REVIEWS OF RENTED DVDs I GET IN THE MAIL

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)

In Best Picture Winners, Drama, Motion Pictures, O on April 7, 2010 at 2:10 pm

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STUDIO — Paramount 

CAST — Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern 

DIRECTOR —  Robert Redford 

MPAA Rating: R 

When I was in high school, my mother told me about this movie called Ordinary People, and that she all but insisted I watch it. To say it left  a lasting impression is somewhat an understatement. 

This is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and it features some somewhat unusual casting: two TV actors (Judd Hirsch, who was still shooting “Taxi”, and Mary Tyler Moore), an active Julliard student (Elizabeth McGovern, the first student given permission to work during term), and the son of TV’s Ellery Queen (Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton, in his motion picture debut). Only Donald Sutherland was an established motion picture actor at the time, so on the surface, a lot seemed to be riding on whether this movie would be successful. Well, it was. This is an emotional, gripping movie which captured four Academy Awards, including the aforementioned Best Supporting Actor, as well as Best Picture of 1980. 

Conrad (Timothy Hutton) talks to Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) about his mother

Ordinary People follows the lives of the Jarretts, a well-to-do family living in the upscale community of Lake Forest, Illinois. On the surface, everything appears to be normal: Calvin (Sutherland) is a tax attorney in Chicago, his wife Beth (Moore) is more or less a socialite, and Conrad (Hutton) is a high school student in the choir and swim team. Yet, despite all the outward smiles, the Jarretts are dealing with a devastating one-two punch. First, older brother Buck (seen only in flashbacks) drowned in a boating accident, then Conrad tried to kill himself. 

Early on, it is established that Conrad’s suicide attempt was triggered by the boating accident (In flashbacks, we see the two brothers on a sailboat in stormy waters), and that he had spent several months in a psychiatric hospital afterward. Once Conrad leaves the hospital, however, what was once a tightly knit family slowly becomes unraveled. Beth wants desperately to show off to everyone that all is well, Conrad resents her for not seeing things as they really are, and Calvin is in the middle, trying to hold it all together. As the story progresses, we learn more and more about the Jarretts through Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), whom Conrad sees on an outpatient basis. 

On all fronts, Ordinary People makes for great character study. The performances by all the principal cast members were very strong, something rarely seen in movies. I think this is in part because Redford’s acting background made for great chemistry on the set. Speaking of Robert Redford, even though this is the first movie he directed, it is also some of his best work (He did win Best Director). And the Oscar-winning script was solid, as well. 

I’d like to focus on two of the performances for a moment, because they show how two different types of people deal with trauma, the aftereffects of which can either make or break a person. Timothy Hutton’s portrayal of Conrad showed us a teen so desperate to find an outlet for his pain, he felt the only way he could let go was to die. But he survives, and we follow Conrad during his recovery, a teen who was once broken, but trying to put himself back together again. Then there’s Mary Tyler Moore. At the time, she was America’s Sweetheart; her eponymous TV show was one of the most popular sitcoms of the 1970s. But as Beth Jarrett, she proved to the world that she could do much more than “turn the world on with her smile”. Beth is not a bad person, but her “solution” to these life-changing events was to simply sweep them under the carpet, as if it never happened (a trait I observed in my own father, as noted in a previous post). But Beth, who had apparently always been a decision-maker, overcompensates for her grief by controlling nearly everything around her, while at the same time shutting out her pain altogether. Like I said, Beth isn’t a bad person, but when you can’t feel grief, you really can’t feel anything. And the conflict in this movie is stemmed from the clashing personalities of both Conrad and Beth. But where Conrad tries to work through his issues, Beth just wants to file it away. 

I have experienced trauma in my life; we all have, at one time or another. It is how we deal with it that defines who we are. So I ask you, the reader, how do you face your trauma? Do you hide, or are you open? Do you act like it never happened, or do you talk about it? Do you turn to drugs or alcohol, or do you do something constructive to work through the pain? It is these questions, and more, which are explored but never fully answered in Ordinary People; the answers are left for you to figure out. 

4 out of 5

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  1. Thank you for this. I know this film means a lot to you. I consider Tim Hutton’s performance in this film one of the best in history.

  2. Wow. Great read and loved hearing your perspective between Conrad and Beth. I, too, always thought Tim Hutton’s portrayal is one of the greatest captured on screen. Thanks for acting on my recommendations!

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