By Marc S. Sanders
Psychiatry is regarded as a stigma within the world of Ordinary People.
Robert Redford’s Oscar winning directorial debut centers on a troubled high school student named Conrad (Timothy Hutton in an Oscar winning role) who finally gets the gumption to see Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) following a suicide attempt brought on by the guilt he carries when he could not rescue his older brother, Buck, in a stormy boating accident. His parents, Beth and Calvin (Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland), accept this action with differing viewpoints.
For Beth it’s shameful and unnecessary to see a doctor. Her stance is made all the more clear when her own mother frowns upon this, especially with this doctor being a Jew. On the other hand, Calvin looks at it as an opportunity for a breakthrough. This doctor could really be good for Conrad. Beth is embarrassed when Calvin has a few drinks at a neighborhood dinner party and shares these developments with some friends.
For a WASP community, seeing a psychiatrist is not regarded well. It shows that Beth’s image of a perfect lifestyle is tainted. Any problems they have should be resolved in the home. What never occurs to Beth, however, is the resentment she fails to hide for her second son. There’s nothing breaking through Beth’s exterior to allow her true feelings to come out. By contrast, Conrad gradually lets his inner struggle loose and the film shows that it helps, as challenging as it could be.
In 1980, the prior year’s Best Picture winner was Kramer vs Kramer. Three years later it would be Terms Of Endearment. Hollywood was recognizing an audience’s interest in the domestic life. The Vietnam War was now in the past. Reagan economics were taking over and middle-class America seemed to be doing well. Redford’s adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel with a screenplay by Alvin Sargeant showed what was happening behind closed doors. Dramatic moments occur and they can offer a terrible shock in the moment but as days move on, so does everyone around you. You make efforts to do so as well, but you’re still weighed down by that one moment of loss.
Redford directs Hutton with quiet moments of anguish. Quick cut flashbacks offer a glimpse of what’s running through Conrad’s mind. Fortunately, it doesn’t run too long and upstage Hutton’s performance. Timothy Hutton is astonishing with his twitches and stutters and struggle to simply sit still. His blank stare of his blue eyes covey his deep depression. When a girl classmate takes notice of him, you feel the remedy of his sessions starting to make a difference. Where his mother refuses to recognize his need for love, someone else does and you feel better about yourself as well.
There’s always a reason to live. Dr. Berger reminds Conrad of that. Judd Hirsch is right for his role against the waspy wealth of Conrad’s upbringing. He encourages a “not giving a shit” attitude to how people perceive Conrad. We all want a mother’s love, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We want to be accepted at school. That might not work out either. With his sloven stature and chain-smoking manner, Hirsch is very convincing in reminding Conrad to say it’s okay to tell someone to fuck off, and most importantly to stop punishing himself for saying it.
Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland work incredibly well at conflicting with each other while also convincing us that before this terrible accident they likely complimented one another perfectly. Yet, as the film explains, life gets messy. The question is how best to respond when the mess appears and stays with you. Conrad finds the benefits in seeing a therapist like Dr. Berger. Beth will hear nothing of the idea. A magnificent scene done with one tracking camera comes out of nowhere while Beth and Calvin are playing golf with relatives. A slight mention of their son by Calvin gradually explodes into what really sets Calvin and Beth apart from one another. All of their sub conscious thoughts explode on a crowded golf course in front of the community they’ve absorbed their history and marriage within. Redford gets the best beats out of his actors because the shields that maintain their personas will only hold for so long. It’ll break down at a time when it’s never opportune or convenient. This scene occurs near the end of the film as we see Conrad’s recovery, while Beth and Calvin are still mired in both individual and shared heartache and resentment. It’s a crescendo moment that the film builds to for these characters.
Within film discussions, Ordinary People is often sadly regarded as the film that once again denied Martin Scorsese of a well-deserved Oscar (for arguably his greatest work Raging Bull). I don’t think that’s fair, however. Some might say Ordinary People may be dated. However, now that I’ve finally seen the film, I can’t deny it’s importance. Mental health has become more apparent through all kinds of different social classes. Yet we still hide ourselves, and are encouraged to shelter ourselves under a facade of happiness. That can’t always be true for any of us. We, as humans, all suffer. We all feel pain or embarrassment or sadness. If anything, a piece like Ordinary People reminds us that we are all typical, and must succumb to dealing with issues far beyond our mental capacity at one time or another.