Ordinary People (1980) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 124 min.
Cast: Timothy Hutton, Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern, M. Emmett Walsh, Dinah Manoff, Adam Baldwin
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent (based on the book by Judith Guest)
Nominated for six Oscars, and winner of four, Ordinary People is a small-scale drama that is almost as notorious for besting Raging Bull for Best Picture as it is for being a good film. Although it seems like a well-made, but very standard family drama, it was actually fairly unique for its day -- a story about people just like you and I, with the same faults and foibles, without a right or wrong, or concrete moral dilemma.
This would be the first directorial effort by actor Robert Redford (A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show), for which he would achieve the Best Director award (again, beating out Scorsese). It is a complex and very mature effort, relying on subtleties to get points across, and letting the characters dictate the momentum, instead of the usual plot devices. Redford claims his success stems from a personal connection he felt for the material, which contained many elements he could relate to from his own background.
The story centers around a small suburban family, the Jarretts, who are still a bit shell-shocked from just having lost a son in a tragic boating accident, while the younger of the children, Conrad (Hutton, The General's Daughter), is suffering from a depressive state that resulted in a suicide attempt. Conrad concedes to go to therapy, but it is clear that he is permanently changed from the experience, and all of the things that used to mean so much to him no longer holds importance.
Ordinary People features ambitious casting, especially in giving the central role of Conrad to a relatively unknown actor in Timothy Hutton. He received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, despite the fact that he is the lead -- regardless, he is very good. Sutherland (Kelly's Heroes, Fallen) and Moore (Flirting with Disaster, Cheats) both hang up their previous comedic personalities to do some very serious work, which they also perform without a hitch.
For those into intense family dramas, particularly for people who have gone through similar experiences, Ordinary People is a resonant and very worthy film, offering much food for thought underneath the simple story of a family trying to proceed with their lives without really dealing with the issues of the past that plague them. For other viewers, the story may be a bit on the dry side, feeling like a well-made drama with subject matter that might be more at home as a movie for television than a motion picture release. My personal take is that it is a landmark film that set the mold by which almost all suburban family dramas that follow are based (see also American Beauty and Imaginary Heroes). Ordinary today, but extraordinary for its time.
©1997 Vince Leo