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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #53: Ordinary People (1980)

This post was contributed by Robert Fleitz, author of several blogs including His Eyes Were Watching Movies. Head on over and check it out!

Director: Robert Redford
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton

1980 Best Picture winner Ordinary People has the misfortune of being one of those movies that has a bad reputation because it bested what is now considered a superior classic at the Academy Awards (since it beat Martin Scorsese’s adored film Raging Bull for Best Picture and Best Director, and others). Of course, based on the subject matter of the film, this outcome shouldn’t have been very surprising. At face value, the film seems like perfect Academy bait: a family dealing with grief over the death of their son. However, though the film may suffer from some unfortunate preconceptions, it is truly a fantastic, unique and poignant study of grief and familial relationships.

Husband and wife Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), along with their son Conrad (Timothy Hutton) make up the family in question. After the death of their older son, Buck, in a sailing accident, each of the family members reacts to the tragedy in their own way. Calvin tries to cheerfully carry on, Beth becomes bitter and distant, and the guilt-ridden Conrad becomes depressed, eventually attempting suicide. At the beginning of the film, we meet the family some time after the accident, in which they are all trying to live their respective ordinary lives. However, things aren’t completely right as Beth and Calvin begin to experience tension and Conrad decides to go see a doctor, played by Judd Hirsch.

It’s a bit difficult to go into greater detail regarding the plot, as the film mainly chronicles each family member’s attempts at dealing with their long-held grief. In fact, the film’s structure is quite effective in that it basically shows regular days-in-the-life of the characters, with an added tone of underlying sorrow that painfully permeates the entire film. Unlike many grief-centered films, this one does not rely on histrionic monologues to develop its characters. Instead, director Robert Redford allows the quiet script and the brilliant performances to speak for themselves, creating a lived in and real feeling that ultimately affects the viewer in a profound way. This also makes the few intense and passionate scenes much more effective.

As to be expected in a movie like this, it’s the performances that really shine. Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for his role, and he totally deserved it – he completely inhabits Conrad’s pain, guilt, and sorrow, but also stays away from being a miserable sad-sack, instead letting Conrad’s moments of happiness shine through like a memory of the past that makes his current sadness much more painful to witness. Mary Tyler Moore doesn’t have much screentime but she does surprisingly fantastic work as the bitter and distant Beth. Being a “bitter, emotionally removed” character has become a bit of a cliché over the years but Moore made it new and never overdoes it or alienates the viewer. Her complex characterization is so rewarding.

However, there is a reason that Ordinary People hasn’t quite stood the test of time that some of its contemporaries has – it’s by no means a perfect film. Though the screenplay’s passive structure and gradual emotional development is what gives the film a lot of its strength, it isn’t always executed in a way that is completely absorbing for the viewer. Far too often the film loses its emotional steam (and thus, the attention of the people watching it). Admittedly, it often gets this steam back quickly, but for a two hour film, it feels a bit longer.

All in all though, Ordinary People is a well-crafted and emotionally resonant film that gets an unfortunate shaft due to its Oscar prospects. It’s interesting how winning Best Picture can be both a blessing and a curse. However, if its win cursed it with unfair perceptions of its quality, it also blessed it with audiences who will rediscover it for years to come.

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