Ordinary People: Love is Complicated

Being a human being is very complicated. For many of us, just being alive may be the most confusing thing we may ever face. Sometimes, life is just a never-ending existential crisis; it’s hot at times and cold at others, but it’s always there, always sizzling in the back of our minds. 

Yet we all must do it and go through life. We’re not alone in asking questions that may never be answered like “why are we here,” “what is my purpose,” or “why do bad things happen to some good people and not to others?” As fundamental and universal as these questions are, we can never answer them with other people. We must go through this process alone, sometimes terrifyingly alone, but alone nonetheless.  No one else can do it for us, and we can’t do it for others. 

On nearly every headstone there are at least four things: a name, a date of birth, a dash, and a date of death. But perhaps the most important piece on that stone, outside our name, is the dash. That right there is your life story. It contains everything from the loves to the losses, the happiness and the pain, and, if we’re lucky, the answers to the above questions. But, what it doesn’t say is how others deal with you, the impacts you have on their lives. That is as unique as a fingerprint. 

Robert Redford’s 1980 Best Picture winner, Ordinary People, examines the lives of a family of three, the well-to-do Jarrett family, and how they each process the unimaginable: the accidental death of a child. Redford’s unpacking and dissection of the many layers of the human experience is compacted into two gripping and brilliant hours of cinema. Also, the film takes on popular stigmas of mental health, grief, and modern American life. I’m still sifting through the film’s meaning even after days of thinking about it. 

Now for the rest of the movie. 

Plot/Writing

Ordinary People centers on the affluent and suburban Jarrett family. Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is a successful attorney. Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) is an active homemaker and Conrad, or Connie, (Timothy Hutton) is their surviving teenage son. The film begins some months after the accidental death of the oldest son, Buck, in a boating accident. Connie has just returned from a stay in a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt after the death of his brother. From the start, it’s apparent that the family is quite right. Each member avoids talking about the giant elephant in the room, trying to move on with their lives. Connie reluctantly visits Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) to help him deal with his brother’s death.

For Calvin and Beth, their story deals with their own grieving about their son’s death, each trying to go about life in their own way..

On the story side, Ordinary People is a very unusual film in that it defies the typical three-act structure in several ways. First, there are really two “inciting incidents” with the first being Buck’s death and the second being Connie’s subsequent suicide attempt. Second, the 2nd act is most of the film, about the first 100 minutes of it. 

Finally, I’d argue that the movie doesn’t even have a first act at all, but picks up right after everything starts to really fall apart in the Jarrett family life. I always believe the first act to be the idyllic part of the story, before the inciting incident. The happiness that the Jarrett’s had as a family is long gone and it’ll never come back. So, since the inciting incidents take place off-screen before we pick up the story, we pick it up in the second act. 

Also notable about the plot is really the lack of story that always moves forward. There’s no goal, nothing to strive for in Ordinary People, and that’s okay. Not all stories have to follow the same structure and it works in this film. 

On the writing side, Ordinary People is based on the 1976 Judith Guest book of the same name. 

When you have a film that doesn’t really go anywhere, the dialogue must be polished and on point. The screenplay, adapted by Alvin Sargent, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. I initially wrote in my notes that the dialogue is in this film is like two cogs on opposing gears trying to go different directions at the same time. The conflict that is brought to the surface by these two opposite but stubborn forces makes for compelling viewing and it is key to the cataclysmic disintegration of the Jarrett family. 1. 1. 

Set

Ordinary People takes place in the suburbs of Chicago. But this is not a film that needs to take place there. It’s our first movie since American Beauty to be set in the ‘burbs, but unlike that movie, Ordinary People is a story that could be anywhere. 

So, the set, which is great, detailed, and real, isn’t important in this film. But I can’t fault the movie for this. 1. 

Sound

Ordinary People is one of those rare films that excel with little score under the action. The most notable use of music is Pachabel’s Cannon, which is used in both subtle and overt ways throughout. The music hits hard during the film’s most emotional moments. In fact, Ordinary People’s box office success helped to bring what was an obscure piece out into the limelight. 1. 

Cinematography

John Bailey was the director of photography for Ordinary People. In contrast with other Best Picture winners, this one does nothing special. 

Instead, as the film is about the human experience, the camera focuses on the characters almost exclusively. Using a healthy amount of closeups, the camera focuses our attention on the gritty and raw emotions felt by the characters. 

A quiet gem in the film is the editing. Abrupt at times, the film jumps around from present to past in a way that’s both jarring and effective. 1. 

Acting

Ordinary People is a film about a family of three. Thus, I’d like to focus on three performances here: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton. 

Donald Sutherland comes to us as Calvin Jarrett, the patriarch of this breaking family. A successful lawyer, Cal has a deep love for his family, his job, and the life he has created for himself. Even though he’s experienced the unimaginable when his son died, the love he has is evident. 

