Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)

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I had a hankering to watch Ordinary People this past week. Maybe it was the weather. Maybe it was my never-ending love for Robert Redford. Or maybe it was something else, like the fact that it’s a perfect movie. Regardless, I yielded and, as is the case every time I watch this movie, I feel the need to schedule some therapy sessions with Judd Hirsch. He’s booked, though, so I have to write about it here.

Ordinary People, based on the novel by Judith Guest (which I also read for the first time in two sittings this past week…oops), tells the story of the Jarrett family–a wealthy family living in Lake Forest, Illinois, in a perfectly-manicured home. Calvin is a tax attorney, and everyone loves his wife, Beth, who is involved in community affairs, a great organizer. Their oldest son, Buck, recently died in a boating accident, and his younger brother Conrad, has just been released from the mental hospital after attempting suicide. Ordinary people.

Except for the whole our-oldest-son-died-and-then-our-younger-son-tried-to-commit-suicide-and-we’re-not-even-going-to-talk-about-it-because-we-are-ORDINARY-PEOPLE! bit.

It is a film saturated with and entirely dependent upon raw emotion–something Redford’s friend and frequent collaborator Sydney Pollack felt made the film a difficult directorial debut because it required great directing of the actors, of which Redford had no experience. Redford, though, had no doubts–about himself or the actors he assembled.

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To Redford, the heart of the piece is Beth Jarrett, the cold and seemingly unfeeling mother, played to perfection by Mary Tyler Moore. She has lived in this carefully constructed world where appearances are of the utmost importance–and then her beloved oldest son dies. And then her other son attempts suicide (and gets blood everywhere in the process). She is fragmented and seemingly has no love left to give to her surviving son. She has great composure, containing all emotion, which she feels is the only way she knows to keep her family together. She is desperate to maintain the front of being an ordinary person–to project the image that she and her family are fine, just fine. Yes, Conrad just got out of the hospital, but he is fine. Back in school. Back on the swim team. We don’t need to talk about it.

Conrad (Timothy Hutton), though, is just as desperate to talk about it. He initially tries half-heartedly to mirror his mother and put on the front of being ordinary. He’s back in school. Back on the swim team. Back on track. One morning, Conrad tells his father one of his friends is picking him up for school. “Oh, is he? Great,” his father tells him, absolutely beaming. “Why is it great?” Conrad asks, not in a smart-aleck-y way. He genuinely wants to know why it is great. He does not understand why it should be great that someone who was once a good friend but from whom he now feels alienated is picking him up for school. As the film progresses, however, Conrad begins to come to terms with and more open with his feelings–about himself, about his dead brother, about his parents–through his sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). And this bothers his mother, who believes her family should be able to solve their own problems in the privacy of their own home. When Calvin (Donald Sutherland) tells a friend at a party that Conrad is seeing a psychiatrist, Beth is outraged, telling him that it is a violation of privacy. “Whose privacy?” Calvin asks.

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Beth’s ever-tightening constraint and Conrad’s increasing honesty begin to clash, effectively so in a scene where Conrad mentions a pigeon that once lived in their garage and how that was the closest their family ever came to having a pet. Beth engages with Conrad in the conversation until he mentions Buck and how Buck begged to have a dog. Her entire body tightens, and she begins rambling about a neighbor’s dog. Conrad continues talking about Buck’s wish to have a dog–a retriever–over his mother’s incessant rambling. Abruptly, he imitates the bark of a dog–a cry for his mother to hear him. In response, she simply tells him to put his jacket on (it’s cold), and she goes inside to set the table for dinner. Conrad follows her and awkwardly asks if he can help set the table. No, she tells him, but he can go clean out his closet (appearances!). Sensing he is still wanting to talk to her–perhaps about how he is truly feeling–she states, “It really is a mess.” And that’s that.

