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Savant Short Review:

Ordinary People

Ordinary People
Paramount Home Video
1980 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 124m.
Starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern
Cinematography John Bailey
Art Direction Phillip Bennett, J. Michael Riva
Film Editor Jeff Kanew
Original Music Marvin Hamlisch
Writing credits Alvin Sargent from the novel by Judith Guest
Produced by Ronald L. Schwary
Directed by Robert Redford

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Robert Redford's directorial debut is a stunning drama that hit 1980 America with the downer news that not only was there such a thing as dysfunctional families (a newish term at the time), but that understanding and awareness of real interpersonal problems, didn't provide the instant cures we were used to seeing in movies.


The Jarrett family has had two crises and is heading for a third. The favorite son has been lost in a boating accident, and the resulting misery has incited the second son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) to attempt sucide. Now he's recovered, but struggles to keep up a stoic emotional front, while his caring father (Donald Sutherland) and his rather cold mother (Mary Tyler Moore) try to help him shake off the problem by minimizing it. Conrad finally accepts the help of psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) and confides in a potential girlfriend, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern) in a attempt to make the pain go away and to 'stop worrying other people'. But the problem goes much deeper than that, to the relational roots of the whole Jarrott family.

I remember clearly the shock of Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man, when Henry Fonda bounds into his wife's asylum cell with the good news that he's been acquitted, that she needn't be so depressed, and they can now resume their 'normal' life. But, to Fonda's surprise, the revelation doesn't do any good, Vera Miles remains semi-catatonic, and even the title proclaiming her later recovery is unconvincing. As in the anarchic Bigger Than Life made just the year before, the unspoken horror is that the crisis in Miles' life may have simply unleashed deeper psychological doubts and despairs - that it is possible that the catatonic, unresponsive Miles is the real one, underneath the complacent, sane veneer.

Ordinary People was made over 20 years later but still gets most of its oomph from our similarly built-in expectation of oldfashioned psychological dramatics. In films like Spellbound, psychotics and manic-depressives may be near-murderous one moment, yet instantly cured just by learning some key piece of information. Rubbish, hogwash, and fal-de-ral, as they say: 'Ordinary' people are anything but that, and human nature is anything but predictable. The combination of a thoughtful script, astute direction and inspired casting take a grim story and make it instantly recognizeable as our own. For who can claim that their nuclear and extended families are exclusively populated with people whose behaviors and attitudes are always rational, and who communicate well with each other?

Savant can't think of a film before Ordinary People that more clearly shows how even strong and decent people are so completely unequipped to deal with unpleasant issues. I've had some close scrapes with disaster in my family, but have never had to permanently face the results of a death or a suicide attempt such as the one that rips apart the Jarretts.

The film is so low-key and unassuming that its power sneaks up on you. Redford shows himself to be an exemplary director of actors, who refrains from grandiose directorial effects. Before you know it, Donald Sutherland has made you forget all of his previous performances. He's a caring and sensitive father whose tolerant nature may not have been the best thing for his relationship with his wife. Everyone's favorite sitcom sweetie Mary Tyler Moore turns in the role of her career as the mother. Her closed-off, defensive character is utterly unable to relate to others beyond the superficial, and Sutherland's discovery of the degree he has always taken her public persona at face value, is frightening. Do we really know the people we live with? How do we judge their sincerity? Did the Jarretts function well until the accident, or was the family always sick, for favoring one son above the other?

Ms. Moore began her career as a pair of disembodied legs on a television detective show, and her squeaky-clean image became well-known through movies like Thoroughly Modern Millie. I don't think anyone expected her to come up with the honesty and power she shows here, not to mention the willingness to project such an unlikeable persona on screen. She does it with depth and clarity; we understand that she has an inability to relate to others outside of a safely-defined orbit of niceties and social rules. When she greets a friend on a department-store escalator, you'd think she was the most emotionally affectionate woman possible. Ordinary People has some good lessons to teach about divorces and messed-up families, which in real life come less from cruel betrayals or sinful transgressions, but simply grow from our basic natures.

The actual center of Ordinary People is Timothy Hutton, who plays a complex teenager trying to shut himself off from emotional hurt. He does it without telegraphing every character contradiction, as would a James Dean-like method actor. When Conrad reaches out to doctor Judd Hirsch, there's no phony schtick, as in the god-awful and pandering Good Will Hunting of a few years back. Psych-counseling hasn't yet been as effectively shown in a movie. Hutton's relationship with his standoffish classmates (who include among them a young Adam Baldwin , Animal Mother in Full Metal Jacket) is appropriately balanced, and his attempt to connect with a possible girlfriend is as touching as Savant's own teenage memories. Teenage boys who think they've connected emotionally with a Real Live Girl will indeed tell them things they'd never tell anyone else.

The gloom and tension of the central story problem is kept in perfect perspective. When Hutton takes McGovern to a McDonald's, he starts to open up his heart, only to have her attention stolen by the fun of a bunch of rowdy boys who barge in. Reality is blatant and cruel, and your soul-wrenching problems mean nothing to others living their own isolated lives ... Likewise, Moore and Sutherland's vacation to Texas highlights a society that seeks to deny all complexity and consciously refuses to allow untidy problems to officially exist. The most difficult stretch in the film is believing the controlled Jarretts would allow their outburst to happen, so publicly, in front of friends on the golf course - a place where all social reality is controlled. For the Moore character, the marriage is over right then and there.

