I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1980 winner, Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford and starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch. I first saw this film about eight years ago.
Ordinary People is a family drama about a family dealing with grief. It takes a very nuanced and moving look at the problems they face moving on..
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Coal Miner's Daughter, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, and Tess. Ordinary People also won Oscars for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Hutton), Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (the novel by Judith Guest).
When the movie begins, the Jarretts seem like a typical suburban upper-middle-class family, chatting about inconsequential things. The teenage son, Conrad (Hutton), seems to be dealing with some sort of emotional trouble, but it's not initially clear what.
Eventually, through flashbacks and through what's said, primarily by other people, the viewer learns that the family is coping with the loss of a family member. Each person copes in different ways. The father, Calvin (Sutherland), insists on counseling for his son, who is initially resistant but eventually agrees. The mother, Beth (Moore) believes in avoiding discussions about the subject. And Conrad has turned all his feelings inward, which is why he's so miserable.
An important role in this movie, although it doesn't involved much screen time, is that of Conrad's counselor, Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (Hirsch). He helps Conrad to deal with his feelings of loss and guilt.
When I first watched this movie, I wrote of the film in a capsule review, "A heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful story of a family dealing with the loss of a son, this film is an amazing achivement in the power of realism." Rewatching it, I still feel the film is a marvelous work. The subtlety of the writing and the skillful acting make this story come alive and give it a huge impact. Redford reportedly agreed to direct the film because it reminded him of how his own family talked around issues. No doubt, that personal experience helped guide him as a director.
Although Hutton's father, actor Jim Hutton, passed away before the filming began, he said he did not use his mourning as a basis for the character's depression. Still, I'd imagine that such experiences could help to fuel an understanding of his character's motivations.
The use of flashbacks underscores how each of the family members relives certain moments. This provides insight into the emotions they're feeling but cannot express to each other.
Moore plays against type, and I believe this was one of the first times she did so. America knew her from her television work as a cheerful, sympathetic woman. In this movie, by contrast, she is cold and critical. In counterpoint to her, Sutherland was a great choice. He plays Calvin as a directionless man, trying everything he can to patch his family back together. Hutton, in his first role on the big screen, is outstanding as the troubled teen.
Ultimately, this film does an excellent job at getting at the truth of how family deals with loss, without being preachy or lapsing into sentimentality.
Rating (5 out of 5): *****
There's nothing ordinary about grief.