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.