1980

Film #312: Ordinary People (1980)

We travel forward a decade now but stay on a similar theme as our first three posts concern the further adventures of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Oddly the first film stars neither Redford nor Newman but is instead the former’s directorial debut. Interestingly Paul Newman’s directorial debut Rachel, Rachel was also Oscar-nominated however Redford went one step further and actually won the Best Director prize.


Also winning that year’s Best Picture statuette, Ordinary People focused on a seemingly normal suburban family who were going through a terrible ordeal. Their older son Buck died in a boating accident the previous year whilst younger son Conrad, who was also in the boat, tried to commit suicide presumably at his guilt over causing the accident. The film starts just after a month after Conrad’s return to the hospital and sees him taking up dad Calvin’s suggestion of seeing a therapist. The therapist in question, Dr Berger, is quite long-in-the-tooth and doesn’t appear to be that interested in what Conrad has to say. But, rather predictably in my eyes, the pair forms a relationship that grows into a stronger bond than that which Conrad shares with his mother Beth. Throughout the film, Beth is constantly trying to prove that everything is alright and that her family is completely normal, when in actuality they are far from it. An early scene at a friend’s party shows the disparity between the couple as Beth is making idle chit-chat whilst Calvin is having an earnest conversation about his son’s health. Calvin later finds himself caught in the middle when Beth snaps at Conrad for having quit the swim team without consulting them. Though Ordinary People is seen as Conrad’s story, especially considering he is also involved in an awkward romantic plot, for me this is all about Calvin’s failure to appease both of the people who loves dearly.

I did indeed feel that Ordinary People was as its best when focusing on the relationships between the three members of the Jarrett family. The strained relationship between Beth and Conrad was brilliantly handled as was the way that Calvin and Beth behave in private and when out with friends. I did feel that Ordinary People was less successful when we were dealing with Conrad on his own and especially when we saw him pal around with his school friends or attempt to romance choir member Jeannine. Similarly, Conrad’s exchanges with Dr. Berger felt a little exaggerated and spoilt the realistic narrative that I feel Redford and the writers were going for. This was definitely an assured debut for Redford, however at times I did feel that he was a little obvious with he let his audience see. For example, I feel that the boating accident in which Buck died shouldn’t have been part of the film and instead should have just been an event that the audience pictured in their own mind. I had a similar issue when Calvin was thinking about finding Conrad dead in the bathroom but I feel that ultimately this seen worked thanks to the facial expressions of Donald Sutherland. Indeed, I found Sutherland to be the best performer out of the central cast and he made Calvin feel the most real out of any of the major characters.
Oddly, Sutherland was the only major cast member not nominated for an Oscar which I feel is a major oversight on the part of the academy. Best known for her work as the nation’s favourite sitcom star, Mary Tyler Moore played a fairly unlikeable character in socially aware Beth. I felt Moore’s performance was incredibly compelling and she shared great chemistry with Sutherland. Another sitcom actor, Judd Hirsch, was cast as Dr. Berger a role he played with vigour even if I didn’t feel he completely pulled it off. Meanwhile, in his debut, Timothy Hutton was awarded with a Best Supporting Actor award for his role as Conrad. Though not perfect, Hutton was an engaging presence especially when he was onscreen with a member of the Jarrett family. Whilst Ordinary People was an interesting exploration into suburban life, it didn’t exactly leave a lasting impression and therefore I’m not quite sure how it won Best Picture. In fact the only thing that’s stayed with me about the film is its use of Pachelbel’s Canon which is currently stuck in my head.

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