Alvin Sargent (Novel by Judith Guest)
Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton, M. Emmet Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern, Dinah Manoff, Fredric Lehne, James B. Sikking, Basil Hoffman, Scott Doebler, Quinn Redeker, Mariclare Costello
With psychiatry increasingly the punchline of jokes, Ordinary People serves as a success story for the profession and captures an intriguing still life portrait of a perfectly ordinary family turned upside down by a child’s death.
A stellar cast illuminates this poignant drama concerning the effects of one person’s death on well adjusted individuals. Ordinary People examines how the world views normalcy and the impact it can have on the ability of an individual to rationalize their own behavior.
The film’s central character, Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) attempted suicide. Neither he nor his family understand the reason why and it’s up to kindly psychiatrist Dr. Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch) to help him coax his feelings into the open in order to understand why he did it.
Recognized in the lead category, Mary Tyler Moore turns in a stirring portrait of a mother in denial about her son’s death and unable to cope with the world around her. She isolates herself in her neat suburban housewife role, attending luncheons and parties while quietly deteriorating on the inside. It’s the kind of performance that would define an actor whose career wasn’t already driven by such amazing work as in her own Mary Tyler Moore Show. Though her performance is terrific, it lacks the sympathy that a role like that needs in order to be recognized. She never comes to terms with her own feelings and must abandon those around her who do.
Beth never adjusts to her son’s death. She never mourns. She never forgives. We know that she blames Conrad for her other son’s death, but the film never allows us to confirm that detail, marking one of screenwriter Alvin Sargent’s only flaws.
Everyone copes in a different way and the film’s third central character, Conrad’s father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), begins to follow the same path as his wife only to diverge in the end. We learn so much through Sutherland, the only member of the cast not recognized for his work herein, that it’s hard not to empathize with his situation. On one hand, he has a wife denial. On the other, he has a son willing to take the blame. As he searches for the answers, he is ultimately led to consult Dr. Berger himself. When finally able to talk to someone about all of his problems, Calvin finally comprehends the situation and leads him towards his new role as father.
Hutton, however, deserves all of the praise. Even though he’s supported by such amazing thespians, it’s his revelations at the gentle prodding of his doctor that ultimately transform the film. The audience shares in Conrad’s catharsis, feeling every bit of his pain, frustration and isolation. Few performances can generate such an emotional response, but his does.
Although Ordinary People doesn’t seem like it would require much direction. From its traditional pacing and style, that statement would appear true. However, Robert Redford carefully blends those needed elements: character, performance and story. It’s his hand that guides into cohesion and, had all the characters been fully resolved by the film’s conclusion, we might have been watching a masterpiece of subtlety and nuance.
December 12, 2006