Ordinary People (1980) (R)
In modern day eyes, this is the film that shouldn't have won. In awards show history—this is a Best Picture winner. I would argue that most people haven't seen this movie, though they claim that it is a lesser film because of the company it keeps.
"Raging Bull" never won Best Picture, in my opinion, it shouldn't have won; but that's a different topic. Instead, Scorsese's tour de force got knocked out of contention for a relational drama—psaw! Who wants to see that?
It's interesting to note that "Ordinary People" gained Robert Redford his only Oscar, one for directing and it is rightly deserved as is the Best Picture grab itself.
What films have tried to do in the past was rid themselves of the stereotypical "nice family" routine. We even get this is movies like "My Fair Lady" where the protagonist has no mother and a father that mooches her for money. Then there's pictures like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and those destroy the notion of a normal family, replacing it with out of touch, insane characters. Does it make easy watching? You bethcha. Is it truthful? Not a chance.
So when "Ordinary People" comes along, it shows up a breathtaking and huge shift in the cinematic views towards family. Is it this film alone that gives us this shift? No, but it is one of the key movies.
Like its title states, the film is about an average family. There's a mother, a father, and a son...that's all. For a movie that feels as widely encompassing as the topic of family strife, the film only has five main characters.
Opening to a nice house in a wintery suburban neighborhood, we get the feeling of structure. There is a house, there is music, there is a boy...these are things we can grasp with. But immediately, the structure starts to fall apart as Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is jolted from his sleep by a dream. He sits upright in bed, sweaty and unnerved. Then his parents come home from a play they were at and Conrad's father (Donald Sutherland) pokes his head in the room.
This is all very normal, family-like conversations that are happening; but there's something else here. Conrad, or Con, seems a little socially awkward. When his friends pick him up for school he starts having a panic attack when a train rushes by. He doesn't seem to care anymore, operating on a autopilot mode.
When the bomb is dropped—Con's brother died in a boating accident and then Con tried to kill himself—we are well into the movie. Remember, these are just ordinary people.
Now it becomes a movie about survival. The structure that is built prior the movie, crumbles swiftly. There is going to have to be some rearranging. But rearranging is impossible for people who don't want to try.
Con's mother (Mary Tyler Moore) may seem like the antagonist of the movie, cold and uncaring. She does odd things like quickly take food away and shove it down the garbage disposal or say certain sentences that sound uncaring. Something's got to change.
Wishing himself more in control, Con reaches out to a psychiatrist named Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). Berger is the man that we all wished that we knew when we were going through rough patches. His tough love and quick analysis make him a great personality on screen and an even stronger presence off screen.
To be perfectly honest, it may feel like not much happens in "Ordinary People" besides the character development. Indeed, there's not a whole lot of plot twisting that is contained within the picture. But what the movie does, so effortlessly well, is present to the audience an imperfect family, one that may or may not get a happy ending.
The situations that arise between mother and son, son and father, father and mother all feel completely genuine. It's as if someone studied a 'typical' family and their problems and then made a movie about it. We can't all empathize with the family, we all don't have to have gone through what they did to understand their pain.
"Ordinary People" is a masterpiece in film making. It's a deeply moving and highly perceptive piece that goes unloved too often.
Instead of quibbling over "Raging Bull", I suggest you watch this movie in awe of the aching beauty Redford instills in it. He evokes the best performances from his cast, the most notable being Donal Sutherland's confused and emotional turn.
The film is about life, about love, and about family; and you may not like what it says about all three, but what it does say is true and that makes the film great.
Life isn't always pleasant, but it is life.
"Ordinary People" helped change the way we view families in film, It's this kind of film that would continue into works later like Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" and to a certain extent "American Beauty". Not only that, but it stands as the quintessential film dealing with inter-relational instances and one of the best dramas to come out of the 80s, to come from cinema.
Posted by Micah Jones