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Dinner and a Movie: ‘The Big Chill’ Reunites Our Past Selves

In a cold world, you need friends to keep you warm — plus the perfect skillet roast chicken with sides

spinner image skillet roast chicken on a table with green beans, glass of wine, two cups of coffee, newspaper, tall candles, bowl of fruit, flowers, salt, pepper, sugar, and a Michigan shirt
Photos by Noah Fecks

Welcome to our Dinner and a Movie series, where we feature nostalgic essays on some of our favorite films from the '80s and '90s, and share recipes inspired from movie moments.

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There is a child in a bathtub. He is probably around 3, debating the merits, mostly, of Three Dog Night’s Joy to the World. His father, Harold Cooper, played by an affable Kevin Kline, snaps along as the child begins to sing. A phone rings in the background.

Framed in the doorway of the bathroom, Sarah Cooper, a doctor (a young Glenn Close), answers, back to the camera. She returns the phone to the cradle, appears closer in the frame, tears dappling her cheeks, as the music crests: It’s Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” The camera cuts to a close-up of part of a leg, sock on, in preparation for a formal event. So begins one of the greatest ensemble films about postcollegiate life, 1983’s The Big Chill.

spinner image William Hurt, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams seated around dinner table in scene from The Big Chill
Clockwise from left: William Hurt, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum and JoBeth Williams in a scene from 'The Big Chill,' one of the greatest ensemble films about postcollegiate life.
Courtesy Everett Collection

The movie is, on its face, a story about Alex Marshall, a friend of the Coopers from their University of Michigan days, who is played, theoretically, by Kevin Costner — a man who never actually appears on-screen. (Flashback scenes with Costner as Alex were filmed but subsequently cut from the picture.) Alex’s sudden death by suicide compels a pack of disparate friends to reunite for the weekend at the Coopers’ South Carolina compound.

‘The Big Chill’ Recipe

To honor this film, make this dish with spring onions and new potatoes to feast on with friends.

Skillet Roast Chicken

spinner image roast chicken, potatoes and spring opinions in a skillet

There is the actor, Sam Weber (Tom Berenger); the attorney and desperately uncoupled Meg Jones (Mary Kay Place); the unseemly journalist, Michael Gold (Jeff Goldblum); the disturbed Vietnam vet, Nick Carlton (William Hurt); the girlfriend of the recently deceased, Chloe (Meg Tilly); and the unhappy housewife, Karen Bowens (Jo Beth Williams). “He should be here,” Sarah Cooper laments, after one musical, magical meal at the family’s long table. “I feel like we should have had a chair for Alex.”

Alex’s absence allows for the framework of the movie, of course, for the dancing and the singing and the fighting and the chaos. The chair that does not exist for Alex is the genesis of the movie. Coming together after college is a moment to reevaluate. Are we the people we used to be? Do we still like each other? Did we ever? The Bill Chill, one might argue, is a multigenerational movie in this way. It twists the knife of nostalgia, reminds us of our best and worst selves, takes us back in time. It’s a film easily watched with parents and with children, many of whom can relate to its layered circumstances: Here is who we once were or who we thought we would be. Here is who we are now. Here is where we have landed.

This is the way life after college goes, as a matter of course. Time passes. There are more moments of absence than congregation. The Big Chill is just as much a movie about these spaces as it is a movie about getting together. It’s about whom we miss when we grow into the people we’re meant to be, and how we soldier on, how we get older, how adulthood claims us.

Where to Watch The Big Chill?

There are many websites and apps you can use to find out where to watch films, including:

spinner image The Big Chill poster art showing Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum, JoBeth Williams, William Hurt, Mary Kay Place, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly  with words How much love, sex, fun and friendship can a person take?
Columbia Pictures/Courtesy: Everett Collection

The Coopers’ Beaufort home is filled with markers of adulthood. In some ways they are the standard-bearers for their friends, the ones who have really made it. They are the ones with the nice china, the dining room that seats eight, the yard large enough for a full-throttle game of touch football. But the point of The Big Chill is not necessarily to see the couple as aspirational; it is, more fully, to see in each of the characters something relatable. In those brittle years after college, while we are still searching for roots, have we not all seen in ourselves a little of Chloe’s tenderness, a little of Meg’s desperation, a little of Nick’s stagnancy, a little of Michael’s inappropriate bombast, a little of Karen’s malaise?

For all its characters' flaws, The Big Chill is, in its more generous moments, jubilant. Few films have ever made rehoming leftovers and loading a dishwasher look as appealing as this one does, with the characters around the kitchen as the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” plays in the background.

And then, of course, there is the final scene, more playful wit, a reminder that these friends will, in fact, stay friends, despite what distance may separate them. “Sarah, Harold, we took a secret vote,” Michael says over breakfast. “We’re not leaving. We’re never leaving.” “Joy to the World,” by Three Dog Night, crescendos. The credits roll. We all want a seat at their table. We all want to eat what they’re eating, to be suspended in time, for just a little while longer.


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