Ordinary People (1980)

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.

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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.

  • Greg F spoke:
    9th/03/2010 to 2:59 pm

    it’s that Sissy Spacek got the Best Actress Oscar that rightfully belonged to Mary Tyler Moore.

    Bite your tongue! Okay, I think Mary Tyler Moore was great in this and maybe she did deserve it, I don’t know. But I thought Sissy Spacek was great in Coal Miner’s Daughter too.

    I think this is a very good film and like the winners I mentioned in my post the other day that get a bad rap this one is much better than its reputation. Besides, Raging Bull is a stark and intense look at a rotten man. Great moviemaking or not, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Academy members favored this over it and what harm is done in the end?

    If it has a structural flaw, it’s that we never an accurate window on Bucky as a person

    On a technical note, there’s a word missing in there. “Get” I think. But to the matter at hand, I’d say it works better without getting to know Bucky. The idea is to elicit empathy from the audience without knowing Bucky. We’re supposed to get to the truth like the psychiatrist or friend or anyone else in real life who would come into that position cold and try and understand the pain. I think it would have diluted the drama if we’d had been forced down the path of extended flashbacks instead of the glimpses we are given.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2010 to 3:18 pm

    Hi, Greg. Spacek is a wonderful actress. I just think Moore was better in this year that she was.

    I’ve seen this film numerous times, and I always feel not a loss but a vacuum when it comes to Bucky. When Conrad says “I loved him,” it never hits me. Only Moore registers the loss for me, nobody else, and that is the window on her that makes the film’s card-stacking against her fall apart for me (and I believe that was intentional, not a happy accident). Bucky’s death was maybe only a year before, but where is Calvin’s grief? I just really don’t see anyone but Beth actively grieving over him, and that always makes me feel like I don’t really get at the tragedy underlying the film. But it’s certainly not a fatal flaw.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/03/2010 to 9:39 pm

    Marilyn, I saw this film eight (8) times in the theatre, and being the gushy emotional shmuck that I am I always reveled in the ending: “I’m not disappointed. I love you” and even shamelessly played this scene to friends in my basement when it appeared on videotape. At the time the film won the Best Picture Oscar, it was critically-praised, and was expected to win over RAGING BULL, which was seen upon release as mainly a showcase for Robert De Niro’s titanic performance. But as you astutely observe, the Redford film has received a bum rap. It’s not an American masterpieces, but it’s an exceptionally crafted film, based on an extraordinary novel by Judith Guest (which I used on two occasions with a 10th grade English class) that examines grief with honesty and heart-felt candor, and Moore and Timothy Hutton give superlative performances.

    This is precisely the kind of film that young bloggers like to dismiss, as it can be seen as emotionally over-the-top, but while it lacks the stylishness and visceral quality of RAGING BULL, it’s a film with aconsiderable dramatic power. As you say here in your very fine essay:

    “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.”

  • Maya spoke:
    10th/03/2010 to 3:18 am

    This was, in my opinion, Mary Tyler Moore’s best achievement, precisely for Redford being prescient enough to work her against type.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/03/2010 to 9:08 am

    Sam – I’m not the fan of the Guest novel you are precisely because it made Beth such an unsympathetic ice queen. We’ve gotten to this point in our society where we know the intimate habits and thoughts of everyone with access to an Internet connection. It almost makes real contact meaningless. Beth did have a problem, but it hurt her the most, and the book really condemns her for it. That just isn’t right to do to a grieving mother or anyone who chooses privacy over constant sharing.

    Maya – You’re right, but I also think Redford was counting on Moore’s likeability with audiences to help them see Beth as a damaged and vulnerable person they can sympathize with. That made for a 3-dimensional character and performance, not just a hatchet job on cold mothers that is a harmful cliche.

  • Ted spoke:
    14th/03/2010 to 9:11 am

    Thank you for this very well thought out and reasoned essay. I have to say that back in 1980, I was not impressed with “Raging Bull” — it was a story about unpleasant people that critics praised for De Niro’s performance and his “bravery” in gaining weight for the part.

    Having read the book, I was interested in seeing what Redford and company would do — and I remember being deeply moved by it. Someone I knew had attempted suicide so there was a personal resonance for me in watching the film. I was not bothered by the fact that we don’t know Bucky — as someone pointed out — that is the audience’s entry into the film.

    As for the grieving — I think Beth is stuck. She cannot move on. Calvin has grieved but the fact that he almost lost a second child with Conrad’s suicide attempt has forced him to move past his grief. Obviously Conrad’s suicide attempt was HIS form of grieving.

