In this post-Twilight culture, whether or not you like Joan Micklin Silver’s Chilly Scenes of Winter depends largely on your own innate cynicism. The full-blooded romantic might find this 1979 adaptation of Ann Beattie’s best-selling novel charming and sweet. But the cynic might find it equal parts repulsive and creepy. Take the opening scene where listless civil servant Charles Richardson (John Heard) stops at a bodega to buy a candy bar. The cashier asks him “what do you have,” as in “which candy bar did you pick?” Without missing a beat the distracted, bleary-eyed Charles responds “I don’t have Laura.” Snapping out of his funk, he pays the confused cashier, walks to his car, and hallucinates his ex-lover Laura (Mary Beth Hurt) sitting in the back seat waiting for him. Clearly Charles isn’t just heart-sick, he’s full-on mentally unbalanced. Flash-forward in the film to a flash-back of their affair. Laura berates Charles for his obsessive idealization of her: “You think I’m that great there must be something wrong with you!” And clearly, something is.
Not that we’d guess that at the start of the courtship.
When Charles first meets Laura, they’re working in the same government office in Salt Lake City. Charles immediately takes a liking to her, and through his sheer charm and charisma manages to snag a date with her later the same day. Their chemistry is phenomenal and they hit it off immediately. But the first warning sign that Charles might be unwell comes when Laura reveals that she’s actually married—married to a log home salesman nicknamed “Ox” (Mark Metcalf). Charles response is a glorified “so what?” As their affair goes on, Charles becomes more and more possessive, once even threatening to beat her when she goes to a doctor’s appointment for a check-up without telling him first. All this madness climaxes when he confronts Ox face-to-face and boldly declares that he loves his wife. Yikes.
One saving grace of Chilly Scenes of Winter—available now from our good friends at Twilight Time—comes in the film’s depiction of Charles as an essentially broken man even before he meets Laura. He works a dead-end government job “writing reports about reports” where his boss interrogates him for advice to give his sexually-frustrated son. At home he struggles to deal with his suicidal mother Clara (Gloria Grahame) whose newfound hobby seems to be taking whole bottles of laxatives before collapsing into the bathtub. Put simply, his life is a mess. And in Laura he sees a beacon of normalcy, a feeling expressed through his meticulous construction of a model house throughout their affair—the dream home for a dream wife.
Perhaps the best way to understand the film is not as a romantic comedy but as a romantic tragedy, a sentiment matched by Beattie after learning that studio execs had added a happy ending and renamed the film Head Over Heels: “[It sounded] as if Fred Astaire should be dancing across the credits.” Just look at the original poster: John Heard’s smiling, snow-covered head leers over a snowy countryside as a tagline boldly pronounces “Love does strange things to people. And Charles is a little strange to start with.” But with this Twilight Time release we get the film presented as it was original intended: bittersweet and resigned. Small comfort for those who see Charles as little less than a manic stalker.