Forty years ago, this September, when I was a teenaged movie critic for “Kidding Around” on KOLN/KGIN-TV in Lincoln, Nebraska, the movie “Ordinary People” was one of the first movies I reviewed on television — and the experience of that film has stuck with me to this day. I recently re-watched the movie out of an aging curiosity, and residual melancholia, and I am still struck by the raw emotion of its story of human longing and tragedy that is always just boiling below the surfactant tension of an intrinsic “ordinary” family clinging to exceptional issues of survival.
In 1980, I was reviewing movies on television, writing movies and novels, and finishing up high school. “Ordinary People” was big news back then because it was the directorial film debut of Robert Redford. Anticipation was high, and Redford did not disappoint!
I am loathe to say in 1980 that I “loved” the movie, and that I thought it was “fantastic” — because I did, and it was, and “Ordinary People” deserves all that and more, but the topic of the movie is still serious, and gruesome, and lonely, and today, the elder me is more recalcitrant in my effusive analysis, and so I’ll now just amend my youthful effervescence with an “compulsively effective” evaluation as my final totem of appreciation.
“Ordinary People” is a simple story told with a hidden, sharp, edge. The movie takes its time unwinding the drama. We meet a family. Their life appears to be perfect and uncomplicated.
Then, the reality of a shared history begins to bubble up in uncomfortable places, creating an overflow of blood, and grief, that cannot be managed alone. We watch the slow dissolution of a family torn apart by the drowning of one son, only to have the surviving son attempt suicide-by-guilt-of-conscience.
“Ordinary People” isn’t a telling of redemption or anger — it is the sad, but lovelorn, tale of responsibility and ownership. There is no escape from the harbinger of merely living a human life. There is no navigable path forward from pitch of night to crispy dawn.
In the early 1990’s, the fine actor Tony Randall once told me on a New York City street corner, “When every single actor in a production is outstanding, that’s not the mark of good acting, it’s the imprint of an excellent director.” Redford made his “Ordinary People” casting work right. He reformed the image of Mary Tyler Moore from beloved pixie charmer to destructive mother monster.
Redford also gave Donald Sutherland a regular role that required a repression of his quirkiness. Oh, and if you want an authentic taste of Sutherland’s unique acting style, take a curled eyeful of “Don’t Look Back” — a 1973 Nicholas Roeg madhouse of a horror movie — it will boink your goink!
Back to Redford’s casting marvel. He gave Tim Hutton a big break. Redford hired Judd Hirsch to show his achievable brilliance beyond the television “Taxi” residual. Redford also helped us discover Elizabeth McGovern, on the silver screen, for the first time.
Robert Redford also created an amazing supporting cast. M. Emmet Walsh, Dinah Manoff, James B. Sikking, Basil Hoffman, and Adam Baldwin are just the start of the excellence in performance. Every single actor in “Ordinary People” is remarkable, and that doesn’t happen by chance or circumstance, it happens only when a director takes complete and total control over the vision of a movie. Marvin Hamlisch wrote the soundtrack.
“Ordinary People” won four Academy awards, including Best Picture.
Supporting Actor: Timothy Hutton
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay Adaptation: Alvin Sargent
The competition for Best Picture in 1981 was tight: “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “The Elephant Man” and “Raging Bull” and “Tess” were all nominated. Redford’s directorial debut vanquished a lot of other memorable movies that have also stood up well over time.
Tim Hutton’s Oscar win was absolutely deserved — but I sometimes have a hard time understanding how the Academy decides the nominations. Tim Hutton won for Best Supporting Actor? How could that be so when Tim carried the entire movie? “Ordinary People” is all about the stunning work from Tim Hutton!
The fact that Donald Sutherland was snubbed by the Academy speaks volumes about the Oscars and nothing about great talent.
Donald Sutherland’s performance in “Ordinary People” is one of his absolute best, and he’s been working as an actor since 1962. In fact, Donald Sutherland is the stoic soft center of “Ordinary People.” His resigned terror in the roadmap vivisection of his perfect family is the tension that bends the entire dramatic arc of the film toward injustice.
“Ordinary People” has held up well over the last 40 years, but I was disappointed in the quality of the streaming movie. I expected a higher quality transfer for such an important movie in the careers of so many talented people.
As well, I realized in my subsequent viewing four decades later that I still must negotiate that uneasy, sinking, feeling watching Mary Tyler Moore unravel on screen.
I recall 40 years ago saying to myself in the darkened theatre, “Nobody is that good an actor” as the horror of realizing Mary’s coldness and cruelty on screen had to be a real part of her somewhere; and today, looking back at the me I was then in my first viewing of “Ordinary People” — and who I am today in my second re-viewing of “Ordinary People” — I have come to accept, and understand, that some people are just broken in many hidden, and not-so-obvious ways, and that sometimes their last chance at living is an escape from the falsity of their every, preening, breath.