Robert Redford, renowned Actor, Producer and Director, celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday. In honor of his birthday, I thought I’d discuss one of my all time favorite films, the wonderful 1980 family drama Ordinary People.
I first saw the film in high school right smack dab in the middle of teen angst. While I had never dealt with anything close to what this family was dealing with, I deeply related to Timothy Hutton’s Conrad. I remember being so emotional after my first viewing of the film that I had to excuse myself, embarrassed that I was crying.
If you’ve never seen Ordinary People, the film follows an upper class suburban family dealing with the aftermath of an accident which left the eldest brother dead. For Conrad (Timothy Hutton), it’s especially hard – he was with his brother during the fatal boating accident. After leaving the hospital (where he stayed after he attempted suicide) , his parents Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (Mary Tyler-Moore) try desperately to pretend they’re just an ordinary family. More than anyone, Beth has trouble expressing her emotions as well as any affection towards the only son she’s got left.
Here are just a few reasons Ordinary People is a classic film staple:
The cast makes this film what it is. Don’t get me wrong; it has many other strengths. However, without this cast, none of it would work.
Timothy Hutton was just 19 and if you can believe it, Ordinary People marked his first role in a film. And what a debut it was – Hutton was real, honest, raw. Perhaps, it was precisely because he was new that his performance was so natural. He’s one of the major reasons I fell in love with the film. He reminded me of another great actor, Logan Lerman. Hutton’s performance specifically made me think of Lerman’s performance in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What can I say? I like emotional men…
Hutton won the Oscar that year for Best Supporting Actor…
Judd Hirsch was also wonderful as Berger, Conrad’s therapist. Redford had seen him in Taxi and thought his rapid-fire way of talking would be perfect for Dr. Berger, as he’s supposed to be a little nutty or off kilter. Hirsch looked back at the film for EW’s anniversary piece, saying, “The only person I hung out with was Timothy. He was so young and green and had just lost his father [the actor Jim Hutton] a few months earlier” (EW).
Mary Tyler-Moore played Beth, Conrad’s mother. This was quite the departure for her as she was known for playing upbeat, positive characters – specifically in the enormously popular sitcoms The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler-Moore show. With this film, Redford sought to explore Mary Tyler-Moore’s dark side. And her performance is fantastic, complex and subtle.
Donald Sutherland played Beth’s husband and Conrad’s father, Calvin. Originally Redford wanted to see him for the role of Dr. Berger, but Sutherland convinced him he should play the husband. Sutherland’s Calvin is the parent really looking out for Conrad – he spends much of the film worried and trying to appease Beth, who believes they shouldn’t talk about any of their problems. He plays another great father in Pride and Prejudice so one could say, this film was just the start of this “type.”
Elizabeth McGovern played Conrad’s romantic interest, Janneane Pratt. She was just about to start at Juliard, but Redford begged her to wait a few weeks. The film is certainly not hers, but her limited role gave her a chance to shine.
The film was based on a novel by Judith Guest. In the same EW article I mentioned, Judith spoke about the adaptation process, saying, “Ordinary People was my first book, and I was just thrilled that Viking was going to publish it. Then Redford called one day. I have a couple of brothers who are a bunch of jokesters, so when I got this call saying, “Hi, Judy, this is Robert Redford,” I said, “Yeah, sure it is.” I’m sure he gets that all the time. He just said, calmly, “No, it really is” (Guest, EW).
Alvin Sargent, who also wrote Paper Moon and Streisand’s A Star is Born, adapted Guest’s novel for the screen. Redford apparently sent Guest many drafts, asking her advice and giving her permission to criticize whatever she liked.
To me, the film is about loneliness and tragedy and the struggle to live through the worst moments in our lives. It’s also about understanding one another. Every character in the film is given depth, their own reasons for looking at the world the way they do. No one is a villain – they’re just imperfect people.
The plot in this film is small. It’s a character story. That starts at the script stage…and considering Sargent won an Oscar for his adaptation, I’d say he did pretty well.
This is what it’s all about. Ordinary People was Robert Redford’s directorial debut. Funnily enough, Redford didn’t win any Oscars for his esteemed acting career. He, of course, won for directing Ordinary People and it is well deserved. The film is sensitive and unbelievably moving and that’s really because Redford believed in it. He put so much into it. For all aspiring directors out there, this is certainly one to watch.
It’s cathartic, superbly well-acted, and incredibly impactful.
Whenever a movie hits in such a big way, we wonder how it happened. And of course, the movie studios, try to replicate it. Success, many of them believe is just an equation. This element + this element = a great film. Unfortunately, in this medium, that’s not how it works. When a film works, it’s like lighting in a bottle. You have no idea how it happened – it just did. All you can do is appreciate it.
As an aspiring screenwriter and an avid movie-watcher, what I take away from the film is that caring is the key. You can’t watch this film and not see the love and sweat that went into getting it made. Studios didn’t want to make it at the time, believing it wasn’t commercial enough.
Ordinary People, to me, is an encouragement that little films, emotional films, films focused on characters, can also be successful. Redford, of course, founded The Sundance Institute to help fund independent films. And when you consider what this film was up against in the 1981 Oscars (Raging Bull and The Elephant Man), it’s an incredible statement that the film took home the Best Picture Oscar.
Vintage trailer below. Get ready for emotions you didn’t even know you had…😭