Wednesday, March 28, 2018


"Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  - Tolstoy

Ordinary People won the 1981 Best Picture Oscar against Raging BullThe Elephant ManTess, and Coal Miner's Daughter. While hindsight and time have confirmed my opinion that Martin Scorsese’s searing and ambitious Raging Bull was the more deserving prize recipient that year, I must assert that in saying this, I am in no way diminishing or discounting the brilliance that is Ordinary People. It's an easy film to dramatically discredit due to its essentially conventional structure and familiar domestic themes, and it's an easy film to creatively overlook because it lacks both the cinematic bravura and operatic scope of Scorsese’s masterpiece. But, when leaving these comparisons aside, director Robert Redford's Ordinary People has always struck me as one of the most emotionally eloquent and evocative domestic dramas I've ever seen.
The passion of Scorsese's beautifully-rendered masterpiece moves me aesthetically, and I respond to it (as I do with the films of Stanley Kubrick) and on a level largely cerebral. But to this day, of all the movies nominated that year, Ordinary People is the film that moves me the most. Its poignance speaks to me in ways that perhaps have little to do with art, but everything to do with my enduring fondness for motion pictures that explore the human condition.
As the years go by, I come to appreciate Ordinary People’s simple, straightforward, cinematic approach more and more; for it feels less like the absence of style in a first-time director, and more like a deliberate attempt on Redford’s part to convey a certain conventionality and constriction in the world these people inhabit. A means of training the focus on what’s most important to the story: the inability of its characters to understand and express feelings that fall beyond the scope of the coping mechanisms of structure, order, and self-control.
Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett
Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett in "Ordinary People" (1980)
Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett
Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett
Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine Pratt
Dinah Manoff as Karen Alrich
Dinah Manoff as Karen Alrich

Ordinary People tells the story of the Jarretts, an upper middle-class family living in the Chicago suburb of Lake Forest; an affluent neighborhood of spacious homes, manicured lawns, and people skilled in the art of emotional repression. Fittingly, the film opens with a montage of tranquil, postcard-perfect images of this tony residential community, for in this beige-colored, WASP enclave, appearances seem to do all the talking. Most vociferously, these meticulously kept-up appearances speak of status and wealth, but they're also an avowal of the belief that if everything looks right, it must then certainly be right.
Out of order comes security, from security comes happiness. The unexpected is kept at bay. Everyone is safe. Lives are happy. All is as it should be and there is no mess. Except for in the Jarrett household, where, bit by bit, their lives are slowly coming apart.
Keeping Up Appearances
Looking at them from the outside, one would assume the Jarretts haven’t a problem in the world. Genial, easygoing Calvin is a successful tax attorney; elegant, poised Beth, mother and housewife, is an avid golfer and paragon of perfectionism; and 17-year-old Conrad…he’s just been released from a mental hospital after having tried to kill himself.

You see, Buck Jarrett, eldest son, star athlete and all-around Golden Boy, drowned in a boating accident a little over a year ago, and the emotional fallout of the tragedy (or more precisely, the lack of it) has left a huge fissure in the Jarrett’s façade of have-it-all normalcy.
The loss of the older brother he looked up to causes Conrad to suffer a nervous breakdown born of guilt for having survived and from feeling he'll never measure up in the eyes of his parents enough to compensate for the void. Beth, who one senses blames Conrad for his brother’s death, has virtually shut him out of her life. Unable to display affection and withholding of approval, she thinks that Conrad’s suicide attempt was a deliberate act of revenge directed at her (the deed left the image-conscious Beth having to weather both the stigma of having an institutionalized son and the humiliation of others knowing that all is far from orderly in the Jarrett household).
Calvin, stuck in the role of conciliator, drinks a bit too much and tends to turn a blind eye to what he perhaps knows/fears to be true between Beth and Conrad. In his earnest efforts to make everything nice, he too, lives in a state of denial about his feelings.
Recovering from shock therapy, left behind a grade for his months-long stay at a mental hospital,
Conrad feels the pressure of others wanting things to return to "normal" as quickly as possible

In chronicling Conrad’s journey toward forgiveness (himself and his mother) Ordinary People’s look at the dysfunction within a by-all-appearances functional family covers little of what I’d call new ground. Certainly not after all those ’60 post-Graduate films eviscerating the middle class for their false values, the wave of Vietnam-era ‘70s films and TV movies devoted to cultural soul-searching, or the 1973 PBS documentary An American Family (television's first reality show), which regaled us with the spectacle of the disintegration of a quintessential WASP family from the comfort of our living rooms.

But how Robert Redford succeeds in making Ordinary People an extraordinarily unique look at a familiar film topic is in the way his direction displays an uncommon sensitivity and understanding of this world and these people. Gone are the cliché, easy-target jibes at the upper-middle-class so typical of the domestic disintegration genre. In its place, an obvious familiarity with the rituals of suppression (few interactions occur outside of the formalized: meals, cocktail parties, golf games; and "keeping busy" are the cure-all panacea), and an empathy for the adult characters and compassion for the adolescents.
The "French Toast scene" is one of my favorites. The father who tries too hard, the son who feels too much, and the mother who expresses her feelings in the only way she knows how: through the dutiful carrying out of household rituals. The tension is thick as maple syrup.

Ordinary People was a critical and commercial success upon release, its few detractors mostly citing it for perhaps being a little too ordinary in its approach. A solemn, pedigreed, adult drama about important issues, Ordinary People is the kind of film studios once touted as a “prestige picture” and critics merely labeled “Oscar bait.” (Indeed, it was nominated for six Oscars, winning four: Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, and Adapted Screenplay.)
Almost too refined and tasteful for its own good, Ordinary People’s family-in-crisis subject matter, relaxed, naturalistic performances and distinct lack of showy, cinematic tricks (a welcome rarity from a first-time director) still has many feeling that Redford’s film is little more than a superior movie-of-the-week. 
But to me, what Ordinary People lacks in visual distinction (not entirely fair, John Bailey’s cinematography, evoking the chill and melancholy beauty of autumn in the Midwest, is surprisingly expressive) it makes up for in keeping the viewer emotionally rapt in the domestic disintegration of the Jarretts. Ordinary People’s greatest strength has always been its characters, the tenuous structure of their relationships, and the depth of emotion the film’s remarkable cast brings to Alvin Sargent’s splendid screenplay (from Judith Guest’s 1976 novel).