    I never tire of watching this movie and I think it is an underrated gem — perhaps not a masterpiece as you point out but still a superb movie that people now dismiss as a being on the level of a made-for-television movie (a claim that one could also make about “Kramer vs. Kramer” for that matter).

  • Pat spoke:
    14th/03/2010 to 12:04 pm

    Marillyn – Just want to add my belated congratulations on a fine post. Like you, I’ve always found “Ordinary People” to be guinely moving and frequently underrated. While I do love Moore’s performance, however, I was very happy with Sissy Spacek’s win that year. I think “Coal Miner’s Daughter” was an even better movie than it’s generally acknoweledged to be.

    A nitpick if you’ll allow me – the actress’ name is Dinah Manoff (not Diane) and she is Lee Grant’s daughterh. And – I’ll gladly concur – a fine actress and well cast here.

    On a completely differenct subjest – when is your TOERIFC post on “The Rapture” coming up? I got the DVD this week and I’m looking forward to rediscovering it after almost 20 years.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/03/2010 to 5:32 pm

    Ted – Thanks for your comments. I don’t think Beth is stuck. The accident was maybe only a year before, certainly not enough time for Beth to get over it, despite her stoicism. That makes it that much harder for her, but I do think she could be helped through the process if Calvin weren’t so self-involved and trying to blame her.

    Pat – Thanks for the correction, which I’ve made. I’d like to do the TOERIFC discussion on the 22nd. I’ll see if I can get some announcement out this week.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    16th/03/2010 to 6:48 pm

    Not since Affliction– or maybe Cassavetes’ Faces– has a film depressed me as much as this one did. Although I don’t know if it’s as great as those two I just mentioned. The scenes with Hutton and Hirsch in the office reminded me why I’m not a fan of all these movies about psychiatry- i.e. The Prince of Tides, Good Will Hunting and Antwon Fischer. They all tend to follow the same formula in which the patient enters the office, struggles to maintain his sanity outside (at which point often he/she ends up causing a million catastrophes, a sign that the psychiatry isn’t helping much), and then eventually there’s a big climax where he either a) lets it all out in a lengthy, outraged rant, or b) finally reveals the reason why he’s so messed up.

    I’ll admit that Ordinary People isn’t entirely that simple of a film- I think you’re correct, Marilyn, about how it was courageous of Mary Tyler Moore to take on that role. Hers is probably the hardest to play in the film. What I thought was disturbing was that she played the mother of a dead son in the film, as a way to express her real-life conflicts with her own son… and then, a month after the film was released, her son committed suicide (and Jimmy Carter called with his condolences). Thinking about it is chilling.

    I thought the playing of Canon in D was inappropriate, though; I would have preferred it if maybe Redford had hired somebody to compose an original score. If the Canon in D is supposed to be in direct contrast to all the chaos that happens in the film, I’m not sure it works- the film isn’t really a satire, after all. So, in the end, even though I believe that Raging Bull, The Shining and Dressed to Kill are better demonstrations of filmmaking from 1980, certainly Ordinary People is the finest example of acting from that year. Sutherland’s performance, also, may have been his best.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/03/2010 to 10:06 pm

    Adam – Thanks for stopping by. I’m not sure what depressed you so much about it other than it eerily predicted a tragedy in Moore’s life. I don’t know if I agree that she played Beth to work out her own personal conflicts; in fact, that seems a kind of insulting assumption to make about a professional actor.

    As for the Canon in D, that was, as I said, a ubiquitous “tune” of the 80s and reflected the aspirations of the upwardly mobile masses at that time to assimilate refinement; the gratuitous use of opera in TV commercials and films was another indicator of this trend.

  • Adam Zanzie spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 2:39 pm

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,951574,00.html

    In this interview with Time, Moore acknowledges that she drew from her conflicts with her son in order to play the role:

    “I was kind of a perfectionist mother, and I demanded a lot of him. I think I was responsible for a lot of alienation. I brought some of that to the part.”

    The film mostly depressed me because of those several moments that really made me wince. Such as Hutton’s “give me the goddamn camera!” moment, or the scene where Moore goes on a tirade against her friends at the golf course. It’s a good film, but by the time it ended I think my blood had cooled a little- as a result of all that growing unease between the characters.

    Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,951574,00.html#ixzz0iX0wzCMJ

  • Marilyn spoke:
    17th/03/2010 to 2:55 pm

    I think your wording was ill-chosen in the first comment. Actors draw off their own experience, and the perfectionism of Beth does track with what Moore says about herself. But to suggest she was working out her conflicts in the part is going too far, and I don’t think that’s what she’s saying. I’m always cautious when dealing with mothers who blame themselves for the tragic turns their children’s lives take – it’s a dangerous stereotype that mothers are responsible for all the ills their kids suffer.

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