Friday, October 17, 2014

Ordinary People (Best Picture 1980)

Ordinary People is an extra-ordinary film. Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Tim Hutton appear to be an “ordinary” Eastern Coast family. Good money, good home, good family. However, their eldest son has recently died in a boating accident, and younger son Hutton has attempted to kill himself. Now mother, father, and surviving son are walking on eggshells around each other. Hutton wakes up in the middle of the night because of nightmares about his brother’s death (they were together in the boat when his brother drowned) Although he fights against going because he has been raised to be private and keep problems to himself, he ends up deciding to see a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) because he knows he is falling apart. “I want to be more in control,” he repeats to his doctor. Agonizingly slowly we get bits and pieces about what is bothering this family….quick enough not to lose our interest in the overall story, but slow enough so that we feel the pain and the anxiety and the frustration that is bothering them.

Moore is absolutely chilling, cast against type. We want to see her as one of her TV characters, perky and fun and loving. However, here she portrays a woman who is emotionally shut-down because her son has died. When Hutton starts talking about wanting a dog, and how his brother always wanted a dog, too, she shuts down. When Sutherland talks to her about vacationing as a family, she shuts down. There is a painful scene where Sutherland is trying to get a photo of her and Hutton, but she doesn’t want to have it taken, and Hutton ends up yelling, “Give her the damn camera!” The most painful thing about these scenes is that they are communicating perfectly fine until the dead son is brought up, and then you can almost see the shutters come down. They are at cross purposes during the entire film, mis-communicating every time. 

Hirsch, too, is wonderful as the “voice of the audience,” asking the questions that we want to ask, allowing Hutton and Sutherland to bring into focus the tones and moods we are feeling from the bits and pieces we are getting shown. As for Sutherland, he has the most thankless role: he has to maneuver between loving husband and loving father, and also grieving father. For the majority of the film he is a cypher, trying to hold on to his wife and son just by sheer force of love, hoping that will be enough.  
Obviously, I am trying hard not to spoil the film by talking about it in too much detail. Suffice it to say that this perfectly “ordinary” family is broken, and by the time the film ends it has started taking steps to fix itself.
Timothy Hutton won Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this, but he is really the star of the film. He is amazing in his portrayal of a boy who loved his brother very much, and loves his parents, but doesn’t know what to do about his feelings of “survival guilt.” In the last half hour, he learns that his friend from the hospital (a terrific Dinah Manoff) has killed herself, and this so upsets him that the “loses it” with Hirsch and we finally find out exactly what has been bothering him. There is one scene where he has such a frantic look on his face when he fills a sink full of water and the camera lingers on his slashed wrist scars that I was deftly afraid that he was going to kill himself, too. Instead, he explodes outward, and Hirsh is able to bring him back to Earth. I’m tearing up just writing this.(I freely admit that I am a sucker for scenes where men cry. If I am emotionally invested in the scene at all, I’m going to start crying, too. This is a powerful, powerful scene between these two great actors, and in the vernacular “it’s worth the price of admission.”) The follow-up between the two parents is heart-wrenching as well. Finally, we get the feeling that Hutton might be okay, after all.
This was a difficult film for me to watch, and not just because of the subject matter. Mary Tyler Moore reminded me of my own mother in several scenes; her sense of disdain at “what people think” and “the proper thing to do” reminded me of her attitudes. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was not the emotionally wrecked woman that Moore’s character is. However, I always did get the impression that she loved my older brother more than she loved me, and that my father often was in a similar position as Donald Sutherland here, “why can’t we all just get along?” I had not thought about my high school years in these terms in quite a long time. After all, I went away to college and had a successful and happy life. However….seeing that look on Moore’s face as she seemed to be comparing her sons….that brought me back, and not in a good way. This is an absolutely wonderful, powerful drama and I thoroughly recommend it. However, if you have any sibling rivalry issues you might get more of a jolt from it than you might anticipate. 
Robert Redford won Best Director for this film, which caused some minor controversy at the time because it was his directorial debut. However, from the initial scenes establishing the beautiful east coast environment to the mixing of the nightmare flashbacks with reality, the story flowed. At the end when Hutton explodes, the scenes are handled very, very well. 
Ordinary People
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1980*
Produced by Ronald L. Schwary
Directed  by Robert Redford
Screenplay by Alvin Sargent
Based on the book by Judith Guest
Yeah, watching this trailer....sigh. 
I don't think I'll watch this movie ever again. 

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Coal Miner's Daughter
The Elephant Man
Raging Bull
I watched Coal Miner's Daughter a few years ago when I was on a Loretta Lynn thing. Sissy Spacek won Best Actress for her portrayal. I saw The Elephant Man several years ago and if you have not seen this, you should. John Hurt is awesome as the man with the terrible, disfiguring skin disease in  turn of the century London. Robert DeNiro won Best Actor in Raging Bull. I tried to watch this film, but I only got about an hour in before I gave up. Lots of angry, mean people. Tess was directed by Roman Polanski as a suggestion from his murdered wife, but after half an hour of it I couldn't take that, either. So I guess the best film won. 

No comments:

Post a Comment