The entire cast of Ordinary People is extraordinary, but Mary Tyler Moore wasn't fucking around. She brings it like gangbusters in her portrayal of Beth, inhabiting the character in a way that leaves you feeling her role in the film is larger than it actually is. Every one of her scenes is virtuoso, but here are my favorites:
"Give her the goddamn camera!"
Never has Mary Tyler Moore's ready smile been used to better knots-in-the-stomach effect
"Mothers don't hate their sons!"
After so much politeness, Moore & Sutherland finally squaring off  is electrifying
A dog named Pippin
An absolutely brilliantly played and written scene (watch Moore's shift in expressions. Like a door being cracked open only to be slammed shut). Two people trying to connect and not being able to. Breaks my heart every time.
The Hug
On a scale of emotional power, this reverberated through the theater like the chest-busting scene in Alien. I swear, the entire theater seemed to gasp and break into LOUD sobs all at once

Dating back to the first time I ever saw Rebel Without a Cause on TV, I've almost never liked how teenagers have been written or portrayed on screen (except in low-budget '50s and '60s rock & roll musicals). They always seem to have a little too much autonomy, and the graceful, perfect actors playing them too often look like they're play-acting at youthful gawkiness and insecurity. Timothy Hutton turns in an exceptional performance simply by giving the impression he's not "playing" at anything...he's being. He comes across as authentic and age-appropriately hamstrung by his emotional confusion, his character's anguish made all the more heartbreaking because he comes across as such a sweet kid.
Hutton works a kind of miracle with Conrad, granting us a portrait of a tortured youth that manages to sidestep the usual problematic “troubled teen” clichés that so often come across as self-pitying and self-centered. Hutton was just 19 at the time, yet there’s nothing callow in how perceptively he conveys the feelings of a young man grappling with grief and self-recrimination. Given that this is the young actor's first major film role (for which he won an Oscar in the bargain), the intensity of feeling Hutton brings to his character is perhaps too-easily attributed to his having lost his real-life father just four months prior to filming (actor Jim Hutton succumbed to liver cancer at age 45); but I think it's just a case of a very talented actor meeting with the perfect role.
Adam Baldwin, Hutton, Carl DiTomasso, Fredric Lehne
As the '80s ushered in the era of the insufferable teenager—interchangeable slasher victims or indistinguishable coming-of-age horndogs—Ordinary People's realistic adolescents gently broke from tradition. Frederic Lehne plays a high school jock actually capable of showing compassion; Dinah Manoff, as Conrad's friend from the mental hospital, struggles to keep depression at bay through strained positivity; and most affecting of all, Elizabeth McGovern (making her film debut, as well) as a classmate with whom Conrad shares a mutual crush.  McGovern, who has the quirky, natural charm of a young Paula Prentiss (a frequent Jim Hutton co-star), manages to rescue her character, through sheer force of originality, from being a plot-functional "dream girl" who exists solely to guide Conrad back into the world of feelings.
Hutton's and McGovern's scenes are affecting in their unforced naturalness

Both Redford and Moore have stated that the character of Beth and her inability to display affection reminded them of the non-relationship each had with their respective emotionally-remote, perfectionist fathers. I grew up at a time when, via TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver, the patriarchal ideal defined the perfect family. That’s why Ordinary People’s fence-straddling, somewhat ineffectual, but well-intentioned Calvin Jarrett came as such a welcome surprise to me; at last: a divergence from the all-knowing authoritarian father figure of pop-culture propaganda.

Taking on the kind of peace-keeping, empathetic role typically afforded the long-suffering wife in these sorts of domestic dramas, Donald Sutherland—a personal favorite and the only major cast member to fail to receive an Oscar nod—gives an understated performance (Redford initially wanted him for the psychiatrist) whose nuances are all too easy to overlook. An actor most eloquent in his silences (Sutherland’s eyes tend to be more expressive than his face) is at a distinct disadvantage in a film full of so many showier performances; but Calvin’s restrained gentleness has the much-needed effect of humanizing Beth (some part of her must have appreciated his vulnerability) and of making Conrad’s estrangement less torturous, for it's clear he has at least one person in the household in his corner.
Had the Canadian Donald Sutherland been cast in the role of psychiatrist as Redford originally envisioned, critics would have lost the opportunity to project culturally stereotypical significance to Oscar-nominee Judd Hirsch's Jewishness; aka the trope about the "expressive" ethnic character helping the uptight white character to open up. 

“Beth was the character he [Redford] most cared about, and he wanted her to be portrayed with sensitivity. It was she who drew him to the project”  - Mary Tyler Moore

What drew me to Ordinary People was Mary Tyler Moore. I was sitting in a movie theater sometime during the summer of 1980 when I saw the trailer for Ordinary People for the first time. If you’ve never seen it, it’s one of those artfully modulated 2½ minute gems that builds in intensity until the fade-out has everyone in the theater murmuring in excitement. Like most everybody else in America at the time, I was still in the throes of Mary Richards withdrawal. The Mary Tyler Moore Show had ended in 1977, but Moore had been a consistent, cheery staple of television since The Dick Van Dyke Show premiered in 1961, so, even with reruns to salve the pain, by 1980 it still wasn’t easy living in a world without Mary.
Ordinary People (1980)
I had no advance awareness of Ordinary People, so when Mary Tyler Moore appeared in the trailer behaving in a very un-Mary-like manner, I (and many others in the theater) let out an audible gasp. By the time the trailer was over I was aware of having been gripped by the same excitement I felt when back in 1974 I first read Ann-Margret was to appear in a Ken Russell film (Tommy); or in 1979, when the news came out about Olivia Newton-John, the squeaky-clean queen of soft rock, collaborating with British rockers Electric Light Orchestra on a little ditty called Xanadu. The potential for something unpredictably brilliant is always linked to a star going counter to their image and being cast against-type; so, when Ordinary People opened on Friday, September 19th, I happily stood in line to see it. I wasn’t disappointed. 
Ordinary People is unique in its depiction of a mother as a complex, conflicted individual of depth who, inconsistent with the maternal instinct myth, refuses (is unable?) to assume the traditional familial role of nurturer and healer.

