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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.
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:
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: August 26, 2001