Ordinary People with Extraordinary Issues

Guest blogger Kim Wilson writes:

Ordinary People (1980) was nominated for six Academy Awards; it won four. To this day, some people are still upset over the fact that Ordinary People won the Best Picture Oscar over Raging Bull.  These same individuals will also debate you to death about how ridiculous it was that the film’s first-time director, Robert Redford, beat out Martin Scorsese as Best Director.  While I find Raging Bull mildly better than Ordinary People, I can’t bring myself to say that Scorsese’s film was robbed, either.  Each had its strengths; it just so happens that voters that year went for an understated drama over a powerful one.  Of course, there is one true issue to be had with the 1980 Academy Awards—how could Timothy Hutton be nominated (and win) Best Supporting Actor for a film in which he was without a doubt the primary lead?  That, to me at least, is the biggest head scratcher.

Based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Judith Guest, the film tells the story of an upper-class Midwestern family’s gradual destruction following the death of a child.  Hutton plays Conrad Jarrett, a teenager dealing with survivor’s guilt.  Conrad is plagued with flashbacks of the horrible night in which he and his brother Buck (Scott Doebler) were involved in a sailing accident in which Buck drowned.  Having just been released from a mental hospital after attempting to slit his wrists, Conrad struggles to deal with his depression and his mother’s (Mary Tyler Moore) indifference.  The very shaky glue that attempts to bind mother and son is Conrad’s father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland).  The Oscar-winning screenplay focuses on what happens when polite appearances are shattered by callous truths.  Of course, no one in the family is willing to admit what those harsh truths are, and so it takes a good psychiatrist (Oscar-nominated Judd Hirsch) to bring the Jarrett men to the conclusion that not everything is neat and easy.

Mary Tyler Moore was a complete revelation as Beth Jarrett. Primarily known as a comedic actress, who emitted warmth and enthusiasm in her famous sitcom roles, Moore plays a cold, unfeeling woman in this film.  Beth is always perfect—her hair, clothes, and house are always immaculate.  Yet, she has a dirty little secret: she despises weakness, especially if it involves emotions.  Her interactions with a son who is obviously begging for her love and compassion are almost too brutal to watch.  Mind you,she is not evil or malicious—she just refuses to connect with him.  The most painful scene in the entire film is when after having an emotional breakthrough of his own Conrad hugs her and she stiffly sits with a frozen look on her face. Moore was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar and she deserved it.  She makes you want to scream at the screen, “Wrap your arms around him, you cold-hearted bitch!” Her scenes with Sutherland are just as powerful, especially the final one in which he tells her the truth about who she really is.

Hutton, for his part, gives an understated performance that is propped up by fine supporting turns by Sutherland and Hirsch. Like Moore, Hirsch was known primarily as a sitcom actor, and so his Dr. Berger’s crass language and matter-of-fact demeanor was a surprise to many.  Still a teenager himself, Hutton had to run the emotional gamut in this role: remorse, guilt, despair, love, fear, and happiness.  As I said earlier, he was the star of Ordinary People and to label him as a supporting actor was completely ridiculous.  And, Sutherland, does an admirable job of playing a man struggling to keep what’s left of his family together.

Other than the gripping story and the fine acting, what most people remember about the film is its music, specifically the constant presence of Pachelbel’s Canon.  Baroque in style and so composed in such a way as to produce dramatic emotions, the Canon was an interesting choice of thematic music for Ordinary People. For those unfamiliar with it, the Canon employs three voices (or players) that engage in the same music (this is a canon in music) but then there is also a fourth voice (the bass) that plays an independent part.  Right about now you’re asking yourself what is the point of this music lesson, right?  Well, I believe the choice of the Canon has symbolic meaning in that Conrad, Beth, and Calvin play the canon voices, while Buck (or perhaps Dr. Berger) plays the bass voice. Still, whether there was symbolism behind its choice or not, the Canon is expertly used throughout the film.

Overall, Ordinary People is a gut-wrenching family drama that examines the meaning of both guilt and disconnectedness.  For anyone who may have had a less than warm relationship with a parent or struggled with survivor’s guilt, it might provide some insight into the human condition.  While it may not be as emotionally packed as Raging Bull, it quietly makes a statement about the meaning of loss.

Kim Wilson is a history professor and the author of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die blog.