Giving everyone involved in this film their due and not taking a single thing away from a single performance, it nevertheless remains my emphatic assertion that whatever heights Ordinary People soars to—as either motion picture or human drama—are reached on the wings of Mary Tyler Moore’s performance. She’s better than good here. Her performance emanates from a place of truth that serves as a tether wrenching Ordinary People back to reality every time it appears to veer into soap opera or Lifetime movie territory. I find her to be absolutely astounding.

And not for one moment do I pretend to dissociate my reaction to the character of Beth from my personal response to Moore in the role. It’s precisely my inability to fully wrest my awareness of Moore’s endurably likable TV persona from Beth’s rigidity that gives the performance its power. The incongruity of Moore’s quick-to-smile façade masking such groundswells of anger and stony reserve produces in me the exact reaction I imagine Beth’s country club friends would have should they ever catch a glimpse of what lies behind her perfect life of order. 

Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People" - 1980
Everyone from Ann-Margret to Lee Remick were considered
 for the role Moore called "The Holy Grail of my career."

Although it’s heartbreaking to see the degree to which Beth’s steely reserve and need to keep up appearances hurts her family, Moore makes Beth’s defiant defense of her own fiercely guarded vulnerability a thing of icy beauty. You can see the pain, you can see the inner struggle, you can even see what she is most in fear of having to confront by letting down her guard (her sense of being a failure); but just as clearly you can see that she can’t help herself. Like everyone else, she too, is a victim of grief, her coping mechanisms as imprinted on her character as her name on a Marshal Field’s credit card.
Much in the manner that The Graduate's Mrs. Robinson is set up to be that story's villain, yet emerges its most sympathetic character; Beth, in the hands of Mary Tyler Moore, while never quite sympathetic, is so powerless, yet so resolute and repressed, she becomes a tragic figure.

In these days of social media self-presentation, Photoshop perfectionism, and smartphone photo filters that turn their subjects into pore-free mannequins, a movie about the folly of maintaining images and the impossible pursuit of “perfection” could perhaps not be more relevant.
Although Ordinary People is one of the whitest movies ever made, I’ve always been able to identify with it because the image-conscious middle-class world it dramatizes is not at all different from my own childhood growing up as one of the few black families in an all-white neighborhood.
Everything in its Place

In the assimilationist household I grew up in, upward mobility meant the strict adherence to respectability politics. Under scrutiny whether we were shopping, playing outside, or just emptying the garbage, our family had to be a model of everything white America didn’t expect or want us to be. Black excellence (via perfectionism and achievement) was present in everything from how we kept up our house to how we dressed for school. Although we were a household of five (two older sisters had already married and moved out) and under a great deal of social pressure, we rarely spoke of these matters to one another because, by necessity, the needs and problems of the individual were sublimated to the goals of the family in particular, civil rights and the advancement of all of black America in general.
And let's not forget that during all this, I, as the only boy in the family and gay to boot, instinctively lapsed into "The Best Little Boy in the World" mode; neat, well-mannered, drug-free, straight-A student...all so that I'd never give my parents a moment's worry, insuring that the pesky little topic of "gay" would never come up. No wonder I so identified with all that guilt Conrad carried around!
Were it not for my mother going through EST training in the early ‘70s (after which, talking about EVERYTHING became the household standard, resulting in even my conservative dad becoming alarmingly liberal), I think we could have wound up like the Jarretts.
One of the themes of Ordinary People is that not all breaks are clean, and not everything can be put back together again. But one of life's gifts granted to us as people is that we have this amazing capacity to endure and move on. Like the Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet that opens Judith Guest's novel reminds us:
What a shining animal is man,
Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that
For worse than that must follow yet can write
Music, can laugh, play tennis, even plan. 

Vanity Fair 2011
The cast of Ordinary People reunited for Vanity Fair in 2011. Photo by Mark Seliger

Ordinary People theatrical trailer

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018


  1. 1980 was the year when I (15 years old then) first got heavy into movie-going, seeing more than 60 films in the theater. I was not immediately interested in Ordinary People when it opened in early autumn, but I went to it in December when by then its status as favorite to win Best Picture was apparent.
    I was very impressed: I assumed MTM was a shoo-in for the Best Actress Oscar, the story was told in a classy and heartfelt manner, and I very much appreciated how the the environment of Conrad's high school mirrored mine (even if mine was far less "upper") - for once Hollywood captured teens and high school life in a way I could relate!

    I did not mind OP winning the Best Picture Oscar (whereas the previous year I felt that the winner, Kramer vs. Kramer, although a fine film, was not as cinematically thrilling as Apocalypse Now and All That Jazz.) - I too admired Raging Bull but in a more intellectual style as you say. Both Tess and The Elephant Man were films that I did not fully appreciate until I was older.

    By the way, The Stunt Man was not (alas - it was my #1 film of 1980) nominated for Best Picture; the fifth nominee was Coal Miner's Daughter. Stunt Man's director, Richard Rush, was however nominated in the Best Director category.

    1. Oh, Hi Mark (just watched The Disaster Artist)
      The Oscars, for all the times it seems to get everything absolutely wrong, in terms of cinema and history, can't help itself from reflecting the tone of the time.
      The votership (to me) so often reflected the elder sensibility the Academy held about itself, voting for prestige pictures, important pictures, and films that reflected the kind of uplift of the early days of television (The Playhouse 90 mentality).
      "Ordinary People" wasn't daring cinema or envelope-pushing, but it was extremely well done and effective. A virtually flawless adaptation of the kind of book high school English classes would one day put on a required reading list.
      Your adolescent immersion in film is relatable almost in the inverse with me, for by 1980 I was out of college and entering the work force (signal the life-changing course that XANADU too me on) and the year signaled the gradual reduction of the number of films I saw each year.
      I too though Mary Tyler Moore was a shoo-in for Best Actress, and wonder if Judd Hirsch resented having to share his supporting category with Tim Hutton, who had the most screen time of anyone.
      Thanks for pointing out the error of my including "The Stunt Man" (duly corrected), a film I saw about three times on release and today can't remember a single frame of.

