Wednesday, June 20, 2012



In 1980, for the second year in a row, the Academy awarded a serious family drama as the best film of the year.  But, unlike KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ORDINARY PEOPLE has not held up all that well; while it certainly isn't a poor film, in fact, it's quite good, it is almost maddeningly uneven, with effective moments followed by clunky ones, and it has even a few cringe worthy scenes that just don't ring true in a film that, as its very title implies, is supposed to be portraying a normal family.

Before it was a movie, it was a successful novel published by Judith Guest in 1976, which came to the interest of Robert Redford, who at the time had become frustrated at being just an actor and longed to direct a film.  He purchased the rights to the book and hired veteran screen writer Alvin Sargent  to adapt the novel.  The script took over two years to finish, with Sargent remaining faithful to the novel while turning its dialogue heavy style into something more cinematic.  For the central role of troubled teen Conrad, Redford conducted a nation wide search before choosing Timothy Hutton who had only a few roles on TV before this, and who posed as an outpatient at a private psychiatric hospital for a week to prepare for the part.  In the role of the sympathetic father, Redford cast Donald Sutherland, normally known for playing oddballs in films like MASH, against type.  Even more offbeat casting came when Mary Tyler Moore, still most famous for her perky role on her self titled TV show, was cast as Beth, the cold mother  of the family.  Another important role, that of the psychiatrist  Dr. Berger, was offered  to Gene Hackman, but he turned it down, so it  went to another TV star, Judd Hirsch from the show TAXI.  Made on a low budget of around six million dollars and shot mainly in Illinois, Redford basically got everything he wanted on the film with little studio interference. After being critically acclaimed, it would go on to make over fifty four million dollars at the box office.
It tells the story of the Jarrett family, father Calvin (Sutherland), mother Beth (Moore) and high school teen Conrad (Hutton).  The film is set about a year after a boating accident that Conrad was involved in that caused the death of his older brother Buck; shortly thereafter, Conrad tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized.  Out of the hospital for a few months, but still wracked with guilt, Conrad sees psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Hirsch) and becomes more and more alienated from his grieving mother.  Eventually, this leads to marital tension between Beth and Calvin.

Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore

The film opens with autumnal shots of suburban middle america that cinematographer John Bailey shoots with picture postcard beauty, but Marvin Hamlish's melancholy score on the soundtrack sets a mood of sadness that punctures that beauty, setting up the film's theme of the sorrow that lurks underneath a seemingly perfect American family.  It's a feeling that pervades the early scenes of the film as we see the (obviously well off ) family going about their business in a normal way, but with something off about it all, seen especially in the sunken eyes of young Conrad, so it's no surprise when we see him eventually decide to make an appointment with Dr. Berger.  While I think Redford lets some of these early scenes go on too long (do we really need to hear so much idle banter when Calvin and Beth go to a party?),  he does a good job of subtilely bringing out the tension of the family. But then, in a major misstep, the lack of connection between mother and son is illustrated by having the two of them share an awkward conversation that ends with him barking like a dog!  The moment is played completely straight, but I find it hard not to laugh at its absurdity and the way that Conrad's decision to bark seems to come from nowhere (yes, they were vaguely talking about  a dog, but still...).  Surely a less ridiculous way of showing their lack of communication could have been found by Redford and Sargent.

Unfortunately, this scene highlights what is the film's biggest flaw: how unlikable the Beth character is.  In interviews before making the film, Redford described his surprising casting of Moore by saying "I became interested in the dark side of Mary Tyler Moore", and while he sure found it,  I think he overdid it.  While there is a certain perverse pleasure in watching America's sweetheart play a villainess, the credibility of the film is hurt by it.   Moore does what she can with the role, but her perfect ice queen mother is often unbelievable: by the end of the film we learn that she never visited her son in the mental hospital, that she would rather go on vacation then spend time with him, that she has no intention of meeting with her son's psychiatrist, and that she even has trouble returning her son's hug!  Her coldness comes to a head in what is perhaps the film's low point: while on vacation with Calvin, she flies into a rage when her husband merely mentions her son's name.  Honestly, by the film's end, when Calvin tells her to leave, it's hard to believe he waited so long.  Furthermore, I find it strange that  the film never comes out  and says what the obvious motivation for her anger towards Conrad is: clearly, she loved Buck more than Conrad (we see evidence of this in a flashback), and she blames Conrad for Buck's death.  It seems odd that in a film that showcases people talking seriously about their feelings, this obvious point is never brought up and dealt with by the characters.  It's interesting to compare Moore's character with the one that Meryl Streep played a year before in KRAMER VS. KRAMER; while both of them are unsympathetic mothers, Streep's Joanna gives a speech at the end that explains her motivations, effectively humanizing her.  Moore's Beth has no such scene, and really, the only moment of sympathy we feel for her is when she  stands in her dead son's bedroom, forlornly gazing at old trophies and photos.  Other than that brief moment, she's pretty much a monster, too much so for my taste in what is an otherwise realistic film.
Judd Hirsh and Timothy Hutton

