March 19, 2010
Ordinary People (1980)
Grade: 97/100

Director: Robert Redford
Stars: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore

What it's about. The Jarretts live in a wealthy suburban neighborhood, but the family is deeply troubled. Rowdy and beloved oldest son Buck died in a boating accident. Younger son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) survived the same accident, and is drenched with guilt that he could not somehow have saved Buck.

His mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), has never come to terms with her grief over Buck, and resents Conrad, as if he is to blame. Conrad's nearly "successful" suicide attempt makes matters worse between him and his mother, since she now has more to be ashamed of when socializing with her neighbor housewives.

Caught in the middle is Calvin (Donald Sutherland). A gentle, soft-spoken man, he tries to understand the jarring disconnect between wife Beth and son Conrad. Thanks to sessions with psychiatrist Berger (Judd Hirsch), Conrad improves, but Beth remains in denial over her antipathy toward Conrad.

Ordinary People was the first film directed by Robert Redford, who had been among the most successful actors of the previous ten years. It marked the feature debut for both Timothy Hutton (who won an Oscar) and Elizabeth McGovern.

How others will see it. Ordinary People is infamous for winning Best Picture in 1981 over Raging Bull. The latter movie has since been named #4 film of all time by the American Film Institute. Without a doubt, Raging Bull will always be more popular and more entertaining than Ordinary People. It will be seen by more people more often.

None of this ensures that Raging Bull is better than Ordinary People. After all, The Matrix is also more popular, and it stars Keanu Reeves. Consider the absurdity.

Sure, most red-blooded American men would rather watch Robert De Niro argue about a steak dinner with hottie wife Cathy Moriarty than watch Timothy Hutton sob over his late brother to Judd Hirsch. Again, this means little.

Raging Bull, although a great film, has a cartoonish sheen to it. Jake La Motta does one stupid thing after another, and this is relevant to anyone only because he happened to be a great boxer at one time. Ordinary People takes greater risks, because it tries to show relationships and personalities as they actually are, rather than as how we might find them to be amusing.

How I felt about it. Of the three main roles, Beth is the most complex and the least sympathetic. She was devastated by Buck's death, and is thoroughly, permanently unhappy. But the show must go on, and she continues to go through the motions of her life as a socialite housewife and mother. She can no longer display genuine affection, and won't discuss her feelings, which remain raw beneath her outward front of conviviality.

As Dr. Berger notes, Beth has limitations. If the people around her would only always pretend that nothing is wrong, then everything is fine, or as fine as life can be without expressing emotions honestly. Whenever evidence emerges that something is wrong, Beth is aggrieved. Eventually, Calvin realizes that the wife he once knew is gone, and what is left is damaged goods.

She has not become an unfeeling ice princess. This is unfair, and worse, inaccurate. Rather, her feelings are uncomfortably powerful to her, and she has decided to suppress them continually, rather than allow them to completely overwhelm her. She lacks any introspection, and will not accept that her grief will diminish if it is given an outlet.

The character of Conrad is comparatively simple. He unreasonably blames himself for Buck's death, and for the subsequent absence of motherly love. But through therapy, he realizes that the accident was no one's fault, and that the loss of motherly love is her fault. The weight is lifted. The differences between Calvin, Conrad, and Beth is that Calvin promptly accepted Buck's death as simply God's will, Conrad had to be led to the same conclusion, and Beth can't forget for a moment that it happened, even though she puts up a social front that all is well.