Ordinary People (1980)
Reviewed by Paul Cogley
Subtle and profound, Ordinary People is a movie about a family in the aftermath of a calamity.
Before we know what has happened to this family, we see them carrying on as if nothing in life is out of the ordinary. When the teenage boy Conrad talks to his doctor, he says “I want to be more in control so people stop worrying about me.”
“Well, I’m not big on control,” the doctor replies.
The next scene is at Conrad’s home. We linger a moment at a row of rolled linen napkins in gleaming silver napkin holders, tended to by his mother. “Isn’t it time we get back to normal?” she asks her husband.
As I watched, I was drawn to the idea that the inner turmoil beneath the surface of this family was strongly referenced in these two simple scenes. As the story moved along, I increasingly saw that each relationship in the family was different in its own way, between that of father and son, son and mother, and husband and wife.
At the time of its release, Ordinary People was a big success both at the box office and critically, winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards. Yet it is remarkable to learn just how unlikely it was that Ordinary People came together as a movie project in the way that it did.
A few short years earlier, an ex-teacher without a literary agent sent her first novel to Viking Press. Surprisingly, an editor bought the rights to publish it. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People was the first unsolicited manuscript that the company had bought in 26 years.
A short time later, before the novel was even published, Guest received an unexpected visitor at her suburban Minnesota home. Robert Redford—the ruggedly handsome Hollywood star—had come calling to acquire her novel’s movie rights.
Redford was well regarded as a lead actor at that time, although never nominated for prestigious acting awards - a slight very recently reiterated by the Academy when it did not nominate him for his incredible portrayal of a lone sailor in All Is Lost. In the late 1970s, Redford surely knew he was well suited to play the part of father and husband Calvin Jarrett in Ordinary People, a role that might have given him a shot to deliver an Oscar-level performance. However, for this project Redford focused his intentions on trying his hand as a first-time movie director.
The Calvin role would go to Donald Sutherland, best known then as the original Hawkeye in the movie MASH, at the time a TV hit staring Alan Alda. The other two major adult roles went to a couple of TV sitcom stars. The part of Beth Jarrett went to Mary Tyler Moore, easily the most popular female comedian on TV since Lucille Ball. Judd Hirsch from the sitcom Taxi would play psychiatrist Dr. Berger, a role that in today’s world we would associate as a family or cognitive therapist. The two major teenager roles went to Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern.
It was an unlikely group of creative talent that came together as cast and crew of Ordinary People. Interestingly, the stars’ background work tilted towards lighter fare and comedy, while the underlying storyline theme in this story—in the words of author Judith Guest—was “about the anatomy of depression.”
A major contribution also came from screenwriter Alvin Sargent. His beautiful work won a clean sweep of awards including Academy Award, Golden Globe, and Writers Guild of America awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Hutton won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role as Conrad Jarrett. It was a role so important to the movie that they easily might have given him the award for Best Actor instead.
One more thought: as the story unfolded, I came to believe that viewing the teenage Conrad come to grips with depression would be most powerfully experienced by a teenaged audience. I think teenagers today would still get a lot from this movie. But it’s not only for them; for the rest of us as well, Ordinary People remains one of the great family dramas in film history.