Psychological movies have tried to show the miracle of the psych cure, usually with dismal or laughable results, but through a lot of give and take, we do see something of a credible turning point occur for Timothy Hutton's character. He recognizes truths he hadn't before, and sees that though he's not cured, things are not hopeless. Since his tragedy is compounded by the common disillusions of growing up and reassessing relatives and reality anew (which happens about every three weeks, even to adults, if they're paying attention), the harsh revelations that Hutton receives might have come without some terrible accident to provoke them. Realists will hopefully conclude that marriages and families require a constant effort to keep alive, instead of seeing them as doomed institutions whose true rottenness is always revealed in time. The best thing that can be said about Ordinary People's ending,(spoiler) with the 'survivors' reformed into a new relationship, is that it is neither an apologia, nor a rationalization for chucking all relationships as worthlessly fragile. This is a sober and thoughtful movie, and a pretty darn unique one.

Timothy Hutton got a deserved Oscar for Ordinary People, which has a poignant story of its own. His father, Jim Hutton, was a much-loved actor who died soon before at a relatively young age, and Timothy's acceptance speech was full of bittersweet regret for not being able to take the prize home to dad. I believe the speech was real and not the usual Hollywood rubbish, because I had seen the Hutton family from time to time, at a distance. While editing on the Producer's Studio rental lot, we had 'Columbo' filming on the stage to our right, and Jim Hutton doing a tv show (a doctor show, I think) on the other side. Many lunchtimes, we'd see Jim and his two young boys playing basketball during a shooting break, right there in the studio alleys. I already had very positive feelings about Hutton from his comedies, and I thought to myself that that must have been a family with strong ties.

Paramount's DVD of Ordinary People is their usual quality package. The film has been given a superior 16:9 transfer with clear sound; on a large monitor it looked very handsome, far better than the rental vhs I saw when it was new, at the very beginning of home video. A brilliantly constructed trailer is included as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ordinary People rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 26, 2001

8/28/01 - Review reply from 'B' (aka woggly):

Dear Glenn: I don't love this movie -- or even think very highly of it -- but I liked your review. It makes me rethink my attitude about the film, and I'm even considering watching it again.



I basically believe that this is the single most overrated American movie of the past thirty years. "Blondie" Redford has no original ideas about how to stage a scene, set up a shot or begin to obtain an honest, thoughtful performance from an actor -- and judging from his awful golf fantasy of last year, he hasn't learned anything yet. Perhaps he is essentially incapable of learning anything new anymore. After all, his appearance as "Mr. Death" in an early 'sixties TWILIGHT ZONE is superior to all of his film performances. I think that Alvin Sargent's unusually skillful adaptation of Judith Guest's novel, John Bailey's Willis-like camerawork and Marvin Hamlisch's canny use of Pachelbel propel the ideas and emotions of the story; after the tone is set, Don Sutherland's likable, inept Dad, Hutton's tortured son, Judd Hirsch's  1 quiet therapist and Mary Tyler's repressed harridan play "sensitive" archetypes. It works for some people.

Tim Hutton tries hard, but he isn't really sufficiently skilled or trained to play the character. However, his studied earnestness and frequent stabs at sincerity make his character work a little.  2 Sutherland is a wonderful actor, but I don't think even Sargent understands the father or his problems, and Redford's stolid direction has little patience nor desire to use screen time to allow the actor to develop the guy beyond a small degree. Moore is no less talented and experienced than Sutherland, but she is playing such a tiny, limited persona. An impatient, annoyed, EVIL maternal figure. One -- maybe two -- notes. I still can't quite believe the great acclaim she received for the role. I truly believe that Redford cast her as the mother for the same kind of reason Sergio Leone cast Henry Fonda as the villainous Frank in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST  3 -- "Jesus Christ! It's MARY!"

Ultimately, there is indeed a happy ending: the evil mother leaves. Redford's direction ineptly places all the unrest, discord and unpleasant behavior on her. She defines everything that is wrong; after all, Dad and son are both trying to learn how to deal with their feelings. You can feel the genuine relief and lifting of tension when she leaves: the cancer of the family has been removed. Satan has left the building.

What a waste of film stock.

Best, always. -- B.

(an addendum from 'B', a couple of days later:)

I think Sargent's adaptation of the Guest novel is really first-rate: it sets EVERYTHING up with clarity and disarming directness. This story floats dangerously in the traditionally dismissed areas of "young adult trauma" and "after school special." Guest, though a first-time novelist, brought originality and a "this happened; this is important" tone to her narrative; Sargent captures that.

But the movie is thisdeep. Seeing it a second time in 1980, I searched for something -- anything -- that suggested that these characters or archetypes were even slightly more than they glibly appeared on screen. Still haven't seen it. Well, M. Emmet Walsh is good. Elizabeth McGovern is even better, though her subsequent career would follow an arc similar to that of Tim Hutton's. Lest my comments about Hutton seen cruel, I should point out that I saw him on Broadway in the 'eighties in PRELUDE TO A KISS and he was excellent.

Also, many criticize this movie because, well, it somehow won the Oscars that RAGING BULL should have won. I admire the Scorsese film, but I don't think either film should have won the Oscar that year.

Best, Always. -- B.

1. Hirsch's performance is the weakest in the movie; to give Redford a little credit, he did try to get Gene Hackman to play the part. Incidentally, over the years, therapists have repeatedly told me that they loathed Hirsch's performance and characterization... which surprises me. I may not like this movie, but I do believe that it does portray psychotherapy in a fair and favorable light, and this depiction may have inspired or aided people to decide to seek this sort of help.

2. I've always sort of regretted that Hutton won the Oscar for this and launched into a career of starring roles in movies for a while. Not that I begrudge him success or dough. Rather, I think he has talent and a kind of interesting presence, and his sudden career boon may have actually de-railed or at least delayed his development as an actor. More training and stage work could have helped him better develop depth and range.

3. By the way, OUATITW was inadvertently omitted from the first tier of "greatest Paramount pix" in my SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS message.

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