Conrad feels his mother hates him. He feels she’ll never forgive him for trying to kill himself–and getting the towels bloody in the process. After he quits the swim team, he fails to tell his parents, not wanting to upset them or worry about him and instead waits for the right moment to tell them, to let them down. When Beth finds out from a friend, she is angry. But the only reason she cares, is angry about it, according to Conrad, is that somebody else knew about it before she did. Appearances. A shouting match between mother and son ensues, with Conrad venting his anger about how his mother never visited the hospital, only cared about visiting Spain and Portugal, and how she would have visited the hospital if Buck had been there. “Buck never would have been in the hospital!” she screams.

Acting as a buffer between mother and son is Calvin, who is trying to understand and help his son. Berger helps Conrad realize he needs to forgive himself–for his part in his brother’s death–and his mother, for her limitations and shortcomings. Seeing how Berger is helping Conrad, Calvin visits Dr. Berger and begins to question his relationship with his wife–his love for her and, more importantly, her love for him and Conrad. When Calvin suggests to Beth that she, too, visit Dr. Berger, she refuses the suggestion and declares that they need to hang on to what they’ve got. That, Calvin tells her, is what he’s trying to do–by talking about their issues out in the open.

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One of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film is when Calvin and Beth have returned from a trip. Conrad comes downstairs to say goodnight and tell them how much he missed them and is glad they are back. He walks over to his mother and awkwardly gives her hug.  Calvin watches hopefully, waiting for Beth to express some emotion or affection for her younger son. She does not.

Later that night, Beth finds Calvin, sitting at the dining room table, crying. He asks her if she loves him, really loves him. She replies, “I’ve felt the way I’ve always felt about you.” A broad, noncommittal answer. She does not say she loves him, just as she did not say that she loved Conrad when Calvin told her how he felt she hated him. (“Mothers don’t hate their sons!”) And Calvin realizes that Beth is weak. She cannot handle mess. Calvin and Conrad have begun to change, to come to terms with their loss and grief, but Beth has not. And when Beth is confronted with this, she again chooses composure over honesty and communication. She packs a suitcase and leaves her family, leaving just Conrad and Calvin–and one of my favorite scenes in the film.

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Calvin tells Conrad his mother is going away for awhile but does not explicitly tell him why. Conrad states matter-of-factly, “I know why. It’s me.” Calvin angrily tells him, “Don’t do that! Don’t do that to yourself! It’s nobody’s fault! Things happen in this world and people don’t always have the answers for them, you know!” The air is so cold you can see his breath, his frustration. Conrad listens, nodding, clearly proud of his father and his true expression of his feelings–and tells him so when his father apologizes for yelling at him. Conrad tells his father how he has admired him, and Calvin advises him, “Don’t admire people too much. They’ll disappoint you sometimes.”

“I’m not disappointed,” Conrad says. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Ordinary People is a heart-wrenching, honest film. There is minimal use of a soundtrack to augment or establish the mood. (The only music heard in the film is Pachelbel’s “Cannon in D” to great effect.) Instead, the story is told through the dialogue, the characters, and the exceptional actors who bring them to life. Redford said the “point of contact for me with a script or story was always, Do I know these people?” He knew the people in Ordinary People–and he created a film in which he made their story identifiable, realistic, and rich with emotion. Anything but ordinary.

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2 thoughts on “Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)

  1. Hi there,

    Thanks for sharing. I watched this film a few years ago, after I started watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I had a craving to see her do an entirely different role. I did enjoy the film, although I felt there was a bit too much talking and dialogue at times. It also looks very dated, which is something I have a hard time with (even for films that were done in the 1980s.)

    I should note that while MTM played the polar opposite of who she was in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or “The MTM Show,” the role she played in this film was in fact a more accurate portrayal of who she was as a person. She was a heavy smoker, a heavy drinker, and a distant wife and mother throughout the 1960s and 1970s. A nice person, absolutely. But she certainly wasn’t the cheery girl all of America fell in love with.

    Sincerely,
    Noah

  2. Pingback: 2013: A Review | The Hand of Count Petofi

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