    2. Ha! I also just watched The Disaster Artist. Now I need to track down The Room!

    3. Good luck! I think you'll get a big kick out of's so absolutely bizarre. Then you'll have to watch THE DISASTER ARTIST again to compare notes.

  2. Looking at and recalling MTM in your (as usual) compelling write-up makes me think she would have been wonderful in a TV movie about Bess Myerson and all her CONSIDERABLE legal woes and various dramas, including cancer battles, in the 1980s. Beth shares certain qualities with Bess, including a certain sort of look! Must've sucked for Donald that year to see practically everyone else in the movie nominated but not himself. The man finally got an Honorary Oscar after decades of captivating work on the big screen and never receiving a nomination!

    1. Hi Poseidon!
      Love your idea of casting MTM as Bess Meyerson. As you note, the Bess/Beth similarities kind of leap right out at you. Hollywood being what it is, I'm certain MTM must have been offered (and declined) many Beth-like roles after ORDINARY PEOPLE. Although I personally loved Suzanne Pleshette in that Leona Helmsley TV-movie, that one I think MTM would have killed in.
      Because I adore her work in ORDINARY PEOPLE so much, I'm glad MTM didn't mar her triumph by taking on roles that in any way cashed in on her brilliant against-type casting. But I'm one of those who think that, outside of Redford's film, MTM has been poorly served by her motion picture appearances.
      Her ORDINARY PEOPLE follow up "Six Weeks" was absolutely dreadful and killed off whatever momentum her Oscar nomination gave her (I never got the Dudley Moore as leading man thing. Their scenes together looked like a comedy skit that never materialized). I didn't particularly like her in THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE, and don't get me started on CHANGE OF HABIT. I think I only really liked her in this and the 1996 comedy FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, in which she was hilarious.
      Donald Sutherland's non-relationship with The Academy is a bit of a marvel. I can't think of another all-purpose actor from my generation who has given so many memorable performances and yet not one nomination. When Burt Reynolds was overlooked for STARTING OVER when both of his co-stars were nominated, he never passed up an opportunity to complain about it. But I've never read or heard anything about how it must have been a blow to be the only actor to be ignored for ORDINARY PEOPLE. Glad he got that long-overdue honorary Oscar. He's a memorable presence in so many of my favorite films.
      Thanks for reading, Poseidon!

  3. I got such intense chills reading this! You reminded me so vividly of both the best things about this, and the stuff I'd forgotten, like that TRAILER! What a piece of craftmanship. I might've even been a tiny bit disappointed by the movie itself after the trailer set up my expectations, but I've always found it a worthy Best Picture winner. Then again, Raging Bull is one of the cinema greats I've yet to see...

    The strength of Ordinary People lies definitely in the characterizations and performances. Like you, I deeply related to Conrad, even though my circumstances were very different from his. But I was his age when I first saw the movie, dealing with the on going catastrophe of my parents' divorce, which left me very much in charge of my younger siblings. Not to mention I was self-medicating with drink, and in a very frazzled mental state to begin with. Conrad's grief, dutifulness and goodness resonated with me. It's such a pity Hutton never rose to such heights in his career after OP. Maybe it's just that the role was so right for him, at the exact right moment in his life, that there's something metaphysical he was able to bring to just this, and then never reach it again. He is so all-encompassing, so believable as a teenager ill at ease, uncomfortable with who he is and where he's at. I find here's a similarity to MTM's performance in that they're both so effortless, you don't even feel like they're acting, but just living their truths. Sutherland is on a bit of different wavelength, a bit more laborious, but how he was overlooked for the major awards I just can't understand. His Calvin breaks my heart.

    Wow. This really took me back. Thank you for that. When I saw your post in my feed, I let out an "of course!", because it is such a natural pick for you. It's been years since I last saw this, but I'll have to rewatch it tomorrow!

    1. Hi Callie
      I got a bit of a chill myself reading your comments! You express so articulately (and with such obvious passion) your memories of this film and how it resonated with you at such an early age.
      Your enthusiasm for the trailer inspired me to include it in the Bonus Materials section. Especially because you reiterated what a friend of mine said at the time -- that the trailer was SO effective, that he was a tad disappointed by the actual film. He loved it, but that trailer is a masterpiece of construction.
      I especially appreciate your sharing a bit of your personal history, as I think it confirms (as my own experiences did for me) how on-point ORDINARY PEOPLE is in capturing the ways a teenager deals with and copes with complicated things like stress, family upheavals, and depression.
      I'm 100% in accord with you in thinking that Hutton and MTM are so compelling (in ways neither was able to ever be onscreen again) due to their roles being just the right part at the right time in their lives. While Hutton's loss of his father was still a fresh tragedy, Moore was breaking up with her husband, reconnecting with her estranged son (who accidentally shot himself just weeks after this film opened), and having an affair with an unnamed married man in the cast (or production crew). A lot was going on, and I think Redford was able to get these incredible once-in-a-career performances out of them.
      Your perceptive take on Donald Sutherland's performance is perhaps the best "explanation"-if that's the word I'm looking for -for why his excellent performance nevertheless manages to somehow stand apart. The wavelength Hutton and MTM were on was just "that much" more authentic and raw. But he is awfully good.
      I always appreciate your revisiting my blog, your contributions in the comments section (like so many others here) never failing to reflect your absolute enjoyment of and engagement in film. It's very contagious and I enjoyed reading this very much. Thanks!

  4. Another fabulous essay, Ken! I remember seeing OP when it first came out -- I would have been around 17 or 18, close to Timothy Huttons' character's age -- but all I really remember about it is MTM. I'm pretty sure you're not a Doris Day fan, but I think Mary, like Doris, was one of those comediennes who could really tap into something deep (to shattering effect) with the right material/director. A lot of "funny people" have this ability come to think of it, I won't get into the whys. I remember MTM doing that Betty Rollin's TV biop, "First You Cry" -- maybe even before OP (ech, the acronyms!) and it having a similarly shocking effect on audiences and critics. Glad she had the opportunity. (Didn't she also star on Broadway in a production of "Whose Life is it Anyway?"?) Thanks again for making me want to return to a film I haven't seen in decades!

