Ordinary People (review)

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Play That Funk-y Movie

Ah, the rich. They’re not happier than the rest of us — they’re just more comfortable in their misery.

Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and Calvin (Donald Sutherland) seem to have it made in their affluent Chicago ’burb, a world of touch football on the lawn and long driveways and cocktail parties people dread going to. Things would be perfect, in fact, if tragedy hadn’t shown Beth’s true colors. They’ve lost their perfect teenage son to an accident, and the one they’ve got left, Conrad (Timothy Hutton)… well, let’s just say Beth lost her favorite child and is left with the runner-up, and his inability to deal with his grief is trying her patience.

Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, is a talky drama about people who can’t talk to one another. Conrad, a high-school student recovering from a suicide attempt after his brother’s boating accident, is all but ignored by his parents. Too-cheerful Calvin pretends that things are just hunky-dory, and when Conrad tries to talk to Beth, she changes the subject or pushes him away — in one painful scene, she turns her back on him to chat and gossip with a friend on the phone.

Conrad tells his shrink, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), that he liked the hospital where he spent four months after he slit his wrists because “nobody hid anything” there. On a first date with Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), she notices the scars on his wrists and asks him, “Why’d you do it?” — he tells her that no one’s ever asked that before, and it’s not hard to believe.

Beth is heartlessly cold toward her son. Calvin’s attempts to help Conrad she calls “indulging” him; when Conrad expresses his anger and grief she says he’s “walking all over” her and Calvin. Her husband soon comes to realize that’s she always been this way: stubborn, unemotional, detached.

Characters like Beth have become clichéd in the almost twenty years since Ordinary People, but Moore did it first and best with an understated performance that defines her character by all the things she isn’t — affectionate, warm, “motherly.” Also notable is the natural, emotional performance from Hutton. It’s unfortunate that he hasn’t had the opportunity to be this good again.

Exploring in an excruciatingly frank way the one emotion we’d probably all like to avoid — grief — Ordinary People is an uncomfortable film, one that leaves you aching for its characters. Expect a bit of a funk afterward.

[reader comments on this review]

Oscars Best Picture 1980
unforgettable movie moment:
Conrad finally vents his anger at his brother’s death and faces his self-blame, exploding with rage at Dr. Berger.

previous Best Picture:
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer
next Best Picture:
1981: Chariots of Fire

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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