Mary Tyler Moore was to alter the public’s perception of her squeaky clean and congenial persona, honed for seven years on one of TV’s most popular sitcoms (Mary Tyler Moore 1970-77), and even before, as the fresh-faced spouse on The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66) in Robert Redford’s motion picture directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980); playing the emotionally absent and psychologically frigid wife and mother of the Jarrett family. For its time, Ordinary People was an extraordinary achievement; Redford assembling a stellar cast and working from a superb screenplay by Alvin Sargent. Based on the novel by Judith Guest, Ordinary People unravels a complex family dynamic in an affluent Chicago family; mom, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), dad, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) all grappling with the unexpected death of their eldest; the fair-haired all-American college bound stud, Buck (Scott Doebler), drowned in a boating accident. Beth’s reaction is to become emotionally estranged from her family. Calvin is concerned for Conrad, who favors his temperament and sensitivity and who attempted suicide on the first year anniversary of Buck’s untimely demise, blaming himself for being unable to save his brother after their boat capsized in a gale.
Moore’s performance is startling, particularly when viewed within the frame of reference of her television work. Herein, she is positively bone-chilling; a woman so wounded by the loss of her favorite son she alienates the rest of her family from the possibility of resuming a normal life in order to spare her own sanity its inevitable implosion. Redford plays up the queerly unsettling Oedipal relationship between Beth and Buck – also hinted at in Guest’s novel. In flashback, Buck is more the amiable surrogate love interest for Beth – rather than her son – she, living vicariously through his overt machismo as he talks about girlfriends and touch football; Beth sprawled on the front lawn and playfully laughing like a foolish school girl. Indeed, Buck was the ray of light in all their lives; adored by Calvin – even as he secretly worried about his risk-taking, and absolutely worshipped by Conrad, the awkward and less physically attractive sibling. Arguably, Beth resents Conrad’s complacency; his willingness – even contentment – to merely exist in the shadow of Buck’s overwhelming popularity at school and with the ladies.
For Conrad, it seems the adult world, once enamored with Buck and promises for the future, now bitterly resents the fact the presumed lesser of the two Jarrett brothers has survived the accident. With the exception of Buck’s best friend, Joe (Fredric Lehne), who remains fairly empathetic toward Conrad until a rift in their friendship causes him to turn his back, the rest of Buck’s entourage are fairly cruel in their inability to grasp the epic reeling of sadness and envy taking place in Conrad’s mind; his hostile antipathy at having survived, yet unable to make his own mother understand she isn’t the only one who lost the earth, moon and sun (son) when Buck died.
On the outskirts is Calvin; seemingly stable and kind, insisting Conrad see a brilliant psychologist, Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (Judd Hirsch), to help work through his residual guilt. Conrad resists at first, perhaps understandably, given the layman’s opinion of modern psychiatry then as a ‘head shrinker’s game’ for the looney tune class. What is more alarming herein is Beth’s general unwillingness to support her son’s recovering mental health. She would prefer to forget Conrad altogether, or at least his needs for an outsider’s help; chronically resisting Calvin’s encouragement of the sessions with Dr. Berger, and even more detrimentally pursuing a plan to distance herself and Calvin from Conrad when, arguably, he needs them most. Instead, Beth urges her husband to take a vacation without their son. Eventually, Calvin begins to quietly surmise he really does not have much of a marriage.
Perhaps he never did. Beth’s entire existence was wrapped up in Buck; taking the place – at least in Beth’s mind – as the man around the house. Indeed, Buck’s outgoing nature seems to have favored the sort of woman Beth was before tragedy struck; a rather heartless creature around which the whole world revolved. It is therefore a blow to Beth’s conceit, particularly after Buck’s death, she suddenly realizes this balance of power has shifted beneath her feet. It is Conrad now who desperately needs love and support, commodities Beth managed for Buck, yet cannot bring herself to bear without a faint sickness and mild disgust for Conrad’s comparative weakness. A mother’s love denied is perhaps one of the meanest misfortunes inflicted upon a child; more so as a teenager, haunted by the inevitable insecurities of adolescence, herein compounded by heartbreak.
Ordinary People hails from an epoch in American film-making, fueled by low budget/character-driven drama. I would have those times again – Redford’s movie sustained not by the pomp and flash of handheld jittery camera movements or the more contemporary affliction for Ginsu-styled editing. When Redford cuts a scene or inserts a close-up it means something; punctuating the dramatic arc of a scene. Better still, he allows his stars to give a performance, knowing damn well they can and encouraging their spontaneity with as few cuts as possible; John Bailey’s photography capturing an unsettling essence of something remiss in this otherwise well-heeled neighborhood, laid out in resplendent autumn colors and the warm afterglow of late day sun sifted through dense foliage. It’s an interesting disconnect; this outward, seemingly innocuous ‘all is right’ appearance of suburbia contrasted with this powder keg of deeply felt, darker scars enveloping the Jarrett family.