    1. Hi Peter
      Thanks very much! Yes, one of the things that I was struck by in talking to folks who have seen this (whether recently or many years ago) is that the strongest impression and most indelible memory every one has is of Mary Tyler Moore. As I say, even taking the excellence of everyone else's performances into account, she emerges the one you most remember.
      I credit this both to the power of her performance and for Redford's take on the material that placed her as the most important character in the scenario. I think it does wonders for the balance of the film.
      I actually am a big Doris Day fan (oddly, just not her Ross Hunter/sophisticated sex comedy years) and I agree with you. She is actually so good in her dramatic roles (MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, MIDNIGHT LACE, LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME) I'm angry whenever I read of the roles she declined because of her "image" (I love Anne Bancroft, but I believe Day would have killed in that role).
      In my own life I've never known a funny person whose chipper attitude and penchant for the humorous didn't emanate from someplace dark. I've always been of the mind that you don't become funny because of a sunny disposition; one earns that through some kind of pain.
      Anyhow, I too marvel at how many comedians and light entertainers make impressive dramatic actors (Robin Williams in ONE HOUR PHOTO).
      I never saw Moore's TV movie, although I remember the publicity surrounding it. I'm always glad I didn't see it, for ORDINARY PEOPLE was my first sighting of dramatic Mary and it made such an impression.
      And you're right, she did star on Broadway in WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?- in re-reading her memoir "After All" for this post, I hadn't been aware that she accepted the role as a means of hoping to convince Redford & Co. of her ability to do drama, and was surprised when he cast her before she took on the gig. She leaped into the stage show one month after filming on ORDINARY PEOPLE had completed, and won a special Tony Award for her trouble.
      Glad you enjoyed the piece, Peter. You, like several commenting here, saw this film when they were about Timothy Hutton's age. I take it as a good sign that I've yet to read of anyone making claims of the film's depiction of teen life feeling false.

  5. Hi Ken, Just a quick reaction as I am at work : )
    The movie and the book (Judith Guest is from MI!) really affected me as a closeted kid just out of high school. So, I look forward to savoring this later.

    I just watched this last year and was surprised to find that you hadn't reviewed it! And now, here it is...

    I was still most taken by the wonderful cast and the realistic underplaying of the acting and story. Felt totally real.

    About the casting, Redford said he saw something in MTM that was another side to her sunny "Mary" persona. And kudos to MTM for the willingness to "go there."

    Interesting side note: Natalie Wood wanted to play Beth really bad, and Redford much later commented that it killed him to have to turn her down, as Wood helped him out at the start of his career. RR felt it would have been hard to sell Nat to the studios and had already settled on MTM. As much as I adore Natalie, I don't know if she would have been willing to be unlikeable. RR didn't say what Wood's reaction was...

    Cheers, can't wait to read this more thoroughly!

    1. Hi Rick
      Mary Tyler Moore always said that Robert Redford always wanted her for the role, yet "auditioned every actress in Hollywood" before returning to his first and only choice. Like you, I dearly love Natalie Wood, and I think under certain directors she can really deliver, but I just don't think she could have gotten under the skin of this character. I feel the same about Ann-Margret and Lee Remick. I just have a hunch they would have turned the role into one of those TV "bad moms (I recall how effective Beth Howland of "Alice" was playing a terrible mother in one of those Afterschool Specials, but even she kept it somewhat one-note).
      Also, I think a great many gay boys of a certain age could identify with Conrad. It was common to have one's awareness of being gay coincide with feelings of guilt: you felt you were likely to bring shame upon your wonderful parents, you were afraid that because of being gay you would never "measure up" in the way Conrad feels he can never measure up to what Beth thinks he should be. A great many of the emotions and confusing adolescent identity issues Conrad grapples with resonate with gay men of a certain age. Perhaps even now.
      Thanks for stopping by, Rick! Always enjoy your insights!

  6. I never saw this movie until... last month. In 1980, it would have been confusing and meaningless. The depth of what goes on in it would have been utterly lost on little me. Now, as an incipient Eldergay with lots of his own personal experience in psychotherapy, the film radiates meaning.

    The producer paid for the best actors. Redford put all his energy into showcasing those great actors, letting the script and the players do the work. It pays off handsomely. Every role is perfectly cast and every actor turns in terrific work. I loved it. The film is so 'right' in all its dramatic elements that there's almost nothing to say except, "Yes. That." How could I add anything?

    Mary Tyler Moore was no surprise to me. Everything she ever did was truthful. That's why it worked. That she could have always been doing these roles is no surprise. Just the year before, she scored a big hit on Broadway playing a quadriplegic determined to end her own life in "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" She made her point on Broadway and in the movies. It would have been really bad for business if she had kept that up. She had such an unusually successful career as a comedy leading lady. One can show off a little, but don't screw with that level of success.

    Mr. Hutton should have been nominated in the leading actor category. But no one can say it didn't work out for him. It is better to have an Oscar than merely a nomination. And the competition that year in the leading actor category was FORMIDABLE.

    Soooo sorry you had to shoulder the entire weight of the Black Experience (TM) on your own young gay shoulders. I once worked for an African-American woman with an enviable resume was all but driven crazy by just that. I worked closely with her and it was an education. If you have to be perfect, and you have to do it everywhere, for the benefit of everyone... well! That ain't gonna work. A big hug to you.


    1. Hello, GWT (thanks for keeping the acronym theme alive)
      You really are the newbie of this bunch, seeing ORDINARY PEOPLE for the 1st time just last month! But you bring up a good point about how age and life experience reveals just how emotionally and psychologically keen a film this. I was 22 when I first saw it, and at that time I had yet to have experienced the loss of a loved one, so the biggest thing about revisiting this film over the years is how it comes from someplace very real. Even if one finds the film not exactly their particular style, it's difficult to argue with the emotional and psychological authenticity of what's going on.

