In light of the imminent return of the star-studded Academy Awards ceremony tomorrow night, I thought it would be fun to take a quick look back to a past Oscar-winner, a film I absolutely love and think film lovers should take another look at- 1980′s Academy-Award winner for Best Picture, “Ordinary People” . I had a chance to catch the movie again during the Turner Movie Classic channel’s 31 Days of Oscar continuing series this past month and I was reminded of how much it still plays as an enduring ode to family dysfunction, healing and reformation.
Starring Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, and Dinah Manoff, “Ordinary People” marked the stunning directorial debut of actor Robert Redford. The film garnered critical and popular acclaim, plus Oscars for Timothy Hutton (Best Actor in a supporting role), nominations for Tyler Moore (Best Actress in a leading role) and Hirsch (Best actor in a supporting role), plus statuettes for Best director and Best Adapted Screenplay for Alvin Sargent who based his script on the 1976 novel of the same name by Judith Guest.
The story relates the winter and fall tale of the Jarretts, an upper middle-class family living in a Chicago suburb who are trying to mend the emotional wounds caused by the loss of a family member and the recent attempted suicide of another. An interesting bit of trivia concerning the genesis of the overall story involves Judith Guest, a school teacher who ultimately ended up leaving the profession to concentrate on her writing. Guest originally conceived of the narrative as a short story but once she started fleshing out the psychology of her central characters, realized that her story was actually detailing the anatomy of depression. She then opted to expand the story into a full novel (after hitting 200 pages, that was probably a good idea). The emotional complexity that resonates throughout the film is quite astounding and represents a triumph by screenwriter Alvin Sargent. The heart and soul of this film is Conrad Jarrett, played beautifully by the then 19-year old Hutton who has recently returned to his family home after a four-month stint in a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore play his parents, Calvin and Beth Jarrett. Tyler Moore who had gained most of her notoriety as pert and pretty newscaster Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show revealed her dynamic range as an actress and A-lister in this film and her performance is a highlight for me. As Beth Jarrett, Moore portrays a wife and mother so stilted in her emotions that she wears them like a mask throughout the entire story. Sure, Beth has managed to create a household that looks like something out of the pages of Better Homes Magazine but her inability to connect with her son flow as tumultuous currents that help create some great scenes of tension and pathos in her interactions with Sutherland and Hutton. I have to admit that I really love Sutherland in this movie- I am not sure what kind of competition he may have had back in 1980 but I feel he was robbed of an Oscar nomination for his performance. As Calvin Jarett, Sutherland in many ways plays the emotive antithesis to Moore’s character in trying to juggle understanding and connection with trying to do the responsible thing in trying to assess how he himself have been affected by the calamities that have injured his family. His closing scene with Hutton is the quiet, endearing and cathartic moment that the film strives for and eventually earns. I usually don’t shed a tear while watching films but I always feel a bit devastated after watching this scene- every time, it never fails.
Judd Hirsch plays Dr. Tyrone Berger, Conrad’s psychiatrist and adds great shades of empathy and tough love when we see him in his sessions with Timothy Hutton. Hirsch’s greatest strength in this piece is the restraint he shows as a professional caregiver, which is necessary to realistically provide Conrad with the clarity he needs to push forward. Dinah Manoff and Elizabeth McGovern also add notable supporting turns and provide welcome avenues to showcase different aspects of Conrad’s emotional regression and progression throughout the story. Ordinary people may have debuted some thirty years ago but has lost none of its resonant power- it continues to be atmospheric in its tone and who can forget the Pachelbel’s Cannon in D theme that so crisply runs its way through the title sequence and the rest of the film. Check this one out or re-visit it immediately. – Posted by Greg