In 1980, a year after the release of “Kramer Vs. Kramer,” Robert Redford made a stunning directorial debut in “Ordinary People,” adapted to the screen by Alvin Sargent from Judith Guest’s novel. The movie deals with the disintegration of an upper-middle class suburban family after the accidental death of one son and the suicide attempt of the other, a repressed clan that is unable to communicate its feelings and handle its strains.
“Ordinary People” was emotionally effective but decidedly unsentimental due to the detached approach. Redford’s direction was restrained and supported by an excellent cast, with Donald Sutherland as the sympathetic father, Mary Tyler Moore, as the undemonstrative, extremely controlled mother, Timothy Hutton, as the surviving troubled youngster (who won a Supporting Oscar Award), and Judd Hirsch as the understanding Jewish psychiatrist.
“Ordinary People” was not a big-budget film; it cost only $6 million, but its domestic rentals, greatly assisted by the Oscars, surpassed $20 million. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” was made on a bigger budget, and would probably have become a box-office bonanza even without winning Oscars.
Reflecting the Zeitgeist
“Ordinary People” presents a compassionate profile of the Jarrett family, whose inability to communicate with each other becomes the immediate cause for their un-doing. Set in Lake Forest, Illinois, a well-to-do WASPish community, it focuses on a financially comfortable suburban family. The family struggles in the aftermath of an accidental death of one son and suicide attempt by another, to readjust itself to a state of equilibrium. It is a troubled family, trying to recover from an emotional trauma and regain its balance.
The father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is a successful, but considerate and sensitive, tax attorney. His wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) is a tense, rigid, inflexible mother, unable to share any feeling and emotions with Conrad (Timothy Hutton), her surviving son.
A troubled introverted youngster, Conrad blames himself for surviving the boat accident in which his elder brother died. Spending months in hospital, undergoing shock treatment, he is now uneasily repeating junior year in high school. Endowed with a bureaucratic personality, she is efficient and impatient: When Conrad refuses to eat French toast, it immediately goes into the shredder. Conrad tells his psychiatrist that his mother will never forgive him for having ruined the bathroom rug when he attempted suicide. Moreover, when Conrad finally recovers and tries to embrace his mother, she remains unresponsive. Ordinary People deviated from conventional norms, in and outside film, by showing parents’ preferential treatment of their children. One of the sacred norms in American culture is the expectation (demand) of parents to love all their children equally.
During the course of the narrative, the Jarretts realize that it is actually their marriage, which seems to be in danger. The threat to the balance of the family is within, the “villainess” is the mother. To reclaim its equilibrium, the logical and coherent conclusion is for the mother to move out, though the movie does not specify if her departure is temporary or permanent.
An extraordinarily privileged family, which faces problems of ordinary people. Dissection of a perfectly ordered family, when thrown into emotional chaos. Values of self-control emotional repression are obstacles when faced by fears, anxieties, when things don’t work well. Beth pretends that no major problem has happened, continuing the daily routines of an upper middle class wife, golf, bridge, and tennis. “We’d have been all right if there hadn’t been any mess,” she says. Unlike her husband, she is unwilling and incapable of seeking professional help.
The film makes a good case for professional treatment psychotherapy. The most sympathetic character is Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), the tough but wise, Jewish psychiatrist, who says: “Feelings are scary: sometimes they’re painful, and if you’re not going to feel pain, you are not going to feel anything else either.” It’s no coincidence that the psychiatrist is Jewish: the film contrast two subcultures: the WASP and the Jewish. The same contrast prevails in Woody Allen’s “Interiors “(1978), another drama about a troubled family.
The insularity of the WASP family. Disruption of comfortable stable family by accident. Its obsession with surfaces and appearances, its rigidity in the face of changing conditions. But despair and insecurity beneath surfaces. It’s significant that in both “Kramer Vs. Kramer” and “Ordinary People,” the mother is portrayed as less sensitive, less responsible, and less caring than the father.
The ideological resolution in both movies is to remove the mother from the scene and to restore the order of patriarchal family, headed by a sensitive father. Thus, these films contain (unconsciously perhaps) feminist backlash. The male becomes more feminized, nurturing, assuming his traditional paternal roles (breadwinning) and some newly acquired maternal roles (nurturing, raising children). Both films suggest that men are more capable than women in combining successful careers and satisfying domestic life.