Director: Robert Redford
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most cinephiles believe the voters of the 53rd Academy Awards made a horrible mistake by honoring Ordinary People instead of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull with the Best Picture Oscar. Of course, the long-standing snub of Scorsese wouldn’t be corrected for nearly 30 years, and the idea of honoring Robert Redford, an actor making his directorial debut, with the Best Director Oscar instead of Scorsese is more than a little hard to take. Because of this controversy, Ordinary People has lived in ignominy in the minds of many film enthusiasts. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve this ill treatment. While I would agree that from a cinematic standpoint, Raging Bull’s audacious black-and-white intensity trumps the meat-and-potatoes cinematography conjured in Ordinary People, Redford’s background as an actor gave him the skill to pull some of the finest performances on film from a less-than-elite cast. If I have a complaint about the Academy Awards that year, it’s that Sissy Spacek got the Best Actress Oscar that rightfully belonged to Mary Tyler Moore.
The film opens with a montage showing the natural beauty and material riches of Chicago’s well-heeled North Shore as the ubiquitous theme song of the 80s, Pachelbel’s Canon in D, underscores the refinement of the setting. The camera finally rests on the façade of a prep school and shows us the young men and women who are rehearsing the choral version of the Canon, finally lighting on a young man bellowing a bold “Hallelujah” with the rest of the group. The young man, eyes dark and sunken, is Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton). As he walks distractedly out of practice, a pretty young woman who stands in front of him in the choir, Janine Pratt (Elizabeth McGovern), compliments his singing.
In another scene, Conrad’s parents, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Moore), are attending a community theatre play. The amateur acting and Neil Simonish script have put Cal into a semicoma, but Beth is alert and enjoying herself. Afterwards, they commiserate with another couple, asking the collective question, “Did we like?” and gossiping about the weight the lead actor has gained. When Beth and Cal return home, Conrad is still awake. His father checks in on him, asking if he’s having trouble sleeping. Conrad lies, “No.” Cal goes to bed and tugs on his wife’s shoulder, her cue to embrace him for sex.
The wealth of this family would seem to set them apart from the people most people would consider ordinary. But we soon learn that though more insulated than most from life’s travails, the Jarretts have suffered a tragedy that shows they are as ordinarily vulnerable as the rest of us. Bucky (Scott Doebler), the oldest of the two Jarrett boys, drowned in a storm that dismasted and capsized the sailboat he and Conrad were piloting on Lake Michigan. Conrad, depressed, grieving, and overcome with guilt, slashed his wrists, and has only recently returned home after several months in a mental hospital. While Cal worries over Conrad, keeping a watchful eye over him and urging him to see a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) recommended by the hospital, Beth wants to put the whole mess behind her. Beth and Cal clash, first when he rejects their tradition of going out of town for Christmas in favor of Conrad continuing his psychotherapy uninterrupted and then when Cal spills the “secret” that Conrad is in therapy to a friend at a Christmas party. Conrad, for his part, complains that he and his mother don’t connect; he seeks solace with Dr. Berger and Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend he made at the hospital, and cautiously approaches a relationship with Janine. As the Jarretts deal with what happened to them, they discover some home and personal truths and learn what it is they are made of and what that will mean to the rest of their lives.
Timothy Hutton, in his screen debut, exemplifies his character’s containment and emotional bravery at the same time. Watching Conrad try to reach out to those he cares about—the troubled Karen who doesn’t feel the nostalgia he does for the honesty of the hospital, to her grave regret, the sometimes infuriating Berger, the pretty and endearing Janine—is like watching a baby chick peck its way out of its egg. Dinah Manoff is an actress I really love, and she is so much the Jewish Skokie girl she’s supposed to be in this film that I felt a real kinship with her. Judd Hirsch plays the no-nonsense professional who understands what Conrad needs, and despite professional ethics, is willing to declare himself Conrad’s friend. McGovern, another actress I quite like, is a little giddy and precious in this her film debut, but she handles asking Conrad about what it was like to cut his wrists in the kind of honest way that adults tend to shy from. Hutton’s inward-looking answer is a scary and powerful moment. He also has his wry moments, such as when he tells his swimming coach (M. Emmett Walsh, in a wonderfully entertaining performance) that he doesn’t think he’ll ruin his life by quitting the swim team.