While I think Moore's character hurts the film, it still has many moving moments that make it worth watching; this is mainly due to the excellent performance by Hutton.  It is likely that Redford cast him in the film because he saw a younger version of himself in the boyishly handsome, immediately likable nineteen year old actor, who carries the film handily (save for the aforementioned "barking" scene).  He seems to have that same quality that James Dean had in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE of being able to play a young man who often engages in foolish or dangerous behavior, but who is still essentially a good person with good intentions.   All of his interactions with Sutherland and Hirsch are very good (unlike Moore's character, the two men seem to radiate kindness and intelligence), especially in the film's most powerful scene when Conrad emotionally recollects the death of his brother with Hirsch in order to finally put it behind him.  He's also good in the film's lighter moments,  like when he romances Elizabeth McGovern or hangs out with his friends from school.  Yes, it's an impressive debut, one for which he won a best supporting actor award, even though he clearly is the lead.  
The smart thing that Sargent's script does is to mostly avoid unnecessary subplots, and overt melodrama; the story focuses  almost entirely on Conrad's mental state and how he, his family and his psychiatrist deal with it.  It's that rare Hollywood film in which the main character's goal is an entirely emotional one. I just wish that Moore's character could have had more sympathy; this is a story that should have no villain.

It's obvious that I find this film uneven, and despite Hutton's performance, I don't think that it was the best film of that year.  Not when Martin Scorsase's RAGING BULL was released the same year.  Unlike ORDINARY PEOPLE, RAGING BULL is a film that only improves with age.

Sunday, June 3, 2012



KRAMER VS. KRAMER, the 1979 pick for best picture, was both a film that fell into a classic Hollywood style ( a domestic and courtroom drama) and something new and different; a serious, realistic film that looked at divorce and changing gender roles in the American family.  Moving without ever being maudlin, and wonderfully acted by both the adult stars and by child actor Justin Henry, it holds up beautifully and,  although some of the relationship discussions have now become cliches, (a wife leaving her husband tells him "It's not you, it's me", and later says she left to "find herself") it raises issues that remain relevant to this day.
It began as a novel by Avery Corman published in 1977 and purchased by producer Stanley Jaffe.  French director Francois Truffaut was originally considered as the director, with Robert Benton writing the script; eventually, Benton, who had directed only two films at that point, was picked to helm the film along with writing it.    For the lead role of Ted Kramer, Jafee knew right away that he wanted Dustin Hoffman.  Hoffman, who, along with Robert DeNiro, was quickly becoming famous for giving great performances in a wide variety of films, initially turned the role down, partly because he himself was going through a painful divorce at the time.  But Jaffe and Benton lobbied Hoffman hard for the role, and after several long, grueling script discussions between the three of them, he agreed to it.  He wound up bringing so much of his own feelings and experiences about divorce into the script that  Benton offered him a co screenwriting credit, which he refused.  Kate Jackson, star of TV's CHARLIE'S ANGELS, was cast as Joanna Kramer, with Meryl Streep cast to play Ted's one night stand Phyllis, but when Jackson's TV schedule kept her too busy to be in the film, Streep was bumped up to the role of Joanna and Jo Beth Williams played Phyllis.  And for the pivotal role of the six year old Billy Kramer, seven year old Justin Henry, who had no acting experience at all, was chosen after being discovered by his next door neighbor, who happened to be a casting director.  The filming of the movie ( done entirely in New York city) went smoothly, with a budget of around eight million dollars.  It got great reviews, and  really struck a cord with moviegoers, as divorce rates were skyrocketing around the country; eventually it made over a hundred million dollars making it the biggest money making film  of the year, besting such big releases as ALIEN and ROCKY II.  It really shows just how much the moviegoing audience has changed over the years that there was once a time when a family drama could be the year's most popular film! 
It tells the story of the Ted Kramer (Hoffman), a successful ad executive who is forced to care for his son Billy alone after his wife Joanna (Streep) abruptly leaves them.  Despite not knowing much about his son, Ted eventually bonds with him, but then Joanna returns, demanding custody of Billy.

Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry

Throughout the film, Benton had cinematographer Nestor Almendros use naturalistic lighting, which, combined with location shooting, gives the film a realistic look, the perfect set up for scenes about people discussing their feelings and emotions.  (He also uses long takes and avoids too many close ups, letting the feelings expressed by the actors reach the audience indirectly.)  All of this adds to the sense of believability that pervades the film; really, this truly is a rare and wonderful thing, a Hollywood film that has a story that seems taken from the real world, without a hint of melodrama.  Even in the film's most harrowing scene, when Ted has to rush Billy to the emergency room, it comes from Billy falling off a jungle gym, an ordinary, everyday kind of accident.  The film is filled with nice, true to life moments than any parent can identify with, like Billy riding a bicycle for the first time, or mumbling his way through a school play.  
  The film opens with a close up of Joanna's face showing mixed feelings of warmth and sadness.  With a quick cut we pull back to see her caressing the face of her sleeping son; normally this display of maternal emotion in a film indicates a simple, tender moment, but her expression tells us otherwise.  This short, silent scene is crucial to her character, in that it shows how much she realizes how momentous the actions is about to take are, and that she is not acting lightly, but with deep thought and sadness.   Although the audience can criticize her decision to leave, we can also feel sympathy for the obvious pain that decision is bringing her.  Before this film, to portray a woman who abruptly leaves her child for fifteen months as anything other than a monster would be unheard of, and even today it's rare, but Benton wisely avoids making a villain out of Joanna, and the film is all the richer for it.  

When film actors are asked what kind of role is the most difficult to play, they usually say the same thing: it's not playing someone famous,  severely handicapped or insane that's the hardest.  No, the most tricky portrayals are ones of normal people who have normal things happen to them, because they have to keep the audience's interest without the inherent drama that unusual people come with.  By that standard, Hoffman's performance as Ted Kramer may be the best of his impressive career (he won a best actor award for it, his first). In charting the emotional change of a distant father (who has no idea what grade his child is in!) to a loving one, Hoffman never takes a false step or displays the wrong emotion; although he has some big moments of anger and bitterness, they always feel natural to the character, and he is just as good in the quieter scenes.  I love the way he deals with having to make French toast for Billy right after Joanna has left, attempting to put on a brave front of strained, almost manic joviality for his son, only to wind up breaking down in anger as he accidentally burns himself and curses his absent wife in front of his son.  (In a nice, understated moment, we later see Ted and Billy calmly make French toast together to show how much they've grown together.)
Hoffman reportedly talked over each scene carefully with his young costar before shooting, and the result is not only a believable father son relationship, but one that evolves from distant to close as the movie continues.  The fact that little Justin Henry had no acting experience before this film actually works to his advantage; he is cute, but not in the cloying,  Hollywood way that so many child actors are,  and when he is acting bratty, his anger is authentic and never played for laughs. In the famous scene in which he eats ice cream even as his father forbids him, (an idea Hoffman came up with based on a real argument he once had with his own daughter) he truly seems like a young child testing his boundaries.  Henry was nominated for best supporting actor for the role, the youngest actor to ever be nominated, and while just how much of his performance comes from him instead of the subtle manipulations of Benson and Hoffman is debatable,  he is excellent.  Without being too perfect, Billy is an  immensely like able kid that we can believe the two parents would fight over.

Meryl Streep

Although Streep's Joanna is gone for a large part of the movie, her absence is always felt, and her return is inevitable.  Like Hoffman, Streep won an Oscar for her role (as best supporting actress), mainly on the strength of her excellent court room speech in which she explains her reasons for leaving, and her desire to have Billy back in her life. Streep was not happy with the way the speech was originally written, and Benton allowed her to write it herself, a wise decision that makes it all the more moving.  The courtroom scenes in general are so intense, with both Ted and Joanna being forced to expose raw feelings, that they are almost unwatchable, and we feel sympathy for both of them as their opposing lawyers tear into them.  Although some divorce lawyers have criticized these scenes for being inaccurate (having had no personal experience in these kind of proceedings, I can't really comment on that), they get to a deeper truth: in divorces and custody battles, there often are no real winners.  This is the rare courtroom drama where both sides of the case have a point, and the judge could easily go either way.    
Other strengths in the film are Howard Duff's fine performance as Ted's tough but likable lawyer and George Coe as his boss.  Another stand out is Jane Alexander as Joanna's friend Margaret, who starts out the film not liking Ted, but who eventually befriends him (it's a rare delight to see a man and a woman become friends in a movie without any romantic entanglements).  Yes, by trusting  his actors, and striving for realism, Benson made a powerful yet understated classic that anyone going through a divorce, or just dealing with being a parent can relate to.


This really is a tough call, that shows how difficult comparing vastly films can be: 1979 was really an outstanding year for films, with many films that have withstood the test of time being released, such as Bob Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ, Francis Ford Coppola's APOCALYPSE NOW, Hal Ashby's BEING THERE, Woody Allen's MANHATTEN, and Martin Ritt's NORMA RAE, all of which have their strengths.  Still, for its straightforward, emotional story, and great performances, I think KRAMER VS. KRAMER was a fine choice.