Laura, Laura, Laura, the face in the misty light, the waitress at the Algonquin in They All Laughed, the woman by Preminger and Tierney, and John Heard’s ex-girlfriend in Chilly Scenes of Winter, adapted by Joan Micklin Silver in 1979 from Ann Beattie’s novel. Beattie plays a waitress in the movie, based on her book where food comes up on just about every page—she’s said that “everyone in the book is constantly eating, or thinking or talking about eating.” It’s a phenomenal book, but the food stuff really gets gross after a while, then again I’d never say the same thing about some degenerate Frenchman spending a novel subsisting solely on black coffee, cigarettes, baguette, and rot-gut wine. Beattie’s dense and discursive story about unrequited love still makes you smell every dish and kitchen, a huge turn-off for me in books and movies, but Silver tones it down, fortunate that the third sense is much harder to convey on the screen than on the page.
What can you say about one of the best movies ever made about unrequited love? Heard plays Charles brilliantly, and he’s an actor I never really liked—he’s horrendous as the alt-weekly writer in Silver’s awful 1977 Between the Lines—but as a bitter, brokenhearted mess, albeit functioning, his clock is fixed for 95 minutes. Mary Beth Hurt is just as great as Heard, following her astonishing debut in Woody Allen’s Interiors the previous year. He meets her in the research department, they flirt, it’s written in the stars—but she’s married. But! “We’re having some problems right now.” Charles finds his way in. They go home, they date, and they finally sleep together. It’s as natural and romantic a depiction of falling in love as any I know in American cinema. She’s not divorced, just living on her own and “figuring things out,” but Charles screws up an easy situation by being unable to play it cool, let her breathe, and he’s all over her, “like you want to be around me 24/7.”
Towards the end of their relationship, she tells him, “You have this exalted view of me that I just can’t live up to,” and admits that she stays with a husband who loves her too little because it’s what she deserves: “With you, I feel like a fraud.” Charles is so head over heels that he offers one option for her to feel like less of a fraud with him: “I’m gonna rape you.” She says nothing and walks away—they’ve had their fight for the evening, but that wasn’t a relationship ending line. He’s so in love with her he’s gone insane—indeed, head over heels.
Which is what this movie was called when it was first released in 1979. Head Over Heels had a happy ending (included on the new Criterion Collection disc) and a comic poster that made it look like, well, They All Laughed. Chilly Scenes of Winter is far from a comedy or a romance, but it’s not a straight drama like Interiors by any means. More than any other, it embodies the teetering and ceaseless physiological state that occurs when you’re in love. You don’t just run hot or cold, and you don’t choose to feel anything, it just happens, and it can destroy your life if it goes wrong. With this new edition and restoration, more people will see one of the best American films of the late-1970s, and one of the most powerful opening scenes I know: Charles gets into his car after buying a Baby Ruth. He gets in, and Laura’s in the back, we see her in the rearview mirror: “Gimme your glasses.” He invites her up to the front, and she moves up next to him. “This is why you need me around,” she says, “Yeah, so you can fix—” the camera cuts, and we see that Charles is talking to no one. “—my glasses.”
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith