By Alan Hurst
Released in the fall of 1980, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People was greeted with laudatory reviews, strong box office and easily found its place as the front runner at that year’s Academy Awards. It’s only in retrospect that people have questioned its win as Best Picture over Martin Scorsese’s searing Raging Bull, but at the time its win was expected and widely applauded. Unfortunately, that Oscar victory over Raging Bull (now acknowledged as one of the greatest films of all time) has slightly tarnished the reputation of what was a very strong directorial debut for Redford and a successful exploration of grief, love, and expectation and the impact they have on the family dynamic.
Ordinary People tells the story of the Jarretts, a decent family trying to cope with the accidental drowning of the oldest son and the subsequent suicide attempt of the youngest son Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who survived the boating accident. The film focuses on the guilt and pain Conrad feels because he survived and on his attempts to re-connect with friends and his parents with the help of his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch). In parallel to Conrad’s journey is the acutely observed relationship and grief of the parents – Donald Sutherland’s wounded father trying to do the right thing and trying to move forward, and Mary Tyler Moore’s chilly, rigid mother who is unable to cope with the “mess” that has been made of a seemingly perfect life.
Alvin Sargent won a well-deserved Academy Award for his adaptation of the Judith Guest novel that perfectly tapped into the WASP psyche and the impact on that when tragedy hits. Guest’s lean prose and insight are expertly translated to the screen. The upper middle-class lifestyle the Jarrets enjoy would seem to give them the resources to weather tragedy, but that’s one of the film’s strongest observations. The family’s economic position, beautiful house, and country club membership are no help when life’s inevitable bombshells hit. That’s what makes these privileged characters ordinary. Nobody escapes the crap that life throws our way – the only thing we can control is how we cope with it.
The first time I saw the film in 1980 I identified completely with Timothy Hutton’s Conrad – his awkwardness, his alienation, his desire to fade into the background, and his growing disdain for doing what was expected were very relatable. Outside of some TV work, this was Hutton’s big screen debut, and under Redford’s skilled guidance, he delivers a raw, very realistic performance. This is a kid who – in 1980 – did not look out of place in suburban high school or hanging around a mall. He’s ordinary. And it’s an extraordinary performance.
When it was announced that Redford had decided to cast Mary Tyler Moore as the cold, detached mother people questioned her suitability and Redford’s rationale. He said in an interview that he saw Moore walking on the beach in Malibu and saw something a little darker and more introspective than her television personae had ever revealed. At this point in her career Moore was America’s comic sweetheart – coming off spectacular runs on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Redford had considered Natalie Wood, Ann-Margret and Lee Remick among others to play Beth, but he wisely trusted his instincts and went with Moore. She dug deep behind her famous smile and showed us a mother for whom appearances are everything and emotions are to be buried. It’s a role that could very easily have come across as one dimensional, but Moore and Redford gave her depth without making her evil or completely unsympathetic. Although she doesn’t have a lot of scenes, Moore’s every appearance is major. If Hutton is the focus of the film, Moore is its catalyst. The way she communicates her inability to connect with her son or show any affection is sobering – whether it’s the way her neck tendons flare when he turns down breakfast, or a tense exchange in the backyard trying to make small talk, or the way she shuts her husband down when he suggests the family get some help – she’s perfect.
The casting of Donald Sutherland as the father was also viewed as an oddball choice at the time. Paul Newman, Bruce Dern and Ken Howard were among the names supposedly considered for Calvin, and Redford could have easily played the father himself, but the balance of the film would have shifted. Sutherland, primarily known at this point for his more quirky and anti-establishment roles in the seventies, delivers one of his best performances as the solid but wounded patriarch who clearly loves his family, but is struggling to get things back on track. Not traditionally handsome, he again helps dial up the “ordinary” and he’s also a nice physical match for Moore. They feel like a real couple grappling with a rotten situation – his flashes of frustrated anger and her icy, stern responses are very accurate.
Also doing solid work are Elizabeth McGovern as a Conrad’s new girlfriend and Judd Hirsch as the psychiatrist Dr. Berger. McGovern is charming and understated – a nice match for Hutton’s character. Hirsch is the psychiatrist idealized. He’s compassionate, tough, and wise. It’s a good performance, but if the film has a flaw for me it’s the use of the scenes with the psychiatrist to ensure Conrad’s struggle is neatly resolved by the end of the film. Re-watching it now with a better understanding of the ongoing need for therapy it all feels just a little too pat, but it’s still impactful.
As a director Redford clearly has a way with actors, not surprising considering the number of years he had spent in front of the camera. All of the principals gave the best performances of their careers under his patient care. There isn’t a false note among them. Visually, he also knew what he was doing. The film has been described as a chamber piece which, taken negatively, could mean slow. But the pace of Ordinary People is deliberate – he has a gentle, leisurely approach to telling the story that works and is never boring. Although set in the chill of late fall and winter, he also ensured that the film had a warm look and feel. The subject may be cold and severe, but there are a lot of golds and warmly lit scenes to counter that. Even though the Jarrett’s home has nothing out of place and is impeccably decorated, for the most part it feels comfortable if quiet. That vanishes towards the end when things finally begin to disintegrate with the parent’s relationship. When Calvin finally articulates his feelings about Beth’s inability to emotionally connect, the visuals are dark with muted shades of gray.
When the nominations were announced for that year’s Academy Awards, Ordinary People was expected to score well. It did in the major categories, but surprisingly didn’t get the attention it deserved in some of the technical categories, namely cinematography and film editing. On Oscar night the film picked up four awards – Best Picture, Best Director for Redford, Best Supporting Actor for Timothy Hutton and Best Adapted Screenplay. Moore was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Hirsch was also a nominee for Best Supporting Actor. This is one of the many times that the categorization of the actors didn’t really make sense. Hutton is the lead in this film and should have been in the running for Best Actor. And Sutherland should have been in there as well. They both would have lost to Robert De Niro’s magnificent work in Raging Bull, but it definitely would have made that year’s races more logical. The case could be also made that Moore should have been in the Supporting Actress category based on the size of her role, and she would then have easily emerged the winner.
Following Ordinary People Robert Redford continued to hone his skills as a director with many films over the next few decades – A River Runs Through It (1992) and Quiz Show (1994) are two of his best – but none of his films ever achieved the impact of what he did here. Something about this story and these characters truly resonated for him and it shows.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.