Undeniably, the movie’s most engaging moments are fraught with bitter skirmishes; either between Beth and Conrad, or, better still, between Conrad and Dr. Berger, whose clinical sessions crackle with a spark of brilliance – not only in performance but also in the writing and understated visual execution. At one point, Conrad begrudgingly suggests, “Isn’t it your job to make me feel better?” to which Berger nonchalantly replies, “Not necessarily” and Conrad lashes out with “Well, then screw you!” Their tension is brilliantly diffused by Conrad’s sudden realization of his own absurdity. Whatever healing will come of their time spent together, it must happen from within; Berger, mercifully the diviner of Conrad’s coping with tumultuous flashbacks. In point of fact, Berger is Conrad’s only lifeline. The rest of Conrad’s social interactions are untethered from a sense of belonging. Calvin is sympathetic, but unable to reach his son. Beth is a lost cause. And Buck’s friends would prefer to move on with their lives and pretend his death never happened, going about their daily lives as though he never existed at all.
Part of Conrad’s problem is, of course, he is desperately trying to fill the vacuum brought about by Buck’s passing; even trying out for Buck’s swim team, though he has no zest for it, and rather doggedly pursued by an arrogant coach (M. Emmet Walsh), who openly admits to Conrad he lacks his brother’s physical agility to be great; hitherto making the most inappropriate inquiries about the electro-shock therapy Conrad endured at the hospital after his failed suicide attempt. At Berger’s behest, Conrad makes awkward inroads into a relationship with Jeannine Pratt (Elizabeth McGovern); a girl he secretly admires from choir practice. He also clings to a friendship with Karen Aldrich (Dinah Manoff), a fragile girl he met while the two were in hospital – she too having tried to take her own life. This latter ‘relationship’ is, of course, fatally flawed. How can one drowning individual save another drowning individual? Karen is less resilient than she lets on, wishing Conrad great success and even offering words of encouragement, all the while, her own life spiraling out of control. Perhaps Conrad’s love for Jeannine will eventually win out – although, the movie is highly circumspect about suggesting as much: no romance, as it were, though quite possibly a lasting bond of friendship.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Calvin is beginning to realize the woman he married is changed. Or is it that Buck’s loss has merely managed to expose Beth’s failings as a human being? Beth’s cruelty toward Conrad, denying him her love or at the very least kindness, understanding and allegiance when he desperately craves it, leads to an increasing rift in Calvin and Beth’s marriage. She cannot understand Calvin’s reticence to take a holiday, leaving Conrad in Dr. Berger’s care and under the watchful eye of her parents. However, Calvin is amazed Beth would even suggest a vacation at a time when their son is so vulnerable to a relapse. Begrudgingly, Calvin acquiesces to his wife’s demands. Perhaps, he reasons, the separation would do them all a modicum of good. As the Christmas holidays approach Beth suffers a crisis of conscience pivoting on a poignantly understated moment played in the garage of the Jarrett family home. Desperate to wrap his own mind around his son’s emotional breakdown, Calvin attends Dr. Berger and shares some of his own reminiscences about Buck. These are never exposed in the film, director Redford instead cutting to Calvin’s arrival home after his session, physically and emotionally drained and haunted by a reoccurring memory of Beth urging him to change his dress shirt and shoes on the day of Buck’s funeral. In sharing this recollection with his wife, Calvin also illustrates each of their mindsets; his, wildly reeling and unable to get through the day without an uncomfortable numbness overtaking; Beth investing herself in how it will all look to her friends and family presentation..
At first, Beth resists Calvin telling her about his memory. Increasingly, she will live to regret her behavior; gnawing away until she can barely function without an unbearable despondency. Later, Beth resents both her husband and son for bringing these buried feelings to the surface. But actually, these moments illustrate at least for the audience, if never for the character, Beth Jarrett does, indeed, possess a heart. She is as fragile as the men in her life; an ironic vulnerability exposed only after Beth has convinced Calvin to run off to Houston to visit her brother, Ward (Quinn Redeker) and his wife, Audrey (Mariclare Costello) without Conrad. Relaxing on the golf course, Calvin receives promising news from Conrad about a breakthrough with Dr. Berger, following news of Karen’s second and, regrettably successful, suicide attempt. Yet, even in sharing this with Beth she seems unwilling to be supportive, leading to a bitter confrontation at the country club; Ward, endeavoring to diffuse the situation by insisting all anyone expects of Beth is for their family to be happy once again. In reply, Beth finally lets down her hair and it is a terrifying experience to behold, as she admits, “Ward…you tell me the definition of happy. But first you better make sure your kids are good and safe; that no one’s fallen off a horse or been hit by a car or drowned in that swimming pool you’re so proud of; and then you come to me and tell me how to be happy!”
