Ordinary People (United States, 1980)February 21, 2009
The passage of time often impacts how films are viewed. Some, like Citizen Kane, evolve from being modest successes into masterpieces. Others, like Robert Redford's Ordinary People, do not fare as well. Lauded by critics and the Academy alike, Ordinary People and its director were Oscar darlings at the 1981 awards ceremony. Nearly 30 years later, the film is hazily but fondly remembered; however, its position as the most acclaimed film of 1980 has long since been usurped by a film it beat for the Oscar, Raging Bull.
Seen today, stripped of all the hype that attended the film during its Oscar push, Ordinary People is, well, ordinary. There's nothing arresting about the material, which has been tackled both before and after with more force and emotional impact. Especially in European cinema, there is no lack of dysfunctional family dramas, and Ordinary People does not stand up well by comparison. Redford's movie, which was adapted by Alvin Sargent from the novel by Judith Guest, is generally well acted but its dispassionate approach distances the audience from the characters and turns the central family tragedy into an intellectual exercise. The film presents a number of therapy sequences, and this is appropriate, since the movie is pitched at a level that psychologists are more likely to appreciate than others.
The film examines how the death of one family member can impact the survivors. The Jarretts, once a family of four - now of three - live a comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle in suburban Chicago. In good times, they can weather anything, but when a storm comes along, the foundation's uncertainty becomes apparent. Love, once a feeling, is now nothing more than an expectation or an obligation. The death of Bucky, the eldest of two male children, reveals a lack of stability in a family that, from the outside, looked rock-solid. The mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), has become cold and withdrawn. The father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is paralyzed by sorrow and indecision about how to move on. And the remaining son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), is wracked by survivor's guilt. Five months ago, Conrad attempted suicide after believing that his crime was to outlast his brother in the waters of Lake Michigan where they both ended up after a boat accident. Now, out of psychiatric hospital, he is attempting to resume a life where nothing is the same.
The strength of Ordinary People does not lie its exploration of the Jarrett family's internal dynamics, which are established on a foundation of clichés that anyone familiar with serious dramas will immediately identify. For purposes of a recent comparison, consider In the Bedroom, which approached a similar subject with more subtlety and insight, and greater compassion. Like the therapy sessions that form a vertebrae in Ordinary People's skeletal structure, there's a clinical detachment in the way Redford approaches the subject matter. We understand that this family is in trouble and that the ties that bind the members have withered and perhaps died, but we don't feel the sense of loss. The film does not invite us to partake in the characters' grief but instead asks us to watch from the outside.
What Redford accomplishes is to provide an excellent portrait of how well families can hide their inner turmoil from the prying eyes of outsiders. It turns out that the characters are as good at fooling themselves as they are others. The filmmaker's eye is precise and unsparing in the way it presents the interaction between Beth and Calvin and their "friends" at a dinner party - how everything is superficial and banal, and when someone asks "How are you?" they aren't interested in hearing the answer. This is all done without a whiff of satire. Ordinary People is a straightforward drama and its takes its characters seriously. It doesn't demonize them or transform them into caricatures. Had this not been true, the movie wouldn't have worked at any time on any level.
Ordinary People represented a coming-out party for three individuals. For Redford, who was no stranger to appearing in front of the camera, this was the start of his directorial career. Timothy Hutton, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance as Conrad, was also a feature neophyte (although he had done television), as was Elizabeth McGovern, who plays a girl who represents a lifeline to Conrad as he stumbles through the healing process. Redford has always been lauded for his ability to direct actors, and it is perhaps no more evident here than in any of his other films. Veterans Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Judd Hirsch are solid, but Hutton provides a believably tortured individual. Hutton has appeared in dozens of movies since Ordinary People, but he never replicated the intensity of his work here.
There's an oddity in Hutton's Academy Award win, however. Although Sutherland and Tyler Moore get top billing because of name recognition, Ordinary People is more Conrad's story than anyone else's and it is told primarily from his perspective. Hutton is unquestionably the lead. The film's drama swirls around him: how his parents treat him in the wake of the failed suicide (his father with cautious concern, his mother with a closed-off cheerfulness), the rocky therapy sessions with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), his decision to quit the swim team, and his tentative romance with Jeannine (McGovern). There are also flashbacks to the boating accident. There are scenes in which Conrad is not present - the aforementioned dinner party and the final confrontation between Beth and Calvin about their current feelings for one another - but these are few in number.
One of the reasons Ordinary People played better in 1980 than it does today is that family dysfunction has become more openly acknowledged, and it's often a lot more seamy and macabre than what is represented here. In a way, Redford's vision, as seen through a reductive lens of 30 years, is almost naïve in what it depicts. The title implies that the kinds of family fissures chronicled in the movie are commonplace, but the forward progress of time and the continued deterioration of the so-called "nuclear family" have diminished what was "ordinary" in 1980 to something "trite" in 2009. Whatever social statement Ordinary People was making about its time has evaporated during the intervening years, leaving behind an open, honest drama lacking the emotional punch that would make it unforgettable today. Ordinary People should be devastating, but it's not. By any standards, it's still a good movie, but three decades have stripped away any pretense of greatness. It won the Oscar but few today would consider it to be the Best Picture of 1980.
Ordinary People (United States, 1980)
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, Dinah Manoff
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest
Cinematography: John Bailey
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
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