      Glad to hear the film holds up for new viewers. And it certainly is a wealth of excellent young performances.
      And thanks for the kind words for my younger self. It wasn't easy (except in that way that young people are capable of enduring incredible pressures simply because they don't yet know how NOT to) but it was a necessary proving ground for all I was to encounter for the rest of my life. The saving grace was finally being able to talk about it (my Mom's EST thing) otherwise it was all an incredible pressure cooker.
      But perfection doesn't exist. Sometimes I wish some of those self-congratulatory pop culture figures and celebrities would stop perpetuating the myth (it's practically Streisand's mantra).
      Thanks again for sharing with us your insights and thoughts on OP and MTM, GTW!

  7. Hi Ken - Oh, I love this movie, too, you have really nailed its appeal for me here—it's extreme sensitivity; the taut repressed emotions that can't help but keep exploding, the hope for resolution that never comes. Sutherland is marvelous, as is Oscar winner Hutton who carries the film, and the supporting turns by Elizabeth McGovern and Dinah Manoff (her scene is DEVASTATING!) are all top-notch. But it is director Redford and Miss Mary Tyler Moore that stand out here most for me. This is Redford's directorial masterpiece, in my opinion- everything after this was just not as good, in my opinion. I also love All the Presdients Men which he produced and basically codirected with Pakula...Redford brings to bear everything he knows as an actor to bring out these subtle somber performances.

    And Mary! She was so damned brave because she is playing what turns out to be a soulless ice cold dragon lady; you feel for her at first but then you recoil at the way she withdraws completely from her son and husband. Moore goes for it and nails it--she should have won the Oscar.

    I own this movie but have not seen it for a couple years. Now it's time again, thanks to you, Ken!

    1. Hi Chris
      I (of course) agree with you on all points regarding the excellence of this film. But I also agree that for me, Redford never reached this level of brilliance again as director.
      That's really not as much of a putdown as it sounds. I think a lot of artists are drawn to a work because of something within them. Redford always claimed that Guest's book appealed to him right away and he purchased the rights (I believe) before publication. He clearly connected with it in a way that translated to casting and every aspect of the film.
      I have no idea why he made his later films but whatever he wanted to get off his chest with ORDINARY PEOPLE brought out the best in him. As I stated, I've never found Mary Tyler Moore to be very compelling on the big screen, not Timothy Hutton. This film just seemed like one of those lightning in a bottle situations. I've seen this so many times and I still get a thrill out of the ferocity of Moore's performance. And as much as I love Sissy Spacek, I too think Moore should have won!
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Chris!

  8. Hey Ken,
    One thing that always struck me: Watching MTM as Beth made me think that Mary would have been great in a Nancy Reagan movie bio. Seriously. That whippet thin, perfectly styled and coiffed, uptight, smiling but big eyes looking stressed...
    A random thought from Rico!

    1. Ha! As I've often said, you have a casting director's eye! I too can see her as Nancy Reagan. All these casting suggestions makes me wish someone had asked her at the time if she was inundated with offers of "Beth"-like roles after ORDINARY PEOPLE.
      If so, I'm SO glad she declined. It's nice having this one gem of a role as a one-of-a-kind standout for me. Thanks, Rick!

  9. I read the book "Ordinary People" before I saw the movie but I don't think either had much impact on me at the time. But your review/analysis brought back memories of both that now seem very potent. It's probably because I'm older (I think I read the book in my teens and saw the movie in my early twenties). The struggle of a family to hold it together in the wake of tragedy (and failing) is a far more relevant theme to me now. Like you, Ordinary People reminded me of my own upbringing where difficult issues were simply not discussed, conflicts buried, resentments not addressed and, most importantly, personal weaknesses and flaws were ignored. Luckily for us, no tragedy ever propelled our family unit into a death spin. We just all stumbled along doing the best we can.
    As soon as I saw the title of the film, I thought immediately of my favorite scene, a small one, where Beth takes the broken plate and puts the edges carefully back together, an obvious symbol of what she desires, a life where the breaks won't show through. I was glad to a see a screen capture of that scene. I also remember the devastating ending of the film which I think undermines the notion of Beth as cold and unfeeling...she is obviously devastated at the loss of her perfect world and the loss of a man that I believe she really loves. As you said, truly, a tragic figure. MTM is so good in this. I followed her throughout the rest of her career and saw nearly every series she attempted and many of the movies that she did. In my opinion, she never again reached the comedic heights of the Mary Tyler Moore Show nor the dramatic intensity of Ordinary People.

    1. Hi Ron
      Thanks for such a contemplative take on your personal experience of ORDINARY PEOPLE. Although the film hit me very strongly when I first saw it in my 20s, I too am aware how so much of it feels richer with age.
      Back in 1980 I hadn't yet I lost any family members or even friends to death, so to death so I wasn't quite as aware how sensitively and accurately the personal response to grief is conveyed.
      As a young man I hadn't yet reached that stage where I'd fully started to see my parents a human beings, capable of flaws and ruled somewhat by their own upbringing, so time has increased my appreciation of the film's treatment of Cal and especially Beth.
      If what several friends my own age say is true about their pasts, the occurrence of families actually talking to one another is a relatively recent phenomenon. Traditional roles played a big part in many middle-class homes, so the world of ORDINARY PEOPLE (at least the emotional one) is familiar to a great many of my generation.

      If you haven't seen ORDINARY PEOPLE in a while, your recollection of it comes across as very clear, especially as in regards to the plate scene and the power of the ending.
      I wonder how many people who normally balk at false "Hollywood" happy endings were surprised and/or disappointed that Beth's breakdown didn't result in an 11th hour family reconciliation. I recall my sister telling me that she didn't anticipate ORDINARY PEOPLE ending in such a heartbreaking way.

