By John H. Foote
22. ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
Sorry Alan, but I believe 21 films are stronger than Ordinary People, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was the debut film of Robert Redford as a director, adapted from a best-selling novel by Judith Guest, and a rather impressive one at that. Redford has long been a major movie star from the end of the late of the sixties and through the seventies and wanted to grow as an artist. Clint Eastwood had already began directing, as had Warren Beatty, and Woody Allen had won an Oscar for directing Annie Hall (1977), so why not Redford? Initially the studio made demanded that Redford take a role in the film, but he refused, believing directing would take up his time, and he wanted to do an excellent job.
The film explores the events that take place after the eldest son in the Jarrett family is killed in a boating accident, and the youngest son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), survives but is so overcome with grief and guilt that he attempts suicide, bringing more pain to the family.
Obviously wealthy, the family lives in upper class Lake Forest, Illinois, have a beautiful home and a seemingly great life, but there are dark events within those walls threatening to tear them apart. The death of their son Buck has propelled events into motion that cannot be controlled or contained.
In the washroom one night, seen in flashbacks, Conrad slashes his wrists vertically, leaving the ambulance attendant to exclaim, “he meant business”. Conrad is now home from the psychiatric hospital, trying to find his way back to his life, but the obstacles are great. He feels the kids looking at him with accusatory glances or looks of curiosity, and knows he is the subject of gossip. He knows he must attend follow up sessions with a local psychiatrist and he chooses Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) a kindly, decent man who understands Conrad far better than Conrad understands himself, but he is getting there.
His greatest obstacle is his mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) who is cold to him, unfeeling, unloving even. Flashbacks show the love she had for the oldest son, whom she adored, and possibly without meaning too, she blames Conrad for the death of her other son, Buck. But with Beth it goes deeper, she is so orderly and clean, it is the mess she cannot handle. The mess of the death of Buck, the mess of the blood in the bathroom after he slashed his wrists, the mess in their family, and the mess in the neighborhood as to what people think. She is fine with her husband, the decent hard working and trying to understand Calvin (Donald Sutherland), an investment banker. There is no question the family is rich, but the troubles within their home are legion.
Calvin tries his best to understand his son, and his loss, but quickly understands he cannot and he himself needs help as much as his son. He visits Dr. Berger to find out how his son is doing but at the doctor’s urging they talk about him. Calvin returns home and discusses with Beth what he has learned but she does not see anything but his pain and will not look at her own, which she so needs to do. Instead of grieving, instead of understanding her grief and behavior, she forges on being strong Beth, perfect Beth.
Meanwhile, Conrad begins seeing a very pretty young lady, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), and quits the swim team which enrages his mother. Appearance is essential to Beth, and by quitting the team, Beth feels he is slipping back into familiar actions and she will not go through it again. He fights with old friends, young teenage boys Buck and he knew together, because they cannot reach him and as he tells them “it hurts too much being around you”. More and more Calvin sees Conrad making the effort, making the right decisions, for himself, but his mother coldly rebuffs him time and time again. They head south to Texas leaving Conrad with his grandparents, but neither have much of a good time. Calvin and Beth quarrel, with mounting intensity, often and always about their son, leaving Calvin with unsettling questions. Meanwhile Conrad has a complete meltdown when he discovers his friend from the hospital, Karen (Dinah Manoff), has killed herself. They had met for lunch not long before and as Conrad says “she was fine.” Knowing he has no one but Berger to discuss his feelings with, he calls the good doctor late at night and they meet, Conrad falling apart. Berger digs sensing a breakthrough and gets to the root of Conrad’s guilt … shame. Terrible guilt that his brother died and a deep struggle with survivor’s guilt, but they break through it. Berger urges Conrad to continue doing what he is doing, trying every day while forgiving his mother’s frailty and inability to show emotion, even love. Told never let go, never leave the boat, Conrad did, so there is shame for that, shame that he held onto the boat as they were told to do, shame he was perhaps stronger. And shame his brother died and he did not that terrible night because for Conrad, death would be preferable to what he is feeling. Knowing Conrad needs personal contact the doctor embraces him as the boy sobs uncontrollably in his arms, a damn of tears flowing, finally. Conrad realizes that Berger is not only his doctor, but his friend, and he never needed a friend like he does at that moment.
His parents arrive home a few days later and Conrad, before going to bed, tells his mother he is glad they are home, and goes and embraces her, but she cannot return it and turns away in horror at that fact. Calvin, seeing everything is stunned and left speechless.
That night Calvin rises and goes to their dining room and sits at a table weeping. He has lost his son, his wife might not love their youngest son, and he can feel himself falling out of love with her, questioning whether or not she is even capable of love. Beth comes down and they talk, but it is not, as always, what she wants to hear. He tells her he has seen the coldness in her, the caution, and that perhaps she loved Buck so much there was nothing left for anyone else. And realizing the depth of his despair, he tells her he is not sure he loves her anymore.
Beth climbs the stairs to her bedroom and packs bag, heading back to her brother in Texas. Before she can pack, something breaks inside her, and she is nearly knocked down by the emotional horror she is facing. Can a mother really hate her son? She can barely look at Conrad and when he hugged her earlier in the night, she could not hug him back, re buffing him as though he were a leper.
