Oscar: Ordinary People (1980)–Redford’s Best Picture Winner

ordinary_people_posterIn 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_5“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.

ordinary_people_4The 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.

ordinary_people_3During 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.

ordinary_people_2The 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.

ordinary_people_1The 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.

Detailed Plot

The Jarretts, an upper-middle-class family in suburban Chicago, are trying to return to normal life after the death of their teenage son and the attempted suicide of their surviving one, Conrad (Timothy Hutton).

Conrad, back home after a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital, feels alienated from his friends and family. His psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), learns that Conrad was involved in a sailing accident in which his much idolized older brother Buck died. Conrad now deals with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt.

Conrad’s father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) tries to connect with his surviving son and understand his wife. Conrad’s mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) denies her loss, hoping to maintain her composure and restore her family to what it once was. She appears to have favored her older son, and because of the suicide attempt, has grown cold toward Conrad. But she is determined to maintain the appearance of perfection and normality. Dr. Berger helps Conrad deal with his emotions. He starts dating a fellow student, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), who helps him to regain a sense of optimism.

Conrad, however, still struggles to communicate and re-establish a normal relationship with parents and mates, including Stillman (Adam Baldwin). He is unable to allow anyone, especially Beth, to get close. Beth makes several attempts to appeal to Conrad, but she’s cold and unaffectionate, and more interested in getting back to “normalcy” than in helping her son.

Mother and son argue while Calvin tries to referee, usually taking Conrad’s side for fear of pushing him over the edge. At Christmas, Conrad gets furious, when Beth refuses to take a photo, swearing at her in front of his grandparents.  Beth then discovers that Conrad has been lying about his after-school activities, leading to more heated arguments, in which Conrad complains that Beth never visited him in the hospital, saying, “You would have visited Buck if he was in the hospital.” Beth replies, “Buck would have never been in the hospital.” During a trip to see Beth’s brother in Houston, Calvin confronts Beth about her attitude.

Conrad suffers a setback when he learns that Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend from the psychiatric hospital, has committed suicide. However, a cathartic breakthrough session with Dr. Berger allows Conrad to stop blaming himself for Buck’s death. Calvin confronts Beth one last time, questioning their love and her ability to love anyone. Stunned, Beth decides to leave her family rather than deal with her own problems, allowing father and son to get closer to each other and come to terms with their new situation.


Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett

Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett

Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett

Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone C. Berger

Elizabeth McGovern as Jeannine Pratt

M. Emmet Walsh as Coach Salan

Dinah Manoff as Karen Aldrich

Fredric Lehne as Lazenby

James B. Sikking as Ray Hanley

Basil Hoffman as Sloan

Quinn Redeker as Ward

Mariclare Costello as Audrey

Meg Mundy as Grandmother

Elizabeth Hubbard as Ruth

Adam Baldwin as Stillman

Richard Whiting as Grandfather

Scott Doebler as Jordan “Buck” Jarrett (in flashback)