Hidden Gem: “Chilly Scenes of Winter” (1979)

By Syd Slobodnik

This week’s film is a rarely seen movie by screenwriter and director Joan Micklin Silver, a filmmaker whose very personal films featured strong women’s voices, like “Hester Street (1975) and “Crossing Delancey” (1988). This week’s gem is “Chilly Scenes of Winter” (1979), a rather odd blend of serious melancholy and a romantic comedy starring John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt.

The film was based on Ann Beattie’s novel and was initially titled “Head Over Heels” because the studio wanted to accent the film’s comedic slant. When it was initially released, its studio labeled it a flop and asked the producers and Silver to recut the film. Silver shot a more serious ending, and the studio rereleased the film to art houses, where it found a limited following.

This unusual romance concerns the problem of one person loving someone more than they love you in return and a woman’s wish not to have someone else impose his will on her. Charles Richardson (Heard) is a despondent civil servant in Salt Lake City who has fallen in love with Laura Conley (Hurt), a co-worker who is married to an ex-professional quarterback nicknamed “Ox” (Mark Metcalf). Still, she’s having trouble with the relationship and loves her stepdaughter Rebecca.

Peter Riegert is featured as Charles’s unemployed buddy and housemate Sam, and Griffin Dunne is Charles’ sister Susan’s new boyfriend. Famed Hollywood star Gloria Grahame, who most may remember as Violet, the blonde girl from Bedford Falls who has a crush on George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” is simply delightful as Charles’s slightly eccentric mother Clara.

As the film begins, Charlie is leaving work on a cold sleeting evening. In his workplace’s lobby, he stops to buy a candy bar from a blind vendor who asks, “What’ll you have?” The first words we hear from Charles are, “I don’t have Laura.”

Silver begins working her narrative magic using a series of fantasies and flashbacks to depict Charles’s extreme obsessive adoration of Laura. This effect creates much initial empathy for Charles. After work, when he gets to his parked car, he imagines a conversation with Laura where she comments on his bent and fogged-up eyeglasses. Then, almost like a Woody Allen film, moments later, he turns directly to the audience and begins telling us details of his dilemma with Laura. He met Laura just over a year ago. They moved in together after she left her husband for a short while, and for over two months, things were rather wonderful for them both; that is, until Charles became too obsessive.

Interspersed between the flashbacks, Charles tries desperately to get Laura back, almost to the point of stalking her at night, parking outside her home. He eventually even pretends to be engaging in buying an A-framed house from Laura’s husband’s real estate company so that he can create opportunities to be near Laura.

Yet, what makes this tale so effective is Heard’s casting as Charles and the chemistry he creates with Mary Beth Hurt. For a time in the 1980s, he was a very likable leading actor in films like “Big,” “After Hours” and as the dad in “Home Alone.” Silver notes on the video commentary that after she first read Beattie’s novel, Heard was her first and only choice for the lead because of genuine compassion. I can bear witness to that because I was fortunate to see Heard on stage in the Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of the Don DeLillo play “Love Lies Bleeding” in May 2006.

Silver also effectively accents many of the film’s more moody parts by using “Toots” Thielemans’ jazzy harmonica solos and whistled melodies.

“Chilly Scenes of Winter” is an endearing, honest depiction of a short-lived love affair between two ordinary people who, despite needing companionship and understanding, realize it can’t be. After a career of directing over a dozen feature films and television movies, Ms. Silver passed away at the age of 85 on Dec. 31, 2020.