  • Fred

    Academy awards are a sham.  Would anyone debate who was the better artist, Van Gogh or Matisse or Renoir?  Who was the better song writer, Berlin or Porter or Gershwin or Rogers? To say one actor did a better job in role A than another did in role B is silly.  They cannot be compared because they are different roles.  Same with the movies.  Plug in the political aspects of Hollywood, the favors, the advertising blitzes, and art no longer matters.  The only good thing about the awards is the chance to see what the women are wearing.

    • KenR

      Well said Fred!  rather spot on.
      As for Raging Bull…no matter how good others say it may be, I would not cross the street to be abused by self absorbed film makers.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

        I agree with the thrust of this, but there are also times I think the academy does get it right, ie, Maggie Smith for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, “Marion Cottillard for “Piaf” and (his very valid response to ‘awards’ notwithstanding) George C. Scott for “Patton.”  That said, all of the crass politics and money spent to acquire votes is a complete turnoff.

        • KenR

          It’s true Gordon they cant get it wrong all the time, and it is good to see worthy work rewarded ~ but there are better ways to do this, without turning it into an over glossy, competitive circus.  It should be a creative forum where everyone gets equal recognition for good works – without being pitted against each other by a handful of ‘select’ people for the ‘No One’ position. Freds take on the whole ‘show’ is petty good by me.  

  • Aaron

    I loved “Ordinary People”,it resonates the same way “Terms Of Endearment” did. Immensely powerful,intelligent film deserved its Academy award,nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Vinny Castellano

    Ordinary People is my favorite movie over the past 30 odd years.  The story was gripping and real, and the actors performed with true emotion.  I agree, Hutton’s debut performance was understated and excellent. The scene when he reaches a crisis and pleads his case to the caring psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) earned Hutton his Oscar.  The movie delivered many important messages about truth, guilt, parental love, and forgiveness. Great performances from Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Elizabeth McGovern (Hutton’s sweet, kind friend) elevated this movie to a classic. 

  • Juanita123516

    Ordinary People is one of my favourite films and I much prefer it to the highly praised Raging Bull. It dealt with difficult emotions in a realistic way . I believe Robert Redford was able to elicit unexpected performances from all four leading actors – Donald Sutherland  was understated in his approach and was therefore  much more empathetic ,a counterfoil to Mary Tyler Moore. Timothy Hutton was a revelation in his debut performance as Conrad and I kept thinking of his father Jim Hutton ,who I  felt died before he could reach his full potential. Well deserved oscars to both Hutton and Redford.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/V5CARB4X6MCXD7I5XR3IGIVGWY Go

    I love Ordinary People…I happen to catch it one of those times a premium cable channel was offered many years ago. I couldnt wait to buy my own DVD copy. Yes, Timothy Hutton just tore my heart strings…he was excellent from beginning to end. I noticed after watching how his pallor changed from beginning to the end of the movie. Even more hard to believe was Robert Redford won the best director award. I saw Raging Bull, but Ordinary People tugged at my heart strings and gave me story to remember. Jake LaMotta, did not tug my heart strings.

  • Jeff Jowett

    Haven’t seen either one in decades, but a meaningful yardstick that distinguishes truly great movies is universality of theme. Death of a child isn’t universal, but family conflict and lack of communication certainly is. By contrast, Raging Bull focuses on the leading edge of a one-in-a-million character. By that yardstick, People doesn’t just edge Bull; it buries it. And I’m a boxing fan!

  • Andy

    Before “Ordinary People” Pachelbel was just another obscure and long-forgotten Baroque-era composer. After, his Canon has become ubiquitous, played ad nauseum, much like the opening bars of Richard Straus’ Also Sprach Zarathustra after its use in Kubrick’s “2001.” It is a shame the only serious music to which Americans are exposed has to come from the movies.

  • Debbie

    A wonderful movie. I saw it once. It is too painful to watch twice.

  • Tom

    Same here, Debbie, too tough to watch again – for me, anyway.  I remember Oscar night and wondering if MaryTyler Moor would win, and being both pleased and disappointed when Sissy Spacek won for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” – which she certainly deserved!

  • Maxfabien

    Not only should Mary Tyler Moore have won the Best Actress Oscar that year, but it’s almost criminal the Donald Sutherland wasn’t even nominated! He has got to be one of the most underappreciated actors in Oscar history. I hope the Academy honors him with a special lifetime award very soon.

  • Gary Vidmar

    Calling ORDINARY PEOPLE gut-wrenching in a review that references RAGING BULL is laughable.
    ORDINARY PEOPLE was a stuffed-shirt version of the trashy mid-century melodramas that directors like Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli did with real flair.  There have been many great films assaulting bourgeois family values, but Redford’s tasteful attempt was not one of the better ones.

