…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
The movie poster for 1980’s Ordinary People quite simply, and fittingly, depicts a tri-photo folded picture frame – in the far left photo, Mary Tyler Moore looks straight out, a slight smile on her face, while in the center, a concerned Donald Sutherland looks to the photo on the right of an anguished young Timothy Hutton. I cannot help but feel that this photo placement was deliberate, for it accurately depicts the individual stances and struggles of each member of the family at the heart of this gripping drama.
Ordinary People, which marked Robert Redford’s directorial debut, is based upon the Judith Guest novel of the same name. To perhaps best describe the meaning behind the title for the story – and the book and film’s real essence – Guest wrote, “They are ordinary people, after all. For a time they had entered the world of the newspaper statistic; a world where any measure you took to feel better was temporary, at best, but that is over. This is permanent. It must be.”
The Jarrett family, a middle to upper class family living in suburban Illinois, endures extreme tragedy when they lose their eldest – and presumably more dynamic and ‘cherished’ – son in a boating accident. Their youngest son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who was also involved in the accident and yet survived, suffers deep depression as a result; he attempts suicide and is sent to a psychiatric hospital. At the start of the film, Conrad has returned home from the hospital and is doing his best to make ends meet in high school, on the swim team, with his friends, and most importantly – with his bereaved and emotionally-distanced parents, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). With the help of a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), Conrad confronts his demons and attempts to work through his feelings of low self-worth and guilt over his brother’s death. As the story unfolds, we see Calvin take small steps towards reaching out and understanding his son’s inner turmoil, while Beth – intensely aggrieved over her first son’s death but determined not to face the fact of it head-on – retracts herself further and further away from loving the son she has left.
You might find it hard to believe that I am going to use the words “shocking” and “disturbing” in the same sentence as “Mary Tyler Moore”, but I have to say exactly that… After an acting career strongly based on playing the sweet wife and girl-next-door Laura Petrie and forward-thinking career woman Mary Richards, Mary Tyler Moore is indeed, shocking and disturbing as Beth Jarrett. The role is perfect for her, and truly gave her a chance to flex some real acting chops. While it is undeniable that the film solidly belongs to Timothy Hutton – who won the Best Supporting Actor award for his moving portrayal of Conrad – Mary Tyler Moore’s scenes are intense. Beneath her outwardly cool and unfazed exterior, a storm is brewing – and she staunchly refuses to let it escalate into an emotional frenzy. As a result, she comes across as extremely cold and uncaring, especially when her son needs her the most. He yearns for her to not hate him… to embrace him and say that she loves him. But does she? One questions this while watching Tyler Moore’s portrayal. You almost want to hate her for the ‘ice queen’ she has become, consumed by her grief; and yet, in a small way perhaps, you also understand why she has reached this point of devastation. Her ambivalence is palpable. As she argues with Calvin at one point, there is only so much she feels she can do and take with dealing with everything. But is it, ultimately, enough? How long can she deny the hurt and keep running away from things which, as a mother, should matter the most to her? (She frequently talks with her husband about vacationing and “getting away from it all”, and turns furious when he suggests they bring along Conrad.) Can she ever, in fact, let go of the son she deeply cherished and embrace the son she has left? I will not reveal the ending to this film, but let me tell you – it might not be what you would expect.
This was indeed a powerful movie, and one that invites repeat viewings. It left me mulling it over for several days. Hutton is brilliant and heartbreaking as Conrad, and I almost think being nominated as Actor, rather than Supporting, would have been more justifiable that year – but then again, he would have been up against the indomitable Robert de Niro, who won Actor for Raging Bull. Hutton was 20 years old when he made this film and became the youngest winner to take home the Supporting trophy. Sadly, Donald Sutherland was not nominated. His performance grew deeper and stronger as the film progressed. Robert Redford took home the Directing Oscar that year, and Mary Tyler Moore lost the award for Best Actress to Sissy Spacek, portraying famous country music star Loretta Lynn in the biopic, Coal Miner’s Daughter. If you are a fan of Mary Tyler Moore’s and have never seen her amazing performance in this film, you must. I myself have never been a huge fan, but was extremely impressed with this one. Don’t miss it.