Ordinary People (1980)


(director: Robert Redford; screenwriters: Alvin Sargent/Nancy Dowd/from the novel by Judith Guest; cinematographer: John Bailey; editor: Jeff Kanew; music: Marvin Hamlisch; cast: Donald Sutherland (“Cal” Jarrett), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth Jarrett), Judd Hirsch (Dr. Berger), Timothy Hutton (“Con” Jarrett), M. Emmet Walsh (Coach Salan), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine Pratt), Dinah Manoff (Karen), James Sikking (Ray Hanley), Adam Baldwin (Stillman), Mariclare Costello (Audrey), Quinn Redeker (Ward), Scott Doebler (Jordan ‘Buck’ Jarrett); Runtime: 124; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Ronald L. Schwary; Paramount; 1980)
“Only reaching Chekhovian heights in its dreams.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An auspicious directorial debut for Robert Redford in this gripping family drama that somehow never gets too gooey. It won Best Picture honors, Best Director for Redford, the 20-year-old Timothy Hutton won a Best Supporting Oscar playing a troubled teenager and Alvin Sargent won for Best Screenplay. It’s based on the best-seller novel by Judith Guest. The psychodrama is really pedestrian, only reaching Chekhovian heights in its dreams, but the well-observed and well-acted drama offers a realistic slice of life of the American suburbs and is easy to take as it in the end makes nice with its bitter look at these smiley ordinary people and what’s behind their facial masks.

It’s set in the affluent Chicago suburb of Lake Forest. The family patriarch is the straitlaced easy going tax attorney Calvin (Donald Sutherland); his wife is Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), an attractive woman who is socially active in the community and is well-liked, but has a dark side as a neurotic who can’t help being a domineering mother and at times becoming emotionally volatile. Conrad (Timothy Hutton, son of Jim Hutton) is their bright but nervous and insecure 17-year-old who returned home a month and a half ago after four months in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt, where he attempted to slit his wrists and was treated with shock therapy. Sometime earlier, Conrad’s older brother Buck died in a boating accident with him present and he feels guilty that he failed to save his brother’s life. Mom always made it clear Buck was her favorite, and after his death she was unable to show any affection to her living son. At school, Conrad sings in the choir and is on the swimming team, where his four best friends are teammates. But Conrad no longer feels comfortable with his fun-loving old friends and quits the swimming team, and begins an awkward dating experience with a nice girl (Elizabeth McGovern) who also sings in the choir.

Unable to get a handle on things since returning home, Conrad for $50 an hour and for twice a week has his dad’s OK to see the psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). This helps, as the kid gets a chance to vent his feelings and feel comfortable enough to open up about how he’s punishing himself for his brother’s death in the doc’s informal sessions. Through his kid’s experiences dad eventually sees the falseness in his life and the couple separate indefinitely to see if there’s still any love left between them.

The well-crafted, intelligent, serious and intimate domestic drama is an actors’ picture, where the darkest character Moore makes the most of her well-written part to show herself as inwardly being a monster and, in my eyes, gives the film’s crucial performance. Redford does a fine job to show that well-to-do WASPs also have issues, such as pretending everything is okay even when it’s not. Though I felt myself on the verge of gagging several times over those chit chat shrink sessions, the film’s message that parents have to listen to what their children say and show them affection was slipped in with enough dramatic flair to appease my aesthetic sensibilities.