Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980): An appreciation of a classic film
(Contains major spoilers)
Ordinary People is about the aftermath of a family tragedy, concerning three characters, a father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) a mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and their eighteen year old son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) In the film’s opening it is the fall of 1980 in the town of Lake Forest, Illinois. The beautiful Canon in D Major by Johann Pachelbel is heard on the soundtrack, as the camera shows us what an extraordinary place Lake Forest is to live in.
Conrad is having trouble sleeping, he has just returned from a psychiatric hospital after being inside for four months following a suicide attempt over the guilt of the death of his older brother Buck in a boating accident.
Conrad goes to see a psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) with whom Conrad discusses life back at home and school. Conrad is finding it very difficult to resume his life in the outside world after what happened. Calvin is tax attorney and a very loving father. He wants to do the very best for Beth and Conrad, but at times he feels at a distance between both of them. Beth is a housewife, who everyone likes; she is very distant with Conrad ever since Buck’s death. Buck was always her favourite and she blames Conrad for his death.
Ordinary People is based on a 1976 novel by Judith Guest, for which Robert Redford made his directorial debut. It won four Oscars back in 1980, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for nineteen-year-old Timothy Hutton.
Since Conrad starts back at school he becomes very distant with his friends, he finds it too painful to be around because of his brother, who was part of their group. Calvin and Beth are having troubles of their own communicating with each other. Calvin wants to help Conrad through what has happened and try to move on. This is too much for Beth to bear.
The character of Calvin has a tragic journey to take, his realisation of the current events make him question what he has in his life. This film knows what it’s about and it tells us by focusing deeply into its characters. Each of the characters have flashbacks to when Buck was around as a child, a teenager and his final moments of life.
Dr. Berger is key to the story as he makes Conrad realise some painful truths. There is a wonderful scene when Calvin visits Dr. Berger to discuss Conrad, Calvin suddenly realises that he has come to Dr. Berger to talk about himself and how he is at a crossroads between his wife and his son.
Donald Sutherland’s performance is magnificent as the grief stricken father trying to put things right, he plays it so effortlessly that you feel that he embodies this character. Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch were Oscar nominated for their performances. Moore breaks free of being typecast in a performance of truth and bitterness. Hirsch’s character is very laid back and his guidance in the sessions with Conrad and Calvin show that he is a very caring person.
The final two scenes each between two sets of characters are the film’s best. The first is between Calvin and Beth, as Calvin faces up to his reality as a husband. He tells his wife “Maybe you can’t love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was like you buried all your love with him, and I don’t understand that, I just don’t know, I don’t… maybe it wasn’t even Buck; maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried. But whatever it was… and at that moment Calvin gives a short, silent sigh; a moment of great beauty and subtlety that only an actor can give without being asked to.
Beth faces up to reality and leaves for good. The last scene between Conrad and Calvin has Conrad blaming himself for Beth leaving. Calvin for first and only time in the film shouts in anger “Don’t do that, don’t do that to yourself, it’s nobody’s fault, things happen in this world people don’t always have the answers for them, you know” This is very true there no answer to Beth’s inability to love. Conrad then says that he always looked up to Calvin. Calvin replies “Don’t admire too much they’ll disappoint sometimes” Less is more and that line proves it. All of the performances and dialogue are filled with deepness and truth. How many mainstream Hollywood films today are fully emphasised on the study of its characters? Not many, is that’s why this film is remembered thirty years after its release.
Donald Sutherland’s performance was shamefully overlooked at the Oscars. Richard Schickel, film critic for Time Magazine and author of many books on film once said “There are performances so good, so lacking in showy effect, that they are almost certain to be overlooked at awards season. But that’s OK. Honesty tends to receive its own, more lasting rewards in our remembering hearts” What a beautiful piece of prose that is, so deep and true, it isn’t all about the awards.
The late great Gene Siskel (1946-1999) film critic of The Chicago Tribune once told Roger Ebert film critic of The Chicago Sun-Times that seeing a truly great movie him made so happy that a week later he’d tell Ebert his spirits were still high, I have feeling that Ordinary People was one of those many films.
Francois Truffaut once told Gene Siskel that the most beautiful sight in a movie theatre is to walk down to the front, turn around and look at the life from the screen reflected on the upturned faces of the members of the audience. Ordinary People is a powerful experience. The tagline on the poster reads: Some films you watch, others you feel. It’s my Dad’s favourite film; it is a film, that means a great deal to him because of the honesty of how it looks at people. Today it is passed on to me and there you have it.