Robert 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, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role) 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. His popular older brother is killed in a boating accident that he survives and Conrad is overwhelmed by guilt and suicidal depression. He feels he can’t take his brother’s place in his parents’ eyes and a schism grows between the parents and the son after he 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 – but 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.
Calvin works out his confusion and guilt by jogging. Beth works hers out to a point by running away. And Conrad 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.
Mary Tyler Moore
Dr Tyrone Berger
M. Emmet Walsh
James B. Sikking
Dick Van Buren
Cynthia Baker Johnson