One of the most harrowing domestic dramas ever released by a major Hollywood studio, Ordinary People tells the story of a family poised to implode in the wake of a tragedy. Tracking the emotional recovery of a teenager following a suicide attempt—which, in turn, was the direct result of his older brother’s accidental death—the picture uses a scalpel to peel back the socially acceptable masks that hide hatred, pain, and shame. Even with glimmers of humor from supporting actor Judd Hirsch, who plays a psychiatrist with an earthy demeanor, Ordinary People is rough going. The movie is almost relentlessly sad. Yet the final act is quite moving, a reward for viewers who cross an emotional minefield with the film’s characters. Another incentive: Ordinary People is exquisitely made in terms of acting, storytelling, and technical execution. The movie is not perfect, partially because it takes so long for tonal variance to emerge and partially because the stately pacing results in a slightly bloated running time. In every important respect, however, Ordinary People is a model for how small-scale dramas can achieve their full potential. When the movie works, which is most of the time, it’s almost transcendent.
At the center of the picture is the Jarrett family. The father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is an easygoing lawyer who can’t see how deeply his family was scarred by the death of elder son Jordan during a boating accident. The mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), is a tightly wound avatar of suburban perfection who suppresses everything that’s challenging and imperfect and weak. That’s why she can’t even begin to connect with the family’s surviving son, anguished teenager Conrad (Timothy Hutton). Because he was present when his older brother died, Conrad blames himself for Jordan’s death. Unfortunately, so does Beth, for whom the sun rose and set with Jordan. The unique dramatic crux of Ordinary People is the notion that parents don’t always love their children equally—Beth resents Conrad as much as she worshipped Jordan.
Despite its great sensitivity and meticulous craftsmanship, Ordinary People might have become the equivalent of a glorified TV movie if not for the involvement of one key player. Acting icon Robert Redford made his directorial debut with Ordinary People, and his work was so assured that he scored an Oscar for Best Director. Rather than showing off with visual trickery, Redford focused on molding performances and shaping scenes, with marvelous results. He led first-time movie actor Hutton to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the way Redford exploded Moore’s girl-next-door image was masterful. Also netting an Oscar for the film was screenwriter Alvin Sargent, who beautifully adapted the story from a novel by Judith Guest by creating a tightly connected web of metaphors and signifiers. Collectively, the team behind the movie was rewarded for their efforts with the ultimate Hollywood prize: Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980.
Ordinary People: RIGHT ON