Oscar Bait – Ordinary People

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Progress: 463/1007Title: Ordinary People
Director: Robert Redford
Year: 1980
Country: USA

Well won’t you look at that. The final Best Picture winner in the bunch. I probably could have finished this off properly a long time ago… then again this is never really over. It will become a perpetual game of catch-up for the rest of my life. I don’t mind that though as, to paraphrase Anton Ego from Ratatouille, I don’t just like films I LOVE them.

Now, saving Ordinary People for last was not a conscious decision. However, the fact that all I really knew about this film’s reputation was that this is ‘the film that beat Raging Bull’ did not make me want to watch it. The fact of the matter is that I really do not understand the buzz of Raging Bull outside the performance of Robert DeNiro.

Going straight for the Cliff Notes for Ordinary People: this is a film about how a family of three cope after the death of their eldest son and the failed suicide attempt of the younger son. How do they cope in the aftermath of both of these incredibly tragic moments? This description undersells the movie, but that’s the basics of it.

The heart of the film is Conrad, the younger son played by Timothy Hutton in his movie debut. Now, I have to say that Hutton’s performance is easily one of the best I have seen in an Oscar movie. It’s little wonder that he went on to win the Oscar… for supporting actor… which is bullshit as he has more lines than Mary Tyler Moore (who was nominated for leading actress). Then again, he would have probably had NO chance against DeNiro, so that was clever of the studios.

Now, I have never been through something so traumatic as losing a family member in an accident that I survived (thankfully), but I have been to dark places. It might be because of this that I found Ordinary People particularly affecting. Similarly, it was probably the reason that I found myself getting incredibly angry at his cold mother.

Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland are both exceptional as the parents. It’s criminal that Sutherland did not get the Oscar nomination. It’s interesting to have a film where it is the father who is desperate to connect and the mother who has completely shut out any grief.

Moore gives a more nuanced performance, because that’s what the character requires. Here is a woman who is all artifice and selfishness. She loved her eldest son more as he was the proper all American boy, not the cautious and sensitive son that she decided to turn her back on. The only times where you see her begin to lose herself is when something happens that would affect how she would be perceived by other people e.g. telling a friend that their son is in therapy and what shirt to wear to a funeral.

The interactions between Conrad and his mother are heartbreaking. There are two scenes in particular that got to me:

  1. When taking a family photograph she insists that she takes a photo of Conrad and his father in order to get out of having a photo taken of her with her son.
  2. When Conrad hugs her after her return from a long trip. She is unable to even touch him.

It is the second scene that probably leads to one of the saddest moments in the entire film – a simple and powerful moment where the father realises that the woman he married is not the woman he thought he married. When he asks if she still loves him she says something along the lines of “I feel the same way now as I always have” rather than bringing herself to say “of course I love you” or similar.

In many ways this was a film that was able to do family distress better than Kramer vs. Kramer as it never drifts into sentimentality. Then again, such a court case is what is bound to happen after the conclusion. I would just hope that the father would win.

In the end I think Ordinary People was a film that needed to win after One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest tarnished the world of psychiatric medicine. Okay, it isn’t the fix all that it needs to be, but it isn’t all electric shock therapy. Thank you Judd Hirsch for what your empathetic performance has done for removing some stigma of seeking help.

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