Synopsis: The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Elizabeth McGovern, Judd Hirsch
Director: Robert Redford
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: In 1980 director Redford and co-star Moore were both in need of something different. He was the rugged movie star that longed for more control over his work and she was the good girl TV star that wanted the opportunity to play against type. Enter the script for Ordinary People. A seriously somber family drama, Ordinary People provided an amazing chance for everyone involved to put forth their best effort in a richly involving piece. While I feel the film shows its age 32 years later, it still has the power to speak to the lives we lead, the secrets we keep, and the people that intersect with it all.
Nominated for six Academy Awards and wining four (including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Supporting Actors) Ordinary People was anything but an ordinary release at the time. In dealing with issues of depression and loss with a blunt frankness I can understand why it really threw people for a loop. Peering through the windows of an otherwise “ordinary” American household, the film took an unflinching look at family life of the suburban population showing that maybe the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side.
Moore and Sutherland are the parents to Conrad (Hutton in a remarkably assured performance richly deserving of the Oscar)…recently returned from a stint in the mental health ward after the death of his brother. The background to how the death comes about is something left for new viewers to discover on their own – needless to say the death of their son and the mental retreat of the other has left the family shattered. With Conrad now back Moore is content to pretend everything is fine while Sutherland still tries to understand what his remaining son is going through. The friction between the two parental approaches gradually catches fire…spelling trouble for them all.
On the sidelines is Conrad’s hesitant relationship with his new psychiatrist (Hirsch, another Oscar nominee) and how their intense sessions allow Conrad to break free of his feelings of guilt so that he can continue to survive and move forward. These are scenes that look simple on the outside but are directed by Redford with remarkable care.
Redford also guides Moore to a new level in her acting…allowing herself to play someone so unlikable was a big risk for her but she seizes the opportunity with both hands and runs with it. Nominated for an Oscar and winning the Golden Globe were reminders that by taking chances you can reap the rewards. It’s too bad that I don’t feel she ever rose to the occasion quite like this again and her many many many plastic surgeries have rendered her expressionless…something her character here may have longed for.
Unjustly ignored from all the hoopla is Sutherland as the patriarch of this fractured family. He makes Moore better and supports Hutton through every scene they share together. How he was left off of any kind of award short list is beyond me. His contributions here (like everyone else involved) can’t be measured.
These slice of life movies have always held my interest and even though Ordinary People is very much a product of its place and time I still feel the discussions it raised and issues it highlighted are worthy topics for a new generation of families, filmmakers, and viewers.