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Ordinary People (1980)


How Timothy Hutton was a Supporting Actor in his own story, I'll never understand.
How Timothy Hutton was a Supporting Actor in his own story, I'll never understand.

Genre: Drama

Starring: Donald Sutherland (Don't Look Now • MASH), Timothy Hutton (The Dark HalfSecret Window)

Directed By: Robert Redford (A River Runs Through It Quiz Show)

Overview: A family tries to cope with the death of their eldest son and the attempted suicide of their youngest.

In my last review I said that I liked deep human drama, the kind that has characters suffering through trials, such as alcoholism and drug addiction. In Ordinary People, the characters indeed face difficult trials and suffering, except theirs is probably the worst of all: each other and the unfair world they live in.

Ordinary People begins with what seems like a regular family. At school, the teenaged Conrad is practicing with his choir. Later, his well-to-do parents, Calvin and Beth come home from an evening at the theater. Calvin visits his son in his bedroom and asks if he's made an appointment with the new psychiatrist that was recommended. Conrad says that he hasn't. Dad reluctantly leaves his son to sleep. The next morning it's obvious that dad's doing all he can to surround his son with a joyous environment, while his mother, Beth, seems slightly uncomfortable. Both are walking on eggshells. Eventually Conrad begins regularly visiting a shrink, talking about his suicide attempt, his life with his difficult mother and too-forgiving father, and his older brother Buck's boating accident. The film's focus is surprisingly less about slowly revealing the events that led Conrad here, but rather his healing process now that he's survived trying to kill himself.

DR BERGER: So everything was fine till you had the fight with your mother, then everything was lousy.

CONRAD: Yeah, but I don't blame her. I mean, she's got... She's got her reasons. It's impossible after all the shit I've pulled!

DR BERGER: What shit have you pulled? Hey! Remember! I'm talking proportion here. Now, what shit? ... Come on. You must be able to come up with at least one example. And don't give me "I tried to kill myself", that's old turkey. What have you done lately?

CONRAD: Hey, come on, if you... Listen, I'm never gonna be forgiven for that. Never! You know, you can't get it out, you know, all the blood in her towels, in her rug. Everything had to be pitched. Even the tiles in the bathroom had to be regrouted. Christ, she fired the Goddamn maid because she couldn't dust the living room right. If you think that she's gonna forgive me...

There's so much amazing work to make note of in Ordinary People. After a handful of TV movies, Timothy Hutton made this his first theatrical feature. It won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ordinary People was also Robert Redford's directorial debut and the film that won him the Best Director Oscar. Aside from these important awards, this film also won Best Screenplay and the big prize, Best Picture, at the '81 Academy Awards. Talk about an ensemble cast, from the veteran Sutherland to Mary Tyler Moore ("The Dick Van Dyke Show""Mary Tyler Moore") in a role much different that her happy bubbly usual. Here in the role of mother Beth Jarrett, she plays a stiff, concerned-about-what-her-neighbors-will-think woman with difficulty showing affection to her son. Though some of his interactions are funny, Judd Hirsh ("Taxi" • "Dear John") plays a tremendous dramatic role as psychiatrist Dr. Berger, a role that got him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

DR BERGER: So everything was fine till you had the fight with your mother, then everything was lousy.

CALVIN: Could we talk about Buck's funeral? ... I know it'll seem trivial, but it's on my mind, or has been, and I'd just like to talk about it... When I was getting dressed for Buck's funeral, I was...

BETH:  Calvin, what's the matter with you? ... What could getting dressed for Buck's funeral possibly have to do with anything right now?

CALVIN: I was wearing a blue shirt. And you said: “Wear a white shirt and the other shoes!” It was nothing at the time. But it's always seemed to stay with me. And I, for some reason, been thinking about it and it suddenly occurred to me what difference did it make what I wore at Buck's funeral?... I've always wondered, in some needling way, what it mattered what I wore. I was crazy that day. We were going to our son's funeral. And you were worried about what I wore on my feet. I'm sure it sounds like nothing to you, but it sticks with me...

Aside from the now-socially-unacceptable drinking and driving and smoking in a doctor's office, Ordinary People's strength is its timelessness. 30 years later, the film is not only relevant but fresh. Feelings are raw while coming nowhere near going over the top. As the drama ramps up, emotions are strained but honest, brilliantly acted and so perfectly filmed that you’ll tear yourself away from the incredible dialogue to note the camerawork and little touches of set design.

Many moons ago, I read Ordinary People for high school English class, so naturally I saw the film in those days, but last night's viewing was probably 20 years hence. I've experienced a lot in recent years and the emotional ordeals, the family dynamic of Ordinary People resonated solidly with me. As you can see from my score, a rare praise from Filmsquish, it's now among the best movies I've ever reviewed.

He was practicing hugging his Oscar there
He was practicing hugging his Oscar there

Performance: 10 Cinematography: 8 Script: 9 Plot: 9 Mood: 9

Overall Rating: 90% (Step Outside The Norm)

Ordinary People is the sort of thought-provoking film that people need to see from time to time. To merely watch escapist comedies and sci-fi sequels is a waste of the medium. Aside from observing masterful talent, the story in Ordinary People is touching, poignant, important and horizon-expanding, true well-crafted art for the masses.

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