Ordinary People (1980)

19 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t want to talk about the “controversy” (and by “controversy,” I mean cinephiles complaining too damn much) of Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” taking home the Best Picture AND Best Director Oscar awards over Martin Scorsese and his masterpiece “Raging Bull.” I just want to talk about “Ordinary People” and its own merits. If you’re looking for the elephant in the room, I’m sure you can find another review post-Oscars-1981. There’s a lot of them.

Truth is, “Ordinary People” is a fine film; a solid, effective, powerfully-acted family drama about three well-defined characters: an upper-middle-class young man coping with survivor’s guilt after the accidental death of his older brother, his conceited mother who can’t think of anything but how her son’s lack of interest in anything affects how people see the family, and his father who just wants peace between the two and within himself.

The son is teenage Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton). His life is a wreck ever since a tragic sailing accident resulting in the drowning of his older brother Bucky, the prince of the family. He survived with utmost guilt and tried to kill himself. Now that he’s out of psychiatric care, he’s back to live with his parents, returns to school, sees a therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), and tries to put his life back on track. That’s easier said than done. He has no interest in former activities, such as swimming for the school team, and his friends aren’t on the same level as him. He wanders through life in a constant state of confusion, anger, and self-hatred. But surely, his parents would be able to help…

Well, his father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is a sad case. He wants to be there for his son, and he wants to help him, and at least he tries to make an effort to get through to him…which is more than I can say for Conrad’s mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). How can I put this delicately? She’s very cold, one of the most realistic WASP characters I’ve ever seen in a movie, and utterly detestable. She’s withdrawn and wants to maintain the illusion that she’s the matriarch of a typical all-American suburban household with no issues at all, least of all a son who quits any and all activities and about whom her husband feels fine talking about in regards to his seeing a therapist. One of the most telling scenes is when she snaps at her son, saying how patients may act in psychiatric hospital won’t be tolerated in her household—Conrad snaps back, reminding her that she never visited him in the hospital and she might have visited Buck if he were in psychiatric care: she responds, “Buck never would’ve been in the hospital!” I hate this woman, but it’s interesting to try and understand why she feels this way. It’s like she desperately wants everything to remain status quo, so much so that she either can’t tell when something is more wrong than it seems or she just won’t acknowledge it.

“Ordinary People” is the directing debut from actor Robert Redford, and it’s adapted from by Alvin Sargent from the novel by Judith Guest. Both the novel and the film capture effectively what it’s like for a family in conflict, with compelling characters with different issues to follow—guilt, sorrow, confusion, etc. Communication between director and actor helps, of course. Redford not only captures the feel of what it’s like underneath the image of upper-middle-class suburbia, but he gets outstanding performances from each of his actors.

Speaking of whom, the film belongs to Timothy Hutton, since it’s his character’s story that’s being told. He has the right amount of intensity for a role like this, which earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (even though it was hardly a supporting performance—but I won’t get into that either). Mary Tyler Moore, also nominated, helps us to see humanity buried deep within a superficial character—something about the way she tries to maintain control throughout all of this is just fascinating. Donald Sutherland (for some reason, not nominated) plays the kind of guy you just want to reach out and comfort and say everything’s going to be OK sooner or later. And Judd Hirsch, whom Hutton beat for the Oscar in the same category, has a few terrific scenes as the therapist, comedic before taking effective, darker turns. The acting practically makes the film, which otherwise is just a well-made, well-written social drama about a family trying (or not trying) to reconnect.

OK fine, I’ll go into a little bit about why I think “Ordinary People” took home high honors at the Oscars instead of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”—it came out at just the right time. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainstream films were coming around to showing the truer sides of the Dysfunctional American Family and addressing issues that are faced every day. The previous Best Picture winner, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” focused on family coping with divorce, so it made sense that the sentimental Academy decided to give the trophy to a family drama about coping with tragedy. That’s the best explanation I can think of. Yes, obviously, “Raging Bull” is a masterwork from one of our greatest directors, and it didn’t win the Oscar—does that really mean we’re not going to love it any more than we do? “Ordinary People” is a fine film, and I’ll recognize it as a fine film—it’s well-directed, very well-written, and powerfully-acted…but I won’t consider it the best film of 1980.

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