Ordinary People (1980)
Release Date: September 19th, 1980 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Robert Redford Actors: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern, Dinah Manoff, Adam Baldwin
obert Redford’s debut behind the camera demonstrates a nearly perfect governance over acting, editing, scripting, and scoring, all certainly influenced by his extensive filmmaking history collaborating with the likes of George Roy Hill, Sidney Pollack, Richard Attenborough, Alan J. Pakula, Michael Ritchie, Arthur Penn, and Robert Mulligan. The humanism and authenticity of observing a seemingly regular family as their lives are torn apart by tragedy is the epitome of emotional drama, serving as a precursor to intimate familial epics like “Terms of Endearment” and “American Beauty.” No scene is wasted, no line of dialogue is misplaced, and Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” beautifully weaves every part of the story into relative significance, creating a melancholy theme of hard-won hope and clarity amongst the tribulations of a haunting catastrophe.
Teenaged Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role) is attempting to reintegrate himself into a normal existence after spending four months in a hospital for an attempted suicide. He is overcome with guilt, having survived a boating accident that took the life of his older, popular brother Buck. Though Conrad’s father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) means well, he is unable to understand his son’s self-reproach or effectively communicate with the troubled youth. And Mrs. Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore, who was nominated for Best Actress), a stubborn and unforgiving woman who always gave Buck more attention than the rest of her family, is equally distant. So it’s up to innovative psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch, also nominated for Best Supporting Actor) to help pick up the pieces.
Conrad can’t connect at all with his mother, who harbors misplaced blame and regret, complicating an already painfully strained relationship. His only solace comes from twice-weekly meetings with Berger, who says little but skillfully forces out Conrad’s emotions with silent provocation. Although Conrad finds himself quitting the swim team and avoiding friends, a lighthearted romance with cute choirgirl Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) starts to uplift his lingering depression. But anger, edginess, confrontations with his mother, and further tragedies look to destroy his momentary progress and slowly increasing control.
Do ordinary people live in such luxurious houses? Clearly, it’s a cynically contrasting title for upper class characters leading often cinematically unexplored existences full of turmoil, doubt, and relatable losses. The film dissects the effects of a major tragedy on the lives of the survivors, movingly depicting various methods of coping and the way relationships crack under great stress – carefully adapted by Alvin Sargent from the Judith Guest novel of the same name. With no action, few characters, and little suspense, the film relies heavily on its acting – and what an impressive aspect it is. Few films are able to achieve such strength in every role, both leading and supporting, with million-dollar expressions and perfectly executed dialogue. Although many critics were disappointed by “Ordinary People’s” Best Picture Oscar win (over “Raging Bull”), it is a truly deserving, powerfully unassuming masterpiece of universal, realistic human drama.
– Mike Massie