Ordinary People August 11, 2017
Mary Tyler Moore
M. Emmet Walsh
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
Everything is just fine. Or so the Jarretts would like to tell themselves. And everyone who asks how they’re doing. They have an image to maintain, after all — they’re a prim and proper exemplification of the upper-middle class, living in an ivory-white Victorian home on the outskirts of town, the kind to take expensive vacations in the middle of the year just because. Besides, they don’t want to admit that things are thoroughly not fine. They just want to continue making pleasant small talk at meals together, to keep a comfortable routine intact. The time to mourn is over.
But all this is impossible to maintain, and 1980’s Ordinary People, the directing debut of Robert Redford, watches as denial starts to crumble. Which is inevitable — the Jarretts are recovering from an unspeakable tragedy. A year or so ago, the family’s sons, Buck and Conrad (Scott Doebler and Timothy Hutton), went out sailing when a deadly storm hit, resulting in the drowning of Buck and in the survivor’s guilt and severe depression of Conrad. Shortly after returning home, the latter tried to kill himself. The movie begins as he’s coming back from the hospital.
But no one acts like anything is wrong. Conrad’s father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is consistently merrier than Mike Brady after an architectural breakthrough. His mother, homemaker Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), is ironically a lot like the character Moore played on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966). Clearly, Conrad is hurting, his eyes perpetually flaming with despair. He doesn’t sleep. He skips meals. But at gatherings, Calvin and Beth refuse to tell their friends anything besides he’s “recovering.” He isn’t, though, and this leads Calvin to suggest he see noted psychiatrist Tyrone Berger (a superb Judd Hirsch) two times a week.
From there do things start to pick up, but maybe only for Conrad. The more he’s able to process his emotions, the more both Calvin and Beth start to realize that something is very wrong with their marriage. Calvin is the sort of comprehensively kind man who often puts his emotions over his intellect; Beth is the type of woman who will not accept anything which doesn’t mimic the perfection of a spread in Better Home & Gardens, unwilling to have a heart to heart which might mean getting tears on a prized cashmere sweater. It doesn’t help that she’s always, and not necessarily quietly, loved Buck more, struggling to show Conrad (and even her husband) affection. There’s a heartrending moment toward the end of the film wherein Calvin questions his love for her and Beth doesn’t so much as have a lump in her throat. But the dysfunction is muted. Redford is more intrigued by the unwinding of the psyches of these characters than he is with theatrical verbal showdowns which often make way in family dramas. No real resolution is in store — as there wouldn’t be for, say, ordinary people — but so compelling about the film is how much we see these characters change over the course of two hours.
The movie is set during the fall and then winter of a brisk New England year, and we feel as though we’re witnessing the growth of people who both are trying to overcome their grief and who are not unlike a lot of families. There is no happy ending. But how many families would be able to endure a tragedy like the Jarretts have and end up functional on the other side?
We know people like them. We’ve all met a Conrad, an intelligent youth whose emotional instability gets in the way of their potential. And a Calvin, a sweet but dull man who perhaps has always taken his idyllic life for granted. Or a Beth, a woman everyone loves and admires but actually isn’t much more than her public persona. Alvin Sargent’s Oscar-winning screenplay, adapted from the novel of the same name by Judith Guest, emboldens the juxtaposition between the public and private Jarretts effectively, allowing us to understand the people they used to be versus the people they’re becoming. If Buck hadn’t died, Conrad would still be a driven star athlete with a bright future ahead of him. Calvin could keep his TV dad masquerade intact. Beth could continue imitating Betty Crocker and love one son more than the other without much consequence.
But in Ordinary People, everything is questioned. The Jarretts have to consider which of their defining characteristics are merely attributes to groom a masquerade of normalcy and which accurately represent them. We see maturation in the case of Calvin and Conrad. As for Beth, however, we see an entire world crashing down. She isn’t anybody when she isn’t a Donna Reed clone. The performances capture these nuances. Hutton, who became the youngest person to ever win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, conveys Conrad’s frustrations — like his yearning to see his life return to the way it once was, his not knowing how to see catharsis through, his acute awareness that his mother doesn’t really love him — with such immersive vulnerability the portrayal doesn’t feel so much like a characterization as it does an embodiment. Sutherland is incredibly raw, and Moore, playing against type, gives the most understated — and fascinating — performance in the film as an individual who finally realizes their tendency to sugarcoat everything has become integral in the destruction of their family. Elizabeth McGovern, playing Conrad’s love interest, is instantaneously recognizable as an unknowing girl who sees someone hurting and knows she cannot simply walk away.
Ordinary People was an immediate hit in 1980, making its budget back over nine times at the box office and garnering four wins at the 1981 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And that’s a testament to its emotional power: Here is the story of a normal, successful American family put through hell, small and intimate. And yet it manifests into a hurricane of emotion, big enough to overpower any Hollywood epic. Its capacity to move is as potent as ever. It turns out the dramas of ordinary people never stop being compulsively entertaining when blown up onto the silver screen. A