Richard Nisley

College radicals back in the day (I know these guys)
History - American Released - Jun 11, 2017

“The Big Chill” is a 1983 movie based loosely on John Sayles's “The Return of the Secaucus Seven.” It’s about several college radicals—who have since gone on to sundry professions and various degrees of materialism—reuniting fifteen years later over the death of a friend. The cast includes Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Mary Kay Place, and JoBeth Williams. The movie is funny, sad, poignant, and for me, relatable. I know these guys from my college days, or rather, know the types.

It wasn’t Michigan, but a small college in the California High Desert, around the time the characters in "The Big Chill" were attending Ann Arbor. Radicalism was all the rage. Being a student-radical was fashionable, as Glenn Close alludes to in the movie. Many of the radicals I knew had been surfers only a few years before, wearing Pendleton's and sandals and sporting bleached-blonde hair. Now, in college, they had undergone a change of wardrobe and dressed the part of itinerant farm workers who picked grapes in the San Joaquin Valley. Shakespeare’s observation applies: “All the world’s a stage, / All the men and women merely players.”

The idea was to avoid like the plague looking bourgeoise (a.k.a. middle class). “Bourgeoise” was a word kicked around a lot on campus back then, along with phrases like “the ruling elite,” “the working class,” “value judgements,” and “the military industrial complex.” If you wanted to fit in, you talked the talk and wore suitably worn work shirts, jeans (bell-bottoms were okay if thread-bare) and scruffy lace-up boots. That, and long hair, and you were in. I wore short hair, dressed conservatively (i.e. middle-class) and was tolerated, possibly, because I was on the college newspaper. Being a friend of the student body president didn’t hurt either. My friends the campus radicals dominated student government, challenged the college administration on an almost weekly basis, were against the Vietnam War (who wasn’t?) and consumed with the latest movement—saving the planet.


The superficial Sam Weber character (Tom Berenger in the movie), was our charismatic student body president. In high school, he’d been known as “Golden Toes,” the can’t miss field-goal kicker for the football team. Now, he was the golden-locked can’t-miss leader of the campus radicals, with a gift for oratory. He tried out for the leading role in the Spring play and—despite not being a member of the theater arts class and having no acting experience whatsoever—won the part. The lost, sensitive Nick Carlton character (William Hurt) wore his radicalism like a badge of honor. I think he needed to believe in something, and he grasped onto socialism as if it were a life support. After listening to a black panther speak in the college gym (as part of a symposium that included representatives from CORE, the Urban League and NAACP), he asked the panther what he could do to help their cause—“as a white revolutionary.” Moving to the ghetto and serving breakfast to hungry school kids wasn’t exactly the answer he was expecting.

The nice-guy Harold Cooper character (Kevin Kline) was also on the student council. He wanted to start a branch of the notorious SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). No dice, said the college administration. He settled instead on something of his own creating—the SDC (Student Democratic Council) which organized ecology walks. My first newspaper assignment was to cover their very first walk—picking up trash on 10th Street West. The manipulative and cynical Michael Cooper character (Jeff Goldblum) was a gifted writer who worked with me on the paper. He saw through the student-radical phoniness but played along anyway, and wrote a devastatingly-funny piece that questioned the sincerity of the campus radicals. It nearly got him beaten up by those who didn’t see the humor (so much for peace, love and brotherhood). The Sarah Cooper character (Glenn Close) played violin in the college orchestra and graduated Summa Cum Laude. She wrote for the paper, and why I never asked her out is a mystery. The down-to-earth Meg Jones character (Mary Kay Place) was everybody’s friend and wanted to become an attorney. The shallow Karen Bowens character (JoBeth Williams) was elected homecoming queen.


Every time I see “The Big Chill” it reminds me of my college days. I was not as close to the group as those portrayed in the movie, but I knew them well enough from serving on the student council and as editor-in-chief of the college paper. As in the movie, some of them lived together in a rented house that doubled as party central. They were essentially well meaning, like the characters in the movie, seeking a role to play as they moved from teenage angst to adulthood, and finding it by taking part in the student-radical movement. They weren’t radicals in the truest sense: they didn’t kidnap anyone, or burn down the administration building, or arm themselves, but they did march and hold protest rallies (and partied afterwards). They did this before having to face the inevitable—the cold world of work and worry, failed relationships and disillusionment, the world of the “The Big Chill.”

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