Moviegoer, "The Feature Film Magazine"
Three on the Brink
Article by William Wolf
For these actresses, the wait may be over. After years of memorable performances on stage, screen and television, all are on the verge of stardom. Now, in The Big Chill they may have found the movie that will carry them to the top.
Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams and Glenn Close are all at crucial points in their careers. Place, best known as the irrepressible Loretta of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," is stretching for a broader acting range and a new involvement in screenwriting. Williams aims to capitalize on her success as the heroic mom in Poltergeist. And Close is basking in heightened recognition after her Oscar-nominated performance as Jenny Fields in The World According to Garp.
Now, poised on the brink of major success, all three women have landed lead roles in the eagerly awaited film The Big Chill. In this movie, which also stars William Hurt (Body Heat) and Kevin Kline (Sophie's Choice), the actresses are part of a strong acting ensemble, and they are working for Lawrence Kasdan, an extremely successful screenwriter (Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) and director (Body Heat). For those reasons, The Big Chill may be the movie that secures all three women a place among the most important actresses now working.
In addition to the promise their careers hold, Place, Williams and Close have something else in common: membership in the post-World War II baby-boom generation. Now in their thirties, they have gained perspective and have begun to take stock of their lives. Thus far they have devoted themselves to building acting careers, not to settling down and starting families; yet all are aware of the ticking biological clock.
In view of all this, what could be more appropriate than shared stardom in The Big Chill? The hopes and ideals of the actresses' generation, measured against present realities, are at the core of the script by Kasdan and Barbara Benedek. The film, a comedy-drama, includes the kind of self-evaluation that is going on in the actresses' own lives.
The Big Chill is about seven friends who attended college together in the latter half of the 1960's. The action takes place about 15 years later, when they are brought together again by the funeral of another pal, Alex, who has committed suicide. They meet at the Beaufort, South Carolina, home of two former college friends who are now married. At school, the seven regarded Alex as their social conscience. Now, faced with his death, they examine their lives and compare them with the goals they set themselves as young idealists.
Director Kasdan calls The Big Chill a "mosaic" of ensemble work and says that the lead roles are equal, not only in screen time, but also in a certain "evenhandedness in the way the characters are seen."
To make The Big Chill, the cast worked for nine weeks on location in Beaufort and Atlanta. Instead of getting on one another's nerves during the intense shooting schedule, they became a tightly knit group. Sometimes Kline and Jeff Goldblum (who plays another of the former students) would cook dinner, or the gang would go out dancing. They gabbed about their lives and cemented friendships.
Then suddenly it was over. Kasdan buried himself in the editing room, and the actors went their separate ways. For Place and Williams, that meant returning to Los Angeles; for Close, it meant returning to her new apartment in New York City.
MARY KAY PLACE
When you telephone Mary Kay Place and she's not at home, you hear her recorded voice cheerily imploring you not just to leave a message but to sing a song. "You'd be surprised at some of the little songs I get," she says. We are sitting in the Patio Restaurant of the Beverly Hills Hotel, eating lunch and chatting while fashion models intermittently parade past the table. Place provides her own splash of style and color, with her blond hair and green eyes set off by the multihued sweater and wine-colored jacket she's wearing. Above all, she displays her bright personality.
She tells me about her role as Meg in The Big Chill: "Meg has been a lawyer in a public defender's office but has finally said, 'Wait a minute – I want to earn a living.' So she abandons all her idealism to go into real estate law. She's never been married, wakes up one day and decides she wants a child. Gathered for this weekend are her favorite men in the whole world. She decides one of them should be the father.
"Playing Meg set my head reeling," Place adds, explaining that the experience made her examine her own life. Although she recently turned 35, she's never been married and isn't living with anyone at the moment. Even so, she would like to have a child one day. "But having a child alone is not a decision I'd make at this point. Right now I'd like the full American Plan. The part really brought up a lot of my own feelings about family and career.
"I enjoy working," she continues, "but I'm not an actress who likes to act just because there's a job available. I like things with which I can connect. Sometimes I think I'll give it all up and move to New Mexico and plant a garden, maybe run a little grocery store."
