Film Review: Ordinary People

Ordinary People is perhaps an unusual choice for Best Picture given the Academy’s history. But the film remains relevant with strong performances from the cast, an engaging story and an excellent directorial debut from Robert Redford.

On TV’s House, Wilson’s office is decorated with movie posters – originally Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But when questioned at a press conference, actor Robert Sean Leonard said that Ordinary People was a poster he would like to see in an oncologist’s office.  One of his personal favourites, Leonard has called the film “a fascinating study of human relations and familial relations and human interaction”. For a doctor who duels with a disease that destroys lives and families, often as much a counsellor as a physician, Ordinary People is a film his patients may be encouraged to know he is a fan of. The producers of House soon added an Ordinary People poster to the set.

As for the film itself, it is quite right to call it a fascinating study of a family struggling to move on from the tragedy of losing a son.

Initially it seems that their surviving son Conrad, (Timothy Hutton) is the one having the hardest time coming to terms with the death of his older brother, Buck. Conrad was with Buck when he died in a boating accident and has just been released from a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt.

The normal teenage dilemma of finding his identity compounds his struggle to resume his life from before his brother’s death and his suicide attempt as he questions his taste for his previous interests and what, if anything, he has in common with his old friends. At his father’s insistence he starts seeing psychiatrist Dr Burge (Judd Hirsch) who delivers a tough-love approach of challenging Conrad, with understanding but without pity, in scenes that remind one of those between Robin Williams and Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. Increasingly willing to turn a new leaf in his life Conrad begins dating Jeannie (Elizabeth McGovern), a girl from his school.

But as the film progresses, we see that Conrad is not the only one struggling for peace. His father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is also finding it difficult to take an interest in his former career and friends. An awkward nice guy who is afraid of confrontation, Calvin feels he is the only thing holding the family together. Caught between a son self-destructing and a wife in deep denial, the family rift tears Calvin apart until he begins to question whether the family can or should be held together at all.

Mother of the family, Beth, is probably the most interesting character in the film, wonderfully portrayed by Mary Tyler Moore. She stubbornly resists any external show of the emotional turmoil she undoubtedly feels. She inexplicably gives priority to keeping up appearances and wants to give no one outside the family any inkling of their troubles or to create scandal or reason for gossip. But her pretence extends within the family where her denial comes across as cold, disconnected and utterly uncaring, particularly as she seems to have elevated her dead son to a position of saintly perfection that only exists in her mind and leaves her surviving son feeling unloved and unable to live up to the image of his dead brother. Calvin increasingly has to play referee between his wife and his son until Beth faces a choice between finally confronting her misery or breaking up the family.

Ordinary People became a box office success and produced career turning performances for a number of participants. Judd Hirsh and Mary Tyler Moore, previously best known for their work in TV sitcoms, managed to challenge preconceptions with stirring dramatic performances. The film gave Elizabeth McGovern, now best known for her role in Downton Abbey, her first major role. Most of all, the film is Robert Redford’s directional debut. Redford shows considerable maturity, restraint and subtlety to allow the characters, their dialogue and the plot to speak for themselves rather than spoil the story with over-direction, misplaced innovation or unnecessary emphasis. Instances that may seem cliché to a modern audience – such as where Calvin jogs, his mind burdened with thoughts until he stumbles overwhelmed – are few and forgivable.

The film was well acknowledged with six Academy Award nominations in 1980, winning four – Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Hutton, although it could be argued that his was the lead role), Best Director for Redford and Best Film over The Coal Miner’s Daughter and Raging Bull.

This was a strange time in the history of the Academy. The previous year, another family drama, Kramer vs. Kramer, cleaned up over the brilliant and much fancied Apocalypse Now. It is difficult to elucidate exactly what went on here and why the academy got a sudden taste for private familial dramas of ordinary people over its usual preference for historical events, biopics, epics and stories of overcoming social injustice.

Most likely nothing was going on here and both Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People represent no deviation from the Academy’s usual taste for solid performances and safe choices. The success of Ordinary People certainly befits the solid performances in writing, acting and direction.

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