A little advice about feelings kiddo, don’t expect it always to tickle -Dr. Berger
The word perfect is a word I try to avoid using when I’ve reviewing a film but it’s going to be difficult not to when reviewing Ordinary People. Every aspect of this film melded together beautifully (I almost typed perfectly there). Expect directing accompanied acting performances that were real, raw and mind-blowing. The music told its own story, building on the well-written script. It is not a happy film, in fact it is very depressing, but Ordinary People is an example of a near perfect film.
The film is about the Jarrett family after they have suffered a terrible loss and tragedy. The main character is the youngest son, Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton), who has tried to commit suicide after the death of his older brother Buck Jarrett (Scott Doebler). The film begins well after the tragic incidents occur. Buck has passed, Conrad has attempted to end his life, been admitted to a mental hospital and released. We watch as Conrad attempts to return to normal life. His father, Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland), is as supportive as possible, encouraging and eventually convincing Conrad to see a psychiatrist Doctor Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch). Conrad’s mother, Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore), is the exact opposite. Unable to deal with the loss of her favorite sun, Beth can no longer connect with Conrad. She is only able to think of how things affect her and cannot give her “sick” son the love and attention he needs and deserves. There are no words to describe how fundamentally sad the relationship between Conrad and Beth is. They cannot give each other any emotion as Conrad desperately works for his mother’s love and his mother desperately tries to sweep all her pain and sorrow, and everything that reminds her of it, under the rug.
When watching a film, there tends to be performances that stand out and some that get lost in the shuffle. They are not necessarily bad performances; they just are not as good as the rest. In this film there was no getting lost in the shuffle, every performance was absolutely brilliant. Mary Tyler Moore steps out of her acting comfort zone, playing a character that is in no way likable. It is difficult not to feel bad for Beth but her actions and reactions to the tragedy are unforgivable. She lost a son, that much is true but that does not excuse her from giving up on the rest of her family. Timothy Hutton gives the performance of his life, earning himself an Oscar for Best Performance in a leading role. Donald Sutherland is heartbreaking as a father that is watching his family crumble around him and desperately trying to hold it together.
One of the biggest surprises of this film for me was the directing, not just the directing skill but who the director was. Robert Redford makes his directorial debut and proves that his cinema talent does not simply lie in acting. Redford skillfully wields the camera. Every scene was artfully composed, reflecting the attitude and mood. Redford also proved himself to be a master of transitions. Scenes were split by quick, sharp cuts while others faded away softly. Many important parts of the story were told in flashbacks, sprinkled throughout the film to create some breath taking scenes. One of the best scenes in the film in which we are finally allowed to realize how Buck died occurs when Conrad has a breakdown in the middle of the night and gets ahold of his therapist. Conrad finally relives the death of brother, showing the audience the events through a series of quick flashbacks.
Ordinary People beat Coal Miner’s Daughter, the Elephant Man, Raging Bull and Tess for the 1981 Oscar for Best Picture. While I have not seen any of the other nominated films I can say that Ordinary People deserved the win. If you doubted my review of Redford’s directorial debut then you should learn not to doubt me. Robert Redford took home an Oscar for Best Director, Timothy Hutton won for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Alvin Sargent won for Best Writing. Both Judd Hirsch and Mary Tyler Moore were nominated for their performances but neither took home the win. Ordinary People is a depressing but hopeful example of a brilliant film. In my book this is a 10 out of 10 film, a nearly perfect example of an Oscar Best Picture Winner.