  • Patricia Cox

    Ordinary People was an unforgettable movie. I had read the book before I saw the film, and both are completely absorbing and chilling. Timothy Hutton won a fan for life in me, and Mary Tyler Moore playing against type was a revelation to me about what acting as a profession and art was all about. I was 18 in 1980, and the power of the film has never left me. That happens when art reaches the depth of the soul. It is in the book, but these fine actors really brought it to life.

  • Myhan

    I saw Ordinary People at the theater. It had me on the edge of my seat wondering why Beth seemed to be paying so little attention to Conrad. I was also wondering what Conrad’s problem was. Why he couldn’t get along with anyone but the character portrayed by Elizabeth McGovern. But when it was finally revealed I understood about Conrad. It took me much longer to figure out Beth. Great movie! As for Raging Bull, I tried to watch it on VHS in the mid 80′s (having missed it at the theater) and could not stand the vulgar language. I refused to watch the entire movie.

  • Doug

    I have to agree with you. Ordinary People was just that, ordinary, and I was also disappointed that it won best picture. But I’m disappointed with about a dozen best picture winners throughout oscar history, primarily Marty, The Best Show on Earth, Oliver!, The Hurt Locker, etc.
    Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore definitely had leading roles. Moore’s performance was really very good, contrasting with her Laura Petrie and Mary Tyler Moore show images. I guess it was kind of refreshing, however, to see her as a strong-willed self-absorbed and bitter mother who was still smarting over her older son’s death, shutting out her only surviving child in the meanwhile.

  • tressy

    What a great movie! All the actors did a fantastic job and Mary Tyler Moore was a revelation to me because I always saw her as a comedy actress. She deserved to win, but Oscar is strange and a lot of times shocking.

  • hiram

    I have seen it many times, and used to show it to high school students. It’s emotional truth — the we sometimes beat up on ourselves more than other people do — is beautifully rendered. Sutherland’s performance is an understated masterpiece (the only principal not nominated). In some respects, RAGING BULL is a stunt, hyper-realism in cinematic form. This is great movie.

  • Tiffany Fontaine

    I was glad I was not an Academy voter that year, because choosing between Mary Tyler Moore for this, and Sissy Spacek for “Coal Miner’s Daughter” would have been tough! Glad they both won their respective Golden Globes, but Oscar…………………..you bring up a great point, though – Timothy Hutton – but it’s like Tatum O’Neal in “Paper Moon.” She was the star, but as a little girl, had to be relegated to supporting……..which should have been won by Madeleine Kahn………………And so it goes. However, this is a wonderful if chilling movie – I didn’t get it all at the time – I understand it more now.

  • Nicolas

    Regarding Timothy Hutton winning for Supporting Actor. When the Godfather at the academy, it was Marlon Brando for Best Actor, and Al Pacino for Supporting Actor. But in many ways, the real lead actor was Pacino, who had more screen minutes than did Brando. This is not uncommon. The year the movie The Sunshine Boys was nominated, George Burns won Best Supporting actor, and Walter Mathau was nominated for best actor.

  • Gayle Feyrer

    I loved Ordinary People and, except for the cinematography, loathed Raging Bull. Yes, De Niro was great, but found it a brutal film with just about nothing to say beyond stupid brutal people love violence. So, I was happy that Ordinary People won. Boxing movies do tend to perturb me more than any others, even war movies, but there are some that I liked. There’s that old noir, Night and the City, that has a wrestling backdrop, and Requiem for a Heavyweight. But they aren’t really boxing films. Even The Harder They Fall makes me want to hide under the seat. It’s easier for me to watch horror films.

  • Laurence Almand

    ORDINARY PEOPLE is an example of how a film can be made to equal the book. Redford certainly did an excellent job of directing – he should have directed more! And yes, Mary was a revelation – from wacky comedienne to dramatic actress. Like many “funny” women, she was far more talented than most people realized. Same holds true for Lucille Ball, who was also adept at drama, although the public would not accept her in a dramatic role.

  • laustcawz

    My understanding is that, if Hutton had been put in the lead actor category, he would’ve lost to DeNiro (just due to pressure from Academy voters). Plus, this was Hutton’s first film & he was a teenager (or, at least, played one) & it seems common for such actors to be considered “supporting”, even if they are clearly the leads or the stand-outs in their films. Even so, I adore “Ordinary People” & am still thrilled it won big. I really don’t care for boxing or boxing movies, even though I appreciate the obvious hard work & impressive performances that went into “Raging Bull” (especially since it was a true story).