I’ve seen Ordinary People twice before, but I wanted to get back to it again after the passing of Mary Tyler Moore. Her atypical role as an uncaring mother here is unexpected and unforgettable, but it’s also just one part of an incredible film. I wouldn’t say Ordinary People is a perfect film, or even the best film of 1980, but after consistently underestimating it in my mind it was great to see it again and set the record straight. It remains a moving look at family discord and an assured debut film from director Robert Redford.
High schooler Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) is going through a rough time. He’s trying to reenter school after his suicide attempt following the death of his elder brother, Buck. His father (Calvin, played by Donald Sutherland) encourages him to see a psychiatrist, though his mother (Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore) remains dubious about the idea. Conrad ends up seeing Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), who attempts to help the boy open up about his family dynamic and his own need for “control.” Meanwhile, Conrad quits the swim team at school and starts going with Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) though he is still deeply scared by his brother’s death and troubles at home.
That, admittedly, seems like the most boring movie ever. Before this latest rewatch, I would look back on Ordinary People and think of it all as endless therapy sessions between Dr. Berger and Conrad where they painfully and bluntly explain the problems that Conrad is going through to the audience. This does happen, but not nearly to the extent that I had remembered it in my mind. As I understand it, it was still pretty new to show a therapy session happening in a movie, but of course now it has become a tiresome cliche. Save for a few over the top moments, they are done fairly well here.
The therapy sessions are nowhere near the most interesting parts of the movie though. These come in the Jarrett household. Though this film can’t be said to have a flashy visual style by any means, the cinematography actually does a lot of work in this movie. Cinematographer John Bailey’s compositions often speak to the dynamic between the characters when they cannot. The blocking and the shots will often isolate Beth in doorways in the house so you can see how separate she is from the rest of the family. It’s much more effective to visually isolate her in the frame this way, rather than trying to explain with dialogue why she just can’t connect with her son.
Ordinary People gets at a devastating truth not often explored in cinema even now, that all women aren’t necessarily made to be mothers. It’s sad to see that concept play out here, with a nice enough kid like Conrad. The film does attempt to explain what exactly is “wrong” with Beth, but I don’t think it over-explains it too much. Different characters offer up different theories, including Beth herself, and the dialogue all has a very real feel of people grasping at straws to it. It also gets at the important idea that something, like motherhood, might be doable under normal circumstances, but under stressful ones it can become impossible. While Beth does come off as the villain here a lot of the time, we are still able to see her humanity and how incredibly vulnerable she is.
Though I’ve already spoken about the direction and the cinematography, it’s clear that in this type of film these aspects are both at the service of the performances. I think Hutton has a few shaky moments, most of them in the therapy sessions, but everybody else does such an amazing job. (a caveat: the swim coach seems like he’s in a totally different movie.) Casting Mary Tyler Moore against type here as someone who is so isolated and guarded really pays off. She does such a good job movie seeming so brittle and fragile and unsympathetic even though she’s Mary Tyler Moore. She still has the same tics as she does in other performances of hers, but she is just so well controlled here. Sutherland likewise does an incredible job, coming off as much more sympathetic than Moore but almost equally as fragile. The key to their characters is that Sutherland has the capacity to change his behavior whereas Moore cannot.
I do think the inclusion of flashbacks can seem sort of awkward at times in this movie. I’m not quite sure what it is about them that makes them feel awkward. Maybe it’s when they occur or something about the almost minimalist way they are filmed (there just seem to be less in the frame, more threadbare, like they occur in an almost totally different universe), but they seemed really jarring at times in this movie. Maybe that’s the intended effect. I don’t think it’s when they occur, because they very strategically dole out background information across the running time in a way that makes total sense. I’d more say it’s the actual look of the flashbacks themselves, they just don’t seem to fit in with the rest of the movie somehow.
Roman Polanski’s Tess, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, David Lynch’s Elephant Man, and Coal Miner’s Daughter all lost at the 53rd Academy Awards to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People. That’s a hell of a lineup that doesn’t even include two of my favorites from that year, Kubrick’s The Shining or The Empire Strikes Back. I’d be very hard pressed to pick a winner from that year, though I’d probably go with Raging Bull. That’s not to take away from Ordinary People though, I think it’s an incredible film.
Ordinary People was nominated for five other awards, making it six nominations total. It won four of them. Redford, in his directorial debut, beat out some of the greats, including Scorsese, Polanski, and Lynch, which is quite amazing, but the Academy does love actors. Timothy Hutton beat out his own cast member Judd Hirsch for best supporting actor. The film also won for adapted screenplay. However, if there was an actor to win from this cast, I’d argue for Mary Tyler Moore, who lost best actress to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter (a performance I haven’t seen.) Sutherland wasn’t nominated at all. 1980 was a really crowded year at the Oscars, and Ordinary People managed to do very well for itself. I may not agree with all of the awards, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ordinary People is a formidable film.
“A little advice about feelings kiddo; don’t expect it always to tickle.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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