Ordinary People (1980)

ordinarypeopleRobert Redford makes an awesome directorial debut with Ordinary People, the adaptation of a best seller written by Minneapolis housewife Judith Guest, and winner of the Best Picture Oscar for 1980.

This is the story of the Jarrett family, an upper-middle-class pillar of Midwestern suburban society.

The Jarretts have got it made: French toast for breakfast, designer sheets, a microwave kitchen, a garage full of cars, and soft sun filtering through shutters on autumn afternoons in rooms from the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.

Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland) is a good provider, a thoughtful husband, and an understanding father who commutes daily to his well-paying job as a tax attorney. Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) is an enviable wife and mother, cool, calmly collected, chic, a fine figure on the golf course and in her own living room.

Conrad (Tim Hutton) is a perfect teenage son – a straight-A high school student, the pride of the swimming team, a “nice” boy who doesn’t take drugs or embarrass anybody.

Then tragedy strikes. An older brother is killed in a boating accident, Conrad assumes a hidden guilt and feels he can’t take his brother’s place in his parents’ eyes, a schism grows between the parents and the boy attempts suicide.

After four months in a mental hospital, he returns to discover a deep silence growing in his once-friendly home.

Redford holds his characters up to the light like X-rays in a research lab and one by one their inner roots are exposed down to the nerves.

Beth’s quirks reveal dark subliminal character traits we didn’t see before. She prepares linen napkins in their holders the night before they’re going to be used so they’ll be ready for the next table setting. She centres vases in the middle of conversations. She fires maids because they don’t dust right . . .

Behind her coolness is an inability to communicate her real feelings.

Calvin is torn between the needs of his son and the growing calcification of his wife until he can’t talk to either of them.

The boy turns first to a girl, who kills herself, then to his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), and learns finally, through the pain of self-discovery and therapy, a vital lesson: You can’t expect more love than a parent has the capacity to give.

Donald Sutherland works out his confusion and guilt by jogging. Mary Tyler Moore works hers out to a point by running away. And Oscar-winner Tim Hutton – in the most demanding and persuasive performance in the film – learns to face his own strengths and flaws by defining himself in his own eyes instead of on other people’s terms.

This is the toughest kind of film because its issues are internal. It doesn’t depend on action, controversy, or even big themes to reach the heart.  It’s a film about feelings and people who don’t know how to communicate them.

Calvin Jarrett
Donald Sutherland
Beth Jarrett
Mary Tyler Moore
Dr. Tyrone Berger
Judd Hirsch
Conrad Jarrett
Timothy Hutton
Swim Coach
M. Emmet Walsh
Jeannine Pratt
Elizabeth McGovern
Karen
Dinah Manoff
Lazenby
Fredric Lehne
Ray
James B. Sikking
Sloan
Basil Hoffman
Ward
Quinn Redeker
Audrey
Mariclare Costello
Grandmother
Meg Mundy
Ruth
Elizabeth Hubbard
Stillman
Adam Baldwin
Grandfather
Richard Whiting
Buck Jarrett
Scott Doebler
Dick Van Buren
Carl Ditomasso
Truan
Tim Clarke
Genthe
Ken Dishner
Gail
Lisa Smyth
Mitzi
Ann Eggert
Bryce
Randall Robbins
Ms. Mellon
Cynthia Baker Johnson
John
John Stimpson
Liz
Liz Kinney
Mack
Steven Hirsch
Ed
Rudy Hornish
Chris
Clarissa Downey
Annie
Cynthia Burke
Linda
Jane Alderman
Dennis
Paul Preston
Gus
Gustave Lachenauer
Sarah
Marilyn Rockafellow
Philip
Don Billett
Joel
Ronald Solomon

Director
Robert Redford