Cal is an empathetic father who truly cares about his own grief as well as that of others. He wants to be the bin within which other’s problems are thrown, choosing to take on and help carry another person’s burdens. This leads him to yearn to resolve issues quickly, even though he knows that loss and grief is just too complicated. 

Cal must watch as his son struggles with Buck’s death and his wife drift further from him. He tries to bridge the yawning gap in his family, but must also watch his efforts fail. Sutherland’s performance is rife with nuance and has a sad cheeriness of a man who is losing it all. He was not nominated for Best Actor, which is one of the truly awful snubs in Oscar history. 

Beth Jarrett is played by Mary Tyler Moore. Her performance was really the first intensely serious film role in her career, coming three years after the finale of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She garnered a Best Actress nomination too. Beth is almost the polar opposite of Cal in how she handles grief. She prefers to bottle up her true feelings. The pressure valve is only released when she flies into bitter tirades aimed at both her husband and son. It’s clear that she loves her dead son more than her living one, keeping affections for the latter at arm’s length. 

Beth’s main method of grieving is to get away from it all. She begs Cal to go on trips, first to London and then to her family in Texas. She constantly drives a wedge between herself and Conrad. Moore’s performance is filled with rage and resentment and it’s a truly great performance from an amazing actress. 

Probably the best acting in the film belongs to Timothy Hutton, playing the Jarrett’s surviving son, Conrad, or Connie. 

Taking place primarily from his perspective, this film is mostly about Connie’s search for meaning in a place where meaning can be hard to find. 

Following Buck’s death, Conrad falls into a deep depression and survives a suicide attempt. He recovers in a hospital for four months. When he leaves, he’s not exactly “cured” but he isn’t suicidal. He suffers from nightmares, painful flashbacks, and is highly sensitive to what others say about him. Connie must survive high school and his meathead “friends” who really don’t have a clue what his life is like. 

On top of this, Conrod must see Dr. Berger twice a week. The shrink keeps him on his toes but also forces Connie to come face-to-face with his inner demons. At times, Conrad is stretched to the point of breaking. He finally does, and the result is brilliantly human, beautiful, and cathartic. 

Playing a young man full to his ear lobes with regret and bitterness at his mother, Timothy Hutton easily steals the show in the movie. It might be the best performance I’ve seen on this list. Hutton, who made his movie debut with this role, won a deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar. At the time, he was the youngest man to win that award at 20. 1. 

Directing

Robert Redford makes his third appearance on our list of movies, but this time, he comes to us as a director. Ordinary People was, in fact, his debut in the director’s chair. As opposed to the other two Redford entries on this list (The Sting and Out of Africa), this film is his best showcase and it’s not even close. 

At first glance the film reminded me a lot of Sam Mendes’s American Beauty. Problems arise in an idyllic suburban life that the characters have built for themselves. But the American suburbs are new in the realm of human evolution, and American Beauty and Ordinary People both show us that the human experience doesn’t care about manicured lawns and fancy cars. 

The two films are clearly very different but perhaps the biggest similarity is each story’s numerous layers. Ordinary People centers around the simple theme of love, yet the film shows all sides of this complicated emotion. Connie deals with a fountain of love that has suddenly run dry, Beth takes it for granted, and Cal struggles to define it. 

Buck’s death is a meat cleaver, cutting the survivors in the Jarrett family off from one another. Connie’s subsequent suicide attempt only excerbates this division. Ordinary People is extraordinary due to the film’s examination of what happens with love gained, and love earned, is lost in an instant. Not only does Buck’s death force grief out in the open, that’s a give. But it also brings out the bitterness, the regret, the rage in the lives of all those involved. No one can guide us through this loss, we all must experience the grief alone. Our experiences are as unique as our fingerprints. 

Redford’s genius here is bringing all this out by the end of the film. He doesn’t preach the film’s message, but lets it develop organically. I don’t know what I expected, but Ordinary People blew me away. It’s one of those rare films that make you hug someone special a good long time when it’s over. 1. 

Bonus Points

I’ll give an extra point to acting and directing. 

Final Score: 9/10

Oscar Facts

Ordinary People won the 53rd Academy Award for Best Picture on March 31, 1981 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The award was presented by Lillian Gish and accepted by producer Ronald L. Schwary. In total, Ordinary People earned six nominations, and won four Oscars, the most of the night. 

Other notable winners include Robert De Niro winning Best Actor, Sissy Spacek winning Best Actress, and Mary Steenburgen winning Best Supporting Actress. The ceremony was unique in that each of the four acting winners were under 40, including Hutton who became the youngest person to win Best Supporting Actor, which is a record that still stands today. The ceremony was hosted by Johnny Carson

Upcoming Movies It’s no doubt that this year has been busy, with a lot going on. But, I will press on. Up next is Oliver! from 1968. After that, it’s Tom Jones, All the King’s Men, Cimarron, Patton, Midnight Cowboy, and The Departed.

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