Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ordinary People (1980)

Director: Robert Redford                                  Writers: Alvin Sargent & Nancy Dowd
Music Adaptor: Marvin Hamlish                       Cinematography: John Bailey
Starring: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Jud Hirsch

The late seventies produced a number of intense family dramas like Kramer vs. Kramer, the previous year’s best picture winner. Ordinary People was the first film directed by Robert Redford and it went on to win the best picture Oscar that year as well as a best director statuette for Redford. The story was based on the novel by Judith Guest, and Redford purchased the rights to it before publication specifically to make his directorial debut. The actor-director had already set up his Sundance Film Institute in Utah earlier in 1980 and it was a time of transition for him, as he was becoming increasingly disenchanted with simply being a movie star. Both Sundance and the legitimacy of his Oscar win for directing the picture solidified his newfound reputation as a legitimate supporter of independent films and directors. Because pictures like Raging Bull and The Elephant Man lost out to Redford’s movie, it has created a critical backlash against the film as being undeserving of the Oscar for that year. Plus there is the fact that the film focuses on people who are well off financially, and that it doesn’t create a lot of sympathy for the viewer. But Redford was very purposeful about exploring the idea that money does not create a bulwark against tragedy, and that people of any socio-economic strata can suffer. As a result, the film continues to retain a strong popularity with modern viewers.

As the title indicates, the opening of the film is about a regular family. But clearly there is an undercurrent of trauma running through it. Timothy Hutton wakes up in a sweat while his parents are gone. Father Donald Sutherland checks on him when they get back and is obviously worried, while the next morning at breakfast mother Mary Tyler Moore whisks away his favorite breakfast when he says he isn’t hungry and runs it through the garbage disposal. At the same time his father is attempting to smooth things over, his mother is being passive aggressive. Hutton is a year behind in school and still having nightmares about a boating accident, and so he’s compelled to call psychiatrist Jud Hirsch for help. During their first conversation the audience learns that Hutton’s brother died during the accident, and that Hutton tried to commit suicide afterward. The line the plot hinges on is when Hutton tells Hirsch that he misses the psychiatric ward at the hospital because nothing was hidden there. Moore and Sutherland are upper middle class, well dressed, and living in a big house. At home Moore wants to pretend that nothing happened, and especially when she’s out in public, and berates Sutherland for telling one of their friends that Hutton is seeing a psychiatrist. When Hutton falls for a girl at school, Elizabeth McGovern, he begins to feel normal, but then he goes back home and he knows that his mother blames him for the death of his brother.

It’s a heartbreaking story, especially where Mary Tyler Moore is concerned. She is cold and heartless and can’t even begin to try to untangle her feelings about anything, Hutton, Sutherland, or her dead son. It’s to the credit of the screenwriters that they left the ending in tact and didn’t try to put a happy spin on it. Alvin Sargent won an Academy Award for his adaptation of the novel. The real merit behind Redford’s work, however, begins with the casting. Donald Sutherland hadn’t yet edged into is villainous period, but still played characters who were either crazed or in command. The weak-willed husband in this story was definitely going against type and works well because it is so unexpected. But greater than that was the disparity between Mary Tyler Moore’s television work and the tightly-wound suburban housewife she plays here. Redford stripped her of all her TV mannerisms and it worked brilliantly. Jud Hirsch was also a bold move as the psychiatrist, as he was another actor known for his TV work at the time, and he did well. Elizabeth McGovern was still attending Julliard, and while she has an arresting onscreen image, her performance feels a little forced. Timothy Hutton, in his first feature film role--and whose father died just the year before--is clearly the focal point of the film, and his performance earned him an Oscar.

There are a couple of associations that the film brings to mind. The first deals with survivor guilt in coloring the relationship of Hutton and Moore. This would be expanded on to include the father in Stephen King’s novella, The Body, itself made into the film Stand By Me. In that story the protagonist imagines that both his parents wish he had died instead of his older brother. The second association is with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Oscar-winning screenplay for their film Good Will Hunting. In that film there is an intense relationship between a young boy and a psychiatrist that takes much the same story arc. And while the Affleck-Damon script makes for better drama, it’s not nearly as realistic as the relationship presented in Redford’s film. The final aspect of the film that is worth noting is the film score by Marvin Hamlish. Instead of new compositions, a decision was made to orchestrate Baroque pieces to underscore the action. Hamlish had done something similar in an earlier Redford film, adapting ragtime music for The Sting. It’s a nice effect here, even extending to the diegetic music that’s heard from Hirsch’s stereo. In many ways the story seems pedestrian today, but Ordinary People does contain some very good performances, and the subdued nature of Redford’s nascent directorial style establishes the perfect mood in which to frame them. Is it the best picture of 1980? Probably not, but it’s not the first time it’s happened and it certainly won’t be the last.

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