Conrad wakes to find the house empty but discovers his father on the back deck, sitting alone, the morning air frigid. Perhaps for the first time since Buck died, Calvin is realizing he has been alone since the accident. Conrad comes out and his father tells him his mother has left. But when Conrad begins to blame himself, Calvin lashes out at him that it is not true. He tells his son things are not always as you think they are. Conrad has always felt safe with his father, he loves him, and tells him so. Needing to hear that more than any other time in his life, Calvin looks at his son in heartbreak and whispers “I love you too” as his voice break.
Ordinary People earned rave reviews from the moment it opened, critics loved the film for the honesty of it, for the look behind affluence and finding the same problems that exist in every household. Redford’s direction was perfect, drawing superb from the actors, including a career altering piece of acting from Mary Tyler Moore. The always sunny Mary of the award winning and groundbreaking sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show which made her a legend, goes in the opposite direction and is brilliant. Had she decided to continue a film career, she could have had a very good one.
Young Timothy Hutton was excellent as Conrad, capturing the awkwardness of a young man in turmoil that we cannot image. And he looks wired, haunted, an insomniac, frightened and in need of help. There was a lovely chemistry between Hutton and McGovern, one that was believable, one that was honest.
But the best work in the film was that of Donald Sutherland, brilliant as Calvin, the grieving father who is also losing his marriage and needs the strength of the love of his family that is eroding quickly to recover. In the end it will be just he and Conrad, though I suspect Beth will find herself and return, but will they have her? Will Calvin put his son in that situation again? Sutherland found the soul of the man and that soul became the very soul of the film, a breathtaking performance.
What was unique about the film was that the problems within the family grew out of themselves, through not communicating, talking about it, getting help. After the passing of my wife, just 45, I saw someone after falling into a deep depression. For three months I did not write a word, did not watch a film, did not answer the phone or emails. It was alarming enough that my college crew came to see me and snap me out it, depression is a terrible thing, like a living death. And though I am not comparing myself to Conrad in any way, there is always the thought that death would be less painful.
Behind the closed doors of that magnificent home, decorated tastefully and perfectly, is despair and pain, terrible dysfunction that is getting worse, not better. Only when Calvin looks deep into himself is there a change, the recognition that they need help, that he specifically needs to talk to someone. Listen to the heartache in his voice when he talks about the day of his son’s funeral and Beth is worried about which shoes he will wear. Appearance was paramount, and Calvin simply does not understand that. At its core, the film is about communication, the communicating of problems and mounting troubles, and what the lack of communication can do not just to a person, but a family and circle of friends. Telling his friend that “it hurts too much to be around you” is a huge step for Conrad, and he continues moving down that road.
Ordinary People won the coveted New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture, was nominated for seven Golden Globes (winning six) and best of all earned six Academy Award nominations and Redford won the Directors Guild of America as Best Director. The greatest snub of the year, and which remains one of the most shocking and unfair snubs in Oscar history, was Sutherland not being a Best Actor nominee. Jack Lemmon in Tribute (1980) seriously? A two-hour film with Lemmon hamming and mugging in every frame became a virtual love-in for the actor. And terribly embarrassing. I like Jack Lemmon; I believe he is a wonderful actor but there was no chance he belonged among the five nominees for Best Actor in 1980 and it was near criminal to see Sutherland omitted.
Though Ordinary People remains a powerful, understated work, it is often remembered today as the film that defeated Martin Scorsese’s searing and scorched Raging Bull, a biography of boxer Jake La Motta. Yes in hindsight, there was really no competition between the two, Scorsese’s work is a dark work of art, but the Academy was not yet ready to honor the gifted director and wanted to honor Redford, who had not won an acting Oscar and been nominated just once, for The Sting (1973).
If you are able to watch the two films back to back, there is no question that Scorsese created a bold, visceral work of art, the study of a man who allowed his fury to govern his life. The anger that drives Raging Bull is astounding, difficult to watch, and after the film has ended, we have been through the intensity of a crucible. Beyond the simply astonishing performances of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty, look at the black and white cinematography, the profane screenplay, the boxing sequences, placing us in the head of the fighters, the sound, and the film editing, all coming together for this magnificent film. Ordinary People is a very good film, superbly acted and directed, but between the two, Raging Bull is by far the greater picture. By far.
Like a great stage ensemble, Ordinary People unfolds, letting each layer roll over the audience before the next realization. Beautifully acted, Redford’s great accomplishment is in the acting, guiding his cast to superlative work. There is simply not a flawed performance among them. Hutton is raw, sometimes unfocused but it works in the creation of the character.
Young Hutton would be a popular winner for Best Supporting Actor, besting no less than the great Joe Pesci in Raging Bull, but sadly would never again attain these heights. He has been ordinary often, near good once or twice, but never again great.
Redford has directed other films, the best of them the exquisite Quiz Show (1994) about the fifties TV game show scandal, and gave us the lovely The Horse Whisperer (1998), but he too never found success like this again. Really none of them did. Moore made a few more films before her death, only the bold Flirting with Disaster (1996) having any real critical success, and today is best remembered for her iconic work on television, though her Beth Jarrett is immortal. It always bothered me that she came off as the villain, and no one realized she lost her son, and nearly lost a second. Beth too was damaged. Sutherland has never stopped working it seems, his best performance since as the kind coach in Without Limits (1998) and he earned good reviews as the vicious President in The Hunger Games franchise. Hirsch did the finest work of his career onscreen here, but he too is better remembered for his television work as Alex, the wise, often flustered cab driver in Taxi.
They gathered one time together and made a very fine film, as so many had before them. For that they are forever immortal.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.