For those who remember what life was like in 1980, Ordinary People will be a real trip to the past. For those who are too young to know, this movie will give you a brief tutorial in clothing, hair styles, cars, and so on. For both types of people, this will be an extraordinary family drama, full of terrific performances, raw and deeply moving. It won four Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Robert Redford.
Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) is a high school senior in Lake Forest, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Plagued with insomnia, he is a loner who shuns his friends and can barely communicate with his father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). Recently released from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt that was foiled by his father, Conrad has been home now for over a month, but still has not started therapy. The false happiness and optimism of his parents grates against him as they all attempt to cope with the incident that started everything down this crazy road: the death of Buck, the older son in the family. Calvin pretends that life can go on without regard to the death, while Beth seems to have retreated into a coldness that allows for no emotion whatsoever.
Finally, Conrad goes to see a therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), but all he can talk about is maintaining control over his life. Berger would like to see the boy experience some emotion, to face his own anger, terror, and remorse, but Conrad tries desperately to hold on. Remembering how much he liked his time in the hospital, Conrad seeks out a girl that he had been friends with there, Karen (Dinah Manoff), but she seems reluctant to find a relationship with him. She tells him that she is happy now and that he should be optimistic, too. “Let’s have the best year of our lives,” she tells him. At school, he continues on the swim team, which had been previously dominated by his brother, with all of the awards to prove it, but Calvin is, at best, a mediocre swimmer. He finds it impossible to relate to his old friends, who were all friends of Buck’s, too.
The girl who stands in front of him in choir, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) makes friends with him and a mutual attraction develops. For the first time since the accident that killed his brother, Conrad begins to have a sense of optimism. But the tension within the family contains more than just Conrad’s angst. Calvin has serious trouble dealing with Beth’s apparent lack of emotion and he goes to see Dr. Berger himself, discovering that he still has lingering grief over his son’s death and openly questions why his wife didn’t cry at the funeral.
As Christmas approaches, two dynamic incidents explode the plot wide open. Beth discovers that Conrad quit the swim team a month earlier and hadn’t told them, then Conrad finds out that his friend Karen has committed suicide.
Director Robert Redford handles this emotionally charged story very deftly. It could very easily have gone maudlin and mushy, but it always seems real and always completely honest. There’s no fancy camera work or other tricks to divert us from the story, but Redford has a keen sense of pacing. Two hours and four minutes of emotionally charged angst could have been way too much, but I never noticed the action dragging for one moment. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like dramas, but I couldn’t stop watching this one. It is superbly crafted and Redford was deserving of the two Academy Awards.
The heartbeat of the story is provided by Timothy Hutton. His performance as Conrad is one of the best dramatic performances ever and he was given an Academy Award for it. I’m not sure why they gave him Best Supporting Actor, when he is clearly the lead in this movie, but he would have deserved either one. Donald Sutherland is terrific as Conrad’s father, giving a deep, heartfelt performance. I felt a little bad for Mary Tyler Moore, because her character was so emotionally in control that she didn’t have the opportunity to really reveal her talents. Nevertheless, she did an awful lot with very little to go on. I kept wishing that they could have gotten Beth in to see the psychiatrist, because I felt that she was the one of all three that actually needed therapy more. Hirsch is very good as the psychiatrist and both McGovern and Manoff are believable as the two girls.
The fourth Academy Award went to Alvin Sargent for his adaptation of the novel by Judith Guest. It is a really good screenplay, very tight, and beautifully crafted.
The title of the movie is enigmatic. On one hand, this really isn’t an ordinary family. They are quite wealthy. The parents golf, they are members of the country club, and their friends are all equally rich, if not more so. But the title isn’t “ordinary family,” it’s Ordinary People and the title rings true on that level. Stripped of their wealth, these people are just like everyone, struggling with their problems, trying to figure out how to live their lives in the face of adversity, trying to pretend that things are better than they really are so they won’t have to think about them.
One revealing scene occurs on Calvin’s first date with Jeannine. As they sit in McDonald’s eating burgers, she asks him what it was like to commit suicide. He looks at her and remarks that she is the only person–outside of therapy–who has asked him about it. That one stretch of dialogue speaks volumes about the level of disconnect that exists in this family, their utter refusal to face Conrad’s problems.
This is a great film and it is certainly one of the best domestic dramas of all time. Everyone should see it!