That notion of a home in the Southwest may reflect a wish to return to her native territory. Place grew up in Oklahoma and studied at the University of Tulsa, where her father was a professor. In college, she was far removed from the radicalism that raged on other campuses during the '60's. "In Oklahoma in the '60's, it might as well have been the '50's," she says with a laugh. "I sort of missed the '60's. It wasn't until after graduation, when I got into my Volkswagen and headed for Los Angeles, that I became sensitive to what was happening."
From the start, Place knew she wanted to break into movies and television. "My first job was as a typist in the music permissions department of CBS. Then I worked for the "Tim Conway Comedy Hour," then for David Steinberg. I had acted a lot in school, but I was interested in seeing the whole picture, so I started in production to get a chance to observe." The crucial jump came after she co-wrote a pilot for the famed TV producer Norman Lear just as he was casting "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman." (Place went on to write episodes for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "M*A*S*H," and "All in the Family;" she has also written material for Lily Tomlin and "Saturday Night Live.")
As she now recalls it, "When I was a secretary, I'd written a song for and acted in an episode of "All in the Family," so Norman knew I could act a bit. He said, 'I've got this strange new show, and there's a part as Mary's sister, Cathy.'" She rushed home to read it. "When I saw the part of Loretta, I thought, 'God, forget Cathy – I want to be Loretta.'" She read for both parts, but it took a four-week series of acting classes to convince Lear that she could handle the role.
"Loretta changed my life," says Place, leaning forward for emphasis. "Sweet Loretta! It was the most fun ever. It was such a thrill to get to sing-a 360-degree Zen experience. Good, bad, wonderful, terrifying. Since Loretta couldn't sing very well, I got to do all these crazy things." She suddenly chirps in Loretta's oddball voice, "She thought she was fabulous."
Place wrote more than 75 songs for the show, and the exposure gave her a recording career (three albums for Columbia Records; her greatest hit is the 1976 song "Baby Boy") and opened the way for her movie career. She has appeared in Bound for Glory, New York, New York, and Private Benjamin.
"But The Big Chill gives me a more dramatic part," she says proudly. "Although I love comedy more than anything else, I get to show another side of me." What was the hardest aspect of the role? "The love scenes," she replies without hesitation. "I wanted to make sure that I was very loving about the act of love. No lust – not a shred. It wasn't about that. It was important to me that the scenes about creating a child be sweet."
[I'm skipping over the JoBeth Williams and Glenn Close sections here. Since I'm interrupting, it's interesting to see in print a reference to the third LP which went unreleased. Either the writer hadn't checked facts, or possibly knew about the fabled album and chose to write about it to tease us all!]
THREE SMART WOMEN
For all the actresses' self-appraisal, their director may be in a position to be most objective about their strengths-or weaknesses. Larry Kasdan came out of the editing room long enough to comment on Place, Williams and Close: "All three have a very simple clarity, the kind of true response that doesn't work too hard to put something across. They are just people, and what happens to them onscreen really happens. Once you have that, then you can ask them to give the best possible range of choices. All three are very funny, and they're also very generous as performers. And that means that they're perfect for ensemble work."
The director obliges with a capsule evaluation of each actress:
He was always impressed by Place in "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and in her various films. He finds her adorable and likable, qualities she also displays in his film. But for The Big Chill, he explains, "I didn't want her to be as lively and perky as she's been in a lot of her movie roles. I wanted to calm that down a little, because her concerns in the movie are very serious. She's got a real mission for the weekend. I want viewers to care deeply about Meg and her dilemma. Mary Kay was able to deliver that," Kasdan says admiringly.
"I was particularly knocked out by JoBeth in Poltergeist. She really made that movie go for me. She took a fantastical setting and story and made it all very real. At the start she thinks the haunting of the house is very funny, and she's lighthearted. But when the danger takes on a tragic dimension, I found, she could make it very believable."
About Close, he observes, "I had seen Glenn only in Garp. I said, 'God, that's Sarah.' I needed someone very strong and controlled. In the movie, Glenn and Kevin Kline, who plays her husband, own the house where everyone is staying. There's a parental cast to their position in the group. Glenn is a strong enough actress to play that role with all those other strong actors. She gives off a lot of confidence and energy."
Perhaps Kevin Kline – himself on the brink of major stardom after Sophie's Choice – pays all three women the greatest tribute when he sums up the common assets he discovered while working with them. He agrees that each has a marvelous sense of humor; then he raises a finger to his temple and taps it decisively, saying, "They have brains."