Embracing the Melodrama #32: Ordinary People (dir by Robert Redford)


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For the past seven days, I’ve been reviewing — in chronological order — fifty of the most memorable melodramas ever filmed.  We started with a silent film from 1916 and now, we have reached the 80s.  What better way to kick off the decade than by taking a look at the 1980 Best Picture winner, Ordinary People?

Directed by Robert Redford, Ordinary People tells the story of the upper middle class Jarrett family.  On the surface, the Jarretts appear to be the perfect family.  Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland) has a successful career.  Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) keeps a perfect home and appears to be the ideal suburban matriarch.  However, one summer, their oldest son drowns in a sailing accident and their youngest son, sensitive Conrad (Timothy Hutton), attempts to commit suicide.  After spending four months in a psychiatric hospital, Conrad come back home and the family struggles to put their lives back together.  Even though he starts to see a therapist (Judd Hirsch) and starts dating his classmate Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), Conrad still struggles with his feelings of guilt over having survived.  Beth’s struggle to maintain a facade of normalcy leads to several fights between her and Conrad with Calvin trapped in the middle.

Among my fellow film bloggers, there’s always going to be a very vocal group that is going to hate Ordinary People because it won the Oscar for best picture over challenging black-and-white films directed by Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) and David Lynch (The Elephant Man).  They always tend to complain that Ordinary People is a conventional film that tells a conventional story and that it was directed by a very conventional director.  More than once, I’ve seen an online film critic refer to Ordinary People as being a “big budget Lifetime movie.”

Well, you know what?

I love Lifetime.  Lifetime is the best network on television and to me, a big budget Lifetime movie would be the best Lifetime movie of all.  And, at the risk of alienating all of my film-loving friends, if I had to choose between watching Raging Bull and Ordinary People, I’m going to pick Ordinary People every time.  Raging Bull is visually stunning and features great performances but it’s also two hours spent watching an incredibly unlikable human being beating the crap out of anyone who is foolish enough to love him.  Ordinary People may essentially look like a TV show but it’s also about characters that you can understand and that, as the film progresses, you grow to truly care about.

Yes, I do wish that the character of Beth had been given more of a chance to talk about her feelings and it’s hard not to feel that Ordinary People places too much blame on the mother.  But, even so, the film still ends with vague — if unlikely — hope that Beth will eventually be able to move past her anger and reconnect with her family.  The film may be hard on Beth but it never gives up on her.  That’s what distinguishes Ordinary People for me.  In many ways, it’s a very sad film.  It’s a film that was specifically designed to make you cry and I certainly shed a few tears while I watched it.  But, even with its somewhat ambiguous ending, Ordinary People is also a very optimistic movie.  It’s a movie that says that, as much pain as we may have in our life,we can recover and life can go on and it’s okay to be sad and its also okay to be happy.

And that’s an important lesson to learn.

(That said, if I had been alive and an Academy voter in 1981, I would have voted for The Elephant Man.)

And, for all you Oscar lovers out there, here are clips of Timothy Hutton and Robert Redford winning Oscars for their work on Ordinary People.