Returning home, Calvin tells Beth she is ‘determined’ – an unflattering quality often mistaken for strength of character. Alas, she lacks the one essential – a woman’s heart – to be giving. “We would have been alright if there hadn’t been a mess,” Calvin insists, “You need everything neat and easy. When Buck died you buried all your love with him and I don’t understand that. Whatever it was…I don’t know what we’ve been playing at. So, I was crying. Because I don’t know if I love you anymore…and I don’t know what I’m going to do without that.” Unable to defend her reactions any longer, and perhaps not even feeling the need to justify them, Beth quietly retreats upstairs and packs. Their marriage is over. Awakening to the steely gray of dawn, Conrad discovers Calvin despondent on the back porch. Father and son share a heartfelt tête-à-tête and the natural order of at least their familial bond is re-cemented with great affection.
Ordinary People is an exceptional drama, expertly played and eloquently told by Redford, whose passion for the material is readily apparent. Moreover, Timothy Hutton’s pivotal turn as the shell-shocked youth, brought around to accepting his brother’s death, despite seemingly insurmountable, crippling self-doubt and pity, is a towering achievement; full of adolescent angst and wounded humility. In a performance that won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, Hutton manages to convey a genuine sense of loss well beyond tear-stained episodes and periodic emotional outbursts. Somehow, he has reached into a very dark pool of torment; dredging up nightmarish grand tragedy without ever going over the top or issuing a false note. Ah well, I suppose that’s why they call it ‘acting’. In his Oscar-nominated performance, Judd Hirsch excels as the crudely empathetic doctor, determined to shake his patient loose from his shame with equal portions of kindness and tough love. Ordinary People is a movie that ought to have endured a more lasting reputation than it currently holds; particularly in light of the fact it won the Best Picture Oscar in 1981. Awards are a fairly meaningless barometer of cinema excellence or enduring greatness. Yet, at the very least, they usually serve as a perennial cultural touchstone for renewed retrospectives and analyses. In Ordinary People’s case, its reputation has been allowed to quietly fade into relative obscurity.
Paramount, the film’s distributors, is perhaps partly to blame; releasing the movie only sporadically to home video. In the interim, Ordinary People has only occasionally resurfaced on TV, mostly as late night fodder and heavily censored of its more incendiary dialogue during Conrad’s potent sessions with Dr. Berger. Make no mistake: there is nothing ordinary about these people. The Alvin Sargent screenplay (with an uncredited assist by Nancy Dowd) is critical of these characters; exposing Calvin's inability to keep his family together, Beth's unrelenting determination to run away from her matriarchal responsibilities and find temporary, if dissatisfying distractions in superficial pursuits, even if these are damaging to the welfare of her family; Conrad's stubbornness to let go of the past and his outward resentment of his mother’s absence of affections. Director, Robert Redford allows all of these machinations to simmer, then stew, before effectively boiling over in the third act. Ordinary People is a finely orchestrated and fairly intense drama of familial strife. If the clothing, hairstyles and physical accoutrements in Phillip Bennett and J. Michael Riva’s art direction have dated (and, they have), thematically, the performances remain just as thought-provoking and perennially absorbing.
Long ago, this Paramount catalog title ought to have found its way to hi-def. When Warner Home Video acquired its licensing agreement to distribute Paramount product, and particularly after WHV released Paramount’s other Oscar-winning familial dramedy from this period, Terms of Endearment (1983), I had harbored some hope for Ordinary People to receive the same consideration; a desire seemingly fallen on deaf ears. Paramount Home Video’s DVD is anamorphic widescreen but it’s fairly middle of the road and occasionally subpar; suffering from sporadic bouts of pixelization, edge enhancement and slight shimmering of fine details. At times, all of these digitally induced anomalies are distracting. Colors, on the whole, are slightly faded too. Fine details occasionally get lost in a softly focused and slightly grainy image that is, on the whole, unremarkable. The mono 1.0 audio seems slightly distorted. This is terribly bare bones effort from Paramount - one that ought to be rectified if Ordinary People ever comes to Blu-ray which it definitely should. Bottom line: recommended for content only.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)