Cinemalphabet: O is for Ordinary People (1980)
Tragedy sweeps through a well manicured, affluent Illinois suburb – always the catalyst for these sorts of films – which of course threatens the idyllic freeze dried perfection of the Jarretts. A horrific boating accident takes the life of their wildly popular and perfect elder son Buck, instead of Conrad (Timothy Hutton) who clearly is not the favorite, though neither son seemed all that cuddly to me. Fortunately, the film and the book on which it is based, skip over all that – opting for an over reliance on flashbacks – and introduces us to the doomed Jarrett clan about four months after their surviving son Conrad’s – Timothy Hutton in the role that earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod and why he’s even famous in the first place – suicide attempt and subsequent psychiatric hospitalization.
In a genre I’ve termed The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ordinary People™ the titular films – Redford’s Ordinary People and the film adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being , both of which are exceptional films – do not seek to position their stories as universal. In fact, I would argue – after close examination of the source material – the title Ordinary People as applied in this case is irony. Both works, in my opinion, walk the line between resonance and universalization. This isn’t to suggest they are devoid of problematic elements.
There are issues, to be sure, within each film. The stench of class fail permeates Ordinary People; Redford seems to have developed his class framing from mentor Sydney Pollack – who we ALL know I adore – which if you recall I equated to the Skymall in terms of relevance and accessibility. Unbearable is the only way in which to describe the Madonna/whore dichotomy happening in Unbearable Lightness of Being, despite the careful attention paid to its complex exploration. If the fruit is rotten, the skill of the baker is irrelevant. However, as ever the pragmatist in a world of imperfect content, I rejoice in the moments of artistic effectiveness and carefully smack down the problematic elements.
That said, what happens to the characters in these examples – similar to the characters in The Ice Storm, Affliction and In the Bedroom – is happening exclusively to them; the audience is merely allowed a chance to engage in voyeurism. More the point, in the case of Ordinary People the event at the center of the plot could happen to any family; it is the aftermath of the situation that is unique and speaks to class and race privilege, not the event itself. This is a notable distinction as it relates to the genre.
What you need to know about why Ordinary People is a thing, lies in the phenomenal performance of Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett. Without her unflinching performance as a stereotypical cold, harsh, emotionally detached matriarch overly concerned with outward appearances, this film would have been nothing more than a Lifetime Channel caliber family melodrama. Moore in this uncharacteristically nasty role is the glue that holds all these tenuous threads together; a strong, but overshadowed performance by Sutherland, an overacting Judd Hirsch and a too precious for his own good directorial debut of Robert Redford.
Having said all of that. I absolutely love this movie! While I’m not always thrilled with Redford’s artistic vision, which at times gets to be a bit too “Mirror Father Mirror” for my tastes, I do think Ordinary People deserved the Oscar for best picture, though definitely NOT the Oscar for best director. That belonged to Scorsese for the vastly superior directorial work in Raging Bull. Anyway, of this film I once wrote:
1980′s Ordinary People was the first real cinematic love letter I ever received. Sent to me by the same dude (Redford) who I’d read about in all those ’70 YA fiction books and whose films provided protagonists of such books with examples of romance to cultivate and heartbreak to avoid. It is the kind of love letter you only receive at a mail box safely secured to sidewalk in a gated community, where pathos is something you have to see in a theater, because the home owner’s association expressly forbids its presence in your comfortable upper middle class community.
If you choose to spend some time with the Jarretts prepare yourself for exposition and character backstory hurled during drunken screaming matches that often substitute for character and plot development in The Unbearable Whiteness of Ordinary People™ type films. However, if it’s always been your life’s passion to see Mary Richards go off on Jack Bauer’s father and Nate Ford, while the Sundance kid films the entire thing, well then Ordinary People is the film for you.
Oh look, it’s the overwrought Pachelbel’s Canon!