes downright mean? Why don’t other films feature such recognizably human beings?
I found a copy of Beattie’s book and loved it and allowed it to have its impact on me as a writer. Throughout college, I believed I would somehow be busted for copying her style in every short story I wrote.
My epic, justifiably unpublished novel from that era was written in present tense because of Beattie, as I tried to capture the sense of the melancholy everyday that she mastered. As a final paper for one of my classes, I wrote a screenplay based on her short story A Vintage Thunderbird; in hindsight, I can see I was just trying to remake Chilly Scenes. Other projects I worked on — and some of my playwriting and fiction writing today — have roots traceable directly to the book and the movie, although I don’t pretend to have Beattie’s skill.
And life imitated art. While in college, I fell in love. When that relationship ended, I found myself behaving Charles-like — becoming more interested in winning the woman back than I was in being the kind of person who could actually sustain the relationship. Ultimately, I opted for a real-life version of the Chilly Scenes movie ending and not the Head Over Heels one. Good move.
I recently watched Chilly Scenes of Winter again and it held up well. Heard and Hurt are terrific, and the line of dialogue that disturbed me back then was just as disturbing now. (I won’t share it here. You’ll know it when you hear it.) I have more sympathy for McMillan’s character now that I’m closer to his demographic. I still think Charles and Laura are more interesting than just about any rom-com couple that has come since.
And I’m even more convinced it’s a cinematic crime that Silver didn’t get to direct more films. (Among her other worth-watching work: Crossing Delancey, Hester Street and, also featuring Heard, Between the Lines).