      I know it's a matter of taste, but I, too, never felt Mary Tyler Moore ever matched her work on The MTM Show or in this film. She so often ventured into musical comedy (with her ill-fated BREAKFAST AT TIFFANYS Broadway flop, her variety show(s) and that mind-bending TV special "Mary's Incredible Dream") I wonder why the public never responded to her as a singing-dancing star. Happily, she broke through the Mary Richards typecasting with her remarkable work in this.
      Thank you for reading my post and contributing to this comments thread, Ron. Very nice observations.

  10. I've always wondered what the actors division of the Academy disliked about Donald Sutherland that he could have such a long and distinguished career without ever being Oscar nominated. I'm not one for talking about 'snubs' but certainly the actors were sending Sutherland a message when they nominated everyone around him in this picture.
    Although you are right in believing Mary Tyler Moore is the dramatic engine of the movie, she received superb support from Sutherland.
    Happily, the Academy finally broke down and gave the man an honorary statuette last year.
    (A similar Academy mystery surrounds Mia Farrow.)

    1. Hi Joe
      That's an interesting question I've never heard posed in such a way. Given his body of work and the generally good reception his performances have received, it IS puzzling how he was so consistently overlooked. I guess it's unseemly if an actor voices that question themselves, but I've often wondered if it ever bothered him, or was he one of those who never paid much attention to awards.
      In any event, I too am glad he finally got his Academy recognition. And Mia she retired? (I still wish they'd give one to Doris Day before it's too late.)

  11. Dear Ken: Hi!

    Sorry I've been away--I've been dealing with a health situation for a number of months. But I've been reading your blog all along. :)

    Like a number of other commenters here, I too was in high school when I first saw "Ordinary People." I missed it in the theatres but caught it the next year on HBO. I actually haven't seen it since then, but I was amazed when reading your post how many of the scenes and lines of dialogue came back to me, fresh. One scene I remember that hasn't been mentioned yet was a fight between Conrad and his parents in which he uses the profanity he has gotten used to using in his therapy sessions. I still remember Beth's response: "We don't use language like that in this house." So wrong-headed and completely missing the point, but so obviously coming from a place of needing to preserve a sense of order, decorum and structure.

    Ironically enough, only about a year after I saw the movie some of the events were duplicated in our own family. My younger brother died unexpectedly and our family responded with shock and a fierce need, each in our own way, to "get back to normal" without really talking about what had happened. In the end, we made it through OK, but I can relate to the Jarrett family. I also think I probably would not be able to sit through "People" today because it now strikes so close to home.

    Like you and many of the commenters, I too also was drawn to the film primarily because of my admiration and affection for Mary Tyler Moore. I just finished re-watching seasons three through five of "The MTM Show" (the seasons I consider best) and was reminded what a superb comic actress Moore was--not a natural clown like Carol Burnett, who spontaneously can make anything funny. But instead, someone who can bring an amusing slant to real, everyday situations and still be believable.

    I also read Moore's autobiography a few years ago and found it a painful but in the end hopeful experience. Her life reminds me of so many of the clients I have worked with in therapy: cold and hyper-critical father (who probably didn't want children in the first place), alcoholic and emotionally "checked out" mother; being molested by a family friend in childhood; struggles with substance use (I thought Moore was incredibly frank about her struggles with alcohol), etc. I came to see that there is a lot of Moore in Beth Jarrett, too, particularly the thick shell around the emotions and the need to act as though everything is under control. But Moore wrote movingly about her ability to work through those tendencies and instead be able to accept the messiness and unpredictability of life. In the end, I was inspired by her.

    Since Doris Day got mentioned a few times in the comments, I was seeing if I could picture Doris playing Beth Jarrett. And in the end, I couldn't. Even when Doris played an unsympathetic role in "Love Me or Leave Me" (I agree with you it's her finest performance), she still retained her natural warmth and charm and made you root for Ruth Etting, no matter what unscrupulous things she did. I don't know if Doris would have felt comfortable playing someone as cold and emotionally "shut down" as Beth Jarrett.

  12. Hi David
    It's wonderful to hear from you, of course, although I'm sorry to hear of the health situation. I hope all is well.
    So many people have seen this film in high school , it makes me wonder how I would have responded to it were I a mere youngster at the time.
    It seems t me there is something about the topic, circumstances, or universal feelings of adolescents that finds a connection with people from all manner of diverse backgrounds.
    Your mentioning of the argument in which Conrad swears and Beth chides him for using that kind of language in the house. Although I was the "fixer" in my family and thus never had any confrontations, sometimes my older sisters would get into it with my mom, and no matter what the subject, if one of my siblings swore, THAT would be what my mom would comment upon, totally ignoring the issues that precipitated the outburt in the first place.
    I love that you remembered that scene AND Moore's line after not having seen the film in so many years.

    I'm incredibly sorry to hear that the loss of a family member is one of the ways in which this film struck a real-life chord. No family can be prepared for such a thing. I can't imagine how one manages to share grief like that when one is so young.
    As I stated, talking wasn't big in our home either until most of us were pretty grown.

    Your comments on MTM and especially what you gleaned from her memoirs are very intuitive. I too admire how she was able to deal so frankly with the difficult aspects of her life and personality. I think what I learned about her from that book informed my appreciation of her performance even more.
    I agree with you about Doris Day. She has for me a believably tough side, but as talented as she is, I think a character like Beth would be outside her wheelhouse, so to speak. Redford's casting of Moore was really spot on. He certainly saw something there I would never have anticipated.

    Thank you for continuing to check out my blog. I hope you know you never have to feel like I expect you to comment. I'll simply just flatter myself and imagine you are out there reading it from time to time. Hope you and yours are happy and well. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, David. Always a pleasure!

  13. David, I'm sorry for your loss. I guess I like Doris Day as much as the next guy (as kids my sisters and I were obsessed with Please Don't Feed the Daises and "cokee-cola" and Calamity Jane was fun. I loved her autobiography) but no no a thousand times no. I haven't seen this movie since it came out either and I enjoyed revisiting it here. That was the yummiest looking french toast I have ever seen and Donald Sutherland telling his wife he didn't love her anymore was so powerful. I'm glad he finally got a much deserved Oscar and always wondered why he was ignored by the academy for everything he ever did. My conclusion had something to do with him being Canadian, a Vietnam war protester and a pot head.

