Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)

I find family dramas hard to like since most of them are cheesy and melodramatic. So I can’t say that I’m a fan. However there are exceptions like this 1980 Best Picture winning film directed by Robert Redford and adapted from the book with the same name. I wanted to see this film for some time since it won a handful of awards but mostly because I was curious to see the Oscar-winning performance of Timothy Hutton who was my age when he won the award and Mary Tyler Moore’s Oscar-nominated performance. I’m currently watching her 1970’s sitcom which is hilarious and she plays such a likable and honestly perfect character contrary to the cold and bitter mother in this film.

Ordinary People recounts how an upper-class family deals with the death of their eldest son, Buck. The younger son, Conrad, played by Timothy Hutton, attempted suicide after his brother’s death in a boat accident. Calvin, the father, played by Donald Sutherland, worries for Conrad, probably too much, while the mother, Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore doesn’t seem to care as a mother should for her surviving son. The events in the film are set a year or so after Buck’s death and after Conrad got out of the hospital where he spent about four months. He is in recovery, going to school and trying to continue his life but he still feels guilty for what happened to his brother. So he starts seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, who helps him more than he thought it would. The parents are also trying to get on with their lives, revive their social lives and connect with each other again.

The relationship between Conrad and his father is very close, his father cares for his opinion and is happy that he fills his time with hobbies like swimming and singing in a choir. However, the relationship he has with his mother is very strange and sometimes even awkward. There are a lot of unresolved feelings between the two. We see in a flashback before Buck’s death how happy the family was before. There we find out that Buck was Beth’s favorite child. One can suspect that she resents Conrad for living but that’s probably a too exaggerated notion .

From this big tragedy, the most affected person, in my opinion, is Beth. She is a a great housewife loved by friends and neighbors, but she lived in a bubble and I think she took that for granted. Buck’s death was tragic and it affected her deeply as it would be with every mother but it was Conrad’s attempted suicide that shut her off emotionally. She wants her life to be perfect and it was, until Buck’s death and Conrad’s attempt at taking his life. The world viewed the family differently now and I don’t think she took this lightly. She is not a strong person, she is a good person, the movie doesn’t antagonize her, but these recent unfortunate events in her life took away all the love she had to give. She can’t say that she loves her son, they are like two strangers, she can’t even say something positive about him when he’s not around. She doesn’t show him her emotional support and I think she even wants him to feel sorry for trying to kill himself. She has many other qualities, we can’t really say that she is a horrible parent, but she is not one of the best. Many parents have a favorite child and still manage to be affectionate towards their other children, even though I don’t agree with this approach and every child should be loved and treated the same by their parents because that’s one of the main source of resentment and hurt in families. But it is the fact that she isn’t strong enough to show her true feelings that makes her so cold towards her family and especially her son. She is a very complex character and we shouldn’t bring put the blame solely on her. There is a moment towards the end where she’s about to break down but then gasps once like she’s trying to hold her feelings. One of the great moments from her performance. It was fascinating seeing Moore perform such a different character from the lovable and goofy Mary Richards from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. This is a stunning performance that almost got an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. I love these kind of against type performances because they are so fun to watch. I’m talking only about those actors that succeeded in doing so. So Moore’s performance is really excellent in bringing to life this intricate character.

Another great performance comes from Donald Sutherland. Actually the whole trio of actors was fantastic. Sutherland played Calvin, father of Conrad and husband to Beth, who works as a lawyer. he is not the kind of father that is very harsh with his children. He is the one who understands Conrad the most. He is not afraid to talk about his feelings and is aware of the emotional change in the family noticing how Beth changed and how she singles out Conrad from their plans like he isn’t their son anymore. He even talks with Dr. Berger about this. He suggests Beth to talk to the psychiatrist together, but she refuses. Surprising since women tend to be more open to these methods. Sutherland’s greatest moment in the film is also at the end when he starts to question his feelings for Beth. One of the raw moments in the film.

Now talking about Timothy Hutton’s Conrad. He certainly had the meatiest role. Don’t know why he was nominated for a Supporting role since he is clearly the lead. Probably because he didn’t stand a chance in the Leading Actor category against Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, but who would? That is one of the greatest performances ever put on screen. Anyway, he was fantastic. There are so many great scenes involving his character, too hard to pick just one, but if I had to choose I’d go with his scenes with the Berger or the ones with the accident. Conrad isn’t some kind of emo who drowns in sorrow every day. He tries to go on with his life, comes back to school, indulges himself in activities like reading, swimming and singing in his choir where he meets Jeanine played by a very young Elizabeth McGovern.
I think he really feels responsible for his brother’s death and he feels guilty for living. He is very different from his extrovert jock like brother. The scenes with the boat accident, when he realizes that his brother drowned is truly heartbreaking. The relationship he has with his psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, played by Judd Hirsch, goes in a cycle. At first, Conrad isn’t very enthusiastic about seeing a shrink and isn’t sure why he is there. But towards the end their relationship blossoms as Berger manages to free Conrad of his guilt.

This is a very well directed film. It is Redford’s directorial debut for which he won an Oscar. Don’t know if he really deserved it, considering that Scorsese was nominated for Raging Bull. Ordinary People is a fantastic film and Redford did a great job but I feel that he won the Oscar more for his successful change in profession or maybe for a compensation for his actor work in the past.
Now talking about the film, Ordinary People is a great family drama, one of the best I have seen. I loved the character study. This will probably sound overpraising but I imagine this film being analyzed by future psychologists and psychiatrists in college. It’s so realistic and the actors give such convincing performances for this story to not be taken seriously because, let’s face it, this is true portrait of a family facing a tragedy that could tear them apart.

The only issue I had with this film was the ending. It left the story unfinished. They gave up too easily. I didn’t prefer a happy ending, I preferred a true and optimistic ending. We got a bit of that but not enough. Plus it couldn’t have hurt if they stayed true to the book’s ending. I wished that happened because it is more suitable to the story.
I view Ordinary People as a film about a family of good people (slightly selfish) changed completely by a tragedy. The title is wisely chosen as they really act as any of us, ordinary people, would. This is why I appreciate this film so much, apart from the incredible performances. I guess today this problem would be managed more easily since people are more open to communication than in those days.
Ordinary People is a remarkable film, a true depiction of a family’s tragedy and its effects. A film about good people changed by a tragedy that could happen to us all.

A

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2 comments

    1. Yes, you are right, it was one tough year. A cinematic crime. But I think it could have been worse. At least it went to a great film. There was no Argo, Titanic, Gladiator or A Beautiful Mind situation where it really hurt. Especially the case with Gladiator for you knowing how much you love that Soderbergh film. Haven’t seen Crash yet.
      Oscars don’t matter as much as we think. I’m sure you know that too, even more than I do. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t.

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