Hutton’s moments with Moore, all clumsy and defensive, are searing and memorable. For example, during a Christmas gathering at Beth’s parents’ home, we witness a family picture-taking session that shows up the invisible fence between mother and son. The usual jostling and laughter is interrupted when Cal tries to get a picture of Conrad and Beth. He has a little trouble adjusting the camera settings, building anxiety in Beth. She urges him to take the picture and finally and repeatedly, to give her the camera. The volume of their exchange rises, aided by Redford’s quick cutting back and forth, until Conrad shouts, “Give her the damn camera!” He stalks into a corner as Beth takes the camera from the startled Cal and with an awkward cheeriness, clicks the shutter at her stunned husband. Near the end of the film, after Conrad has made a significant breakthrough in therapy, he welcomes his parents home from a golf trip to Houston, bending down to give Beth a full, prolonged hug. The agonized look on Moore’s face and her collapse of almost physical relief when Conrad lets go and leaves the room are almost too painful to watch.
So what kind of a woman are we dealing with here? I read the Judith Guest novel on which this film is based and saw a caricature of an emotionally frigid woman, unlikeable in every way. But that’s not the woman Moore and Redford give us. Beth is from a family that prides itself on taking care of itself. But clearly, Beth grew up with all the advantages and breeding of her upper-middle-class milieu and didn’t have the occasion to learn how to really take care of herself at a basic level. She was charming and beautiful, married well easily, and effortlessly internalized the few social rules she’d need to sail through a conventional life. She is not so different from the near-aristocratic women in The House of Mirth, but being more provincial, would be loathe to indulge in affairs of the heart. Indeed, she’s frightened of strong emotion, but she is not empty of feeling, not in the least.
This is most evident when Beth and Cal are in Houston. They are having a great time golfing until she suggests they have a strictly golfing vacation, and Cal says Conrad might like that. She blows her top at the mention of her son, saying she is who she is and should not be reproached if she doesn’t go around hugging everyone all the time. The truth is that the only person who has reproached her at that moment is herself, for not wanting Conrad even mentioned. When Cal alludes to the fact that Conrad feels she hates him, she righteously responds, “Mothers don’t hate their sons. Is that what he’s been telling you?” She’s right, of course. She doesn’t hate him. She may be angry that he couldn’t save her beloved older son, but the truth is that he’s a constant reminder of the deep pain with which she has been coping very poorly, and she’s afraid to love him. After all, he did nearly succeed in killing himself. His death would have destroyed her. But not being a truly modern woman of the 80s, she does not respond to the “how do you feel” culture about to blossom like Audrey 2 to gulp down all the stoic throwbacks like Beth.
Calvin is an interesting piece of work that Sutherland mines with that mild Canadian demeanor of his that conceals and reveals so much. On the surface, Cal’s a sensitive man, the proto-metrosexual. It’s hard to discern through all of his caring and inner examination his passive-aggressive attacks on Beth. No longer able to bellow like the man of the house always used to do, he instead constantly brings up Conrad, to Beth’s perceptive comment, “Do you do that deliberately?” He confronts her with the fact that she had him change his shirt on the morning of Bucky’s funeral as evidence that she cared more about his appearance than his feelings. If he really were sensitive, he’d understand that this instruction was a pathetic attempt by Beth to control her own overflowing grief. But he’s no more schooled in handling the hard knocks of life than she is; he’s just a little more up-to-date in realizing they’ve entered the Therapeutic Generation. When he finally assesses her as someone he doesn’t think he can love anymore, he breaks into sobs that, to me, seem as triumphant as they are sad. He can imagine what we see—Beth shaking to pieces at the inner earthquake he’s touched off, a wrenching moment of truth Moore commits to completely.
It doesn’t take much of a man to destroy a woman who has kept her son’s empty room like a chapel into which she can retreat with her feelings of loss. It takes more of a man to join her and try to reach her, as Conrad does one afternoon when he finds her sitting on Bucky’s bed. Ordinary People is far from ordinary or undeserving of honor. It gives us complex, affecting performances from a fine cast. If it has a structural flaw, it’s that we never get an accurate window on Bucky as a person and feel the loss his family and friends do. But we get an absorbing picture of the aftermath and of the changing cultural landscape that makes survival that much more difficult for people like Beth, and that’s quite a lot.