    1. Hi Loulou
      I share your appetite attraction to that piece of french toast Beth shoves down the garbage disposal. it looked delicious! Also (when you see a movie many times, your mind wanders to weird places),I've also envied her having a garbage disposal that could actually handle such a hunk of bread. Mine malfunctions with an apple peel slice.
      I must say (apropos of your mentioning the scene where Sutherland speaks to Moore) I'm fascinated by what people remember from a movie they haven't seen in years. There are films I come across and I know I've seen them already, but I can't remember a single frame. Then there are those who have isolated scenes or bits of dialogue that have never left my memory.
      Yes, the consensus seems to be that Doris Day is marvelously versatile and talented, but whatever it is the character of Beth requires from an actress, Day doesn't have it.
      Lastly, I don't know if you're joking or not, but I honestly think you've nailed the reason (if not THE reason, certainly contributing factors) why it seemed the Academy went out of its way to ignore the fine film work of Donald Sutherland. Although seeing them listed like that, they look like the most delightful character traits.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

    2. Dear Lou Lou and Ken: Hi! I'm guessing neither of you actually was expecting a response, but I do want to thank you both for your kind words. That means a great deal to me! Best, David

    3. I loved that you checked back! And you're part of the CINEMA DREAMS family that goes waaaaay back! We care.
      My best, Ken

  14. Hi Ken. My name is Pat.
    I was born in 1984 so Ordinary People came out 4 years before I was even born. But I rented it at my local blockbuster because I love Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton and I saw Robert Redford directed it. I thought it HAS to be good! I first saw it in 2004 at the age of 20 which is interesting because that's how old Hutton was in 1980. I've been in therapy for anxiety/sadness and I always love therapy movies/shows so I guess I was attracted to the subject matter. The movie was fantastic! It was classy elegant intelligent complex touching uncomfortable and strangely uplifting at the end. I was blown away and wish I had been born when Hutton had so I could have seen it in theaters. I'm lucky I grew up in a loving supportive family and had a happy childhood until around 17 when a girl I liked rejected me and sent me into a depression. We were not poor but we certainly weren't as "privileged" and "comfortable" as the Jarrett family was. We were happy suburban "gettin' by" middle class. But anyway what I'm getting at is I didn't realize how dysfunctional my own family is (and every family is)until I was in my late teens. Maybe my Mom protected me from it or maybe I was just innocent in some way and focused on my own life/school etc. But I've learned that depression runs in both sides of my family as does alcoholism (which is why I've always been scared of alcohol and drugs) and I noticed similarities in my own family that are similar to the Jarrett's. It's the opposite with my family. My Mom is the strong one. She can deal with things head on and knew from an early age that life is not perfect, it's messy and sometimes painful but the HEALTHY way to deal with it is by talking. My Dad was never abusive and he shows affection and loves his family but for some reason he just can't talk about his feelings. His painful or insecure feelings anyway. Maybe he talks to my Mom privately about them but he never talks to me about them. So my Dad reminds me of Beth in some ways. He's not strong like my Mom is and can't handle grief or mess like Cal says to Beth. But by me going to therapy since 2016 I've learned that I wanna be like my Mom when life is sad or difficult and I wanna talk about difficult or even unpleasant things out in the open. I don't wanna end up like my Dad and keep it all bottled up. My Dad is overweight and self medicates by eating too much. I'm just glad he never became an alcoholic. A lot of kids have Dad's that smack 'em around or worse when they're drunk. But anyway this film touched something in me deeply. My personal favorite performance in the movie is Judd Hirsch. He's just phenomenal as Dr. Berger. It pissed me off during the "plate" scene that Beth's mother had a problem/prejudice with Berger being Jewish. I can't stand WASPY people like that who don't like to "mix" with "others" pisses me off. Even though the ending is not 100% happy, it made me SO happy that Conrad had a breakthrough with Berger and that he hugged him tightly for several seconds and that he and Calvin hugged tightly cried and healed even though Beth left. Brilliant movie. I'm so glad I stumbled upon this blog. You can tell you're passionate about films and this is a great one to explore and watch again and again. Cheers! Pat

    1. Hello, Pat
      Thank you for such an engagingly personal, heartfelt, and beautifully-written commentary on the film and how its themes reverberate in significance for you in your life.

      I would imagine that Robert Redford received (and, I'd wager, still receives) many letters like yours since the film was made. ORDINARY PEOPLE speaks to things so universal and human (family, intimacy, grief) and confronts our culture of "image projection"...the need to keep up the pretense that all is well rather than talk to one another honestly.
      I agree with you that the film is ultimately very uplifting, and for the reasons you cite. It reinforces what I believe: confronting the truth may be painful, but it is ultimately liberating, and through it one can learn to forgive, access love, and bring about acceptance. Of other and ourselves.

      The non self-pitying, clear-eyed tone of your comment indicates to me that you have learned a great deal in your therapy sessions, and that you adult understanding of the humanity of your parents (their strengths and weaknesses) is a way of being at peace with yourself.
      I applaud your efforts and say I was thoroughly touched by the way you integrated your thoughts about the significance of this film with the particulars of your life. Thank you very much for sharing your comments here. I can't imagine a nicer or more sincere teastament to one of my favorite films.
      Thank you, Pat!

  15. Have you ever seen the tv show "In Treatment" with Irish actor Gabriel Byrne? It's fantastic! If you like psychiatry/therapy "doctor/patient" tv shows/movies you'll love "In Treatment" If you see it you'll WISH you had Dr. Paul Weston and Dr. Berger to see once a week! Too bad they're actors and don't exist in real life! haha! "I'm afraid our time's up. See ya next week..." :)

    1. I was a HUGE fan of "In Treatment"! In fact, one of the many shocks of seeing the horror film HEREDITARY was seeing Gabriel Byrne cast as the father of the same actor who played his son in that marvelous series.
      It was one of the first of the cable series that, to me, kicked off the "Golden Age" of television writing and production. Such a well-written, superbly-acted, adult and mature series. I was sorry to see it end, as it was seriously binge-worthy. And what a cast!
      Glad to hear it was a favorite of yours, as well.