The Best Picture Project – Ordinary People (1980)

Directed by Robert Redford

Screenplay by Alvin Sargent, from the novel by Judith Guest

Starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton

Robert Redford isn’t the first actor to step behind the camera. As far back as the silent films, with Fatty Arbuckle, Chaplin and Keaton, actors have really only wanted to do one thing: direct. And Redford isn’t even the first to get some sort of Academy recognition for it either. Laurence Olivier directed Hamlet to the Best Picture, though he lost out director to John Huston, and Warren Beatty was nominated twice for Best Director in the 70s, before finally winning his Oscar the year after Robert Redford won his. And this win by Redford wasn’t just something the Academy did to throw an actor a bone, but was part of a real Ordinary People admiration society, a film that got six nominations, and four wins.

If you don’t know the plot of Ordinary People by now, you’ve probably been living under a bridge but in a nutshell the movie, based upon the novel by Judith Guest, is about how each member of a family copes with the death of their oldest son, a star high school swimmer who ironically drowns after a boating accident. The youngest son, played by Timothy Hutton, feels guilty for surviving the accident that killed his brother and has, before the movie opens, been in and out of a hospital for trying to kill himself. The father, played by Donald Sutherland, is sensitive and also feels guilty for not seeing the signs that led his son to attempt suicide and perhaps comes on too sensitively, much to the mother’s chagrin. The mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore, always distant and obsessed with status and not being embarrassed, isn’t much help to her family and instead exacerbates the problem with her distance and callously casting herself as the real victim, aggrieved by the incursion the death and its aftermath into her perfect and hermetically sealed life; essentially, she is the emotional equivalent of Mommie Dearest, only without the wire hangers.

In hindsight, the Oscar for Ordinary People looks like one of history’s biggest mistakes, especially given that Raging Bull was on the ballot in 1980 and if the vote were taken today, one would believe Raging Bull would run away with the award. However, at the time, it’s easy to see why Raging Bull lost. After all, if the one word that can best describe Raging Bull is grim, and that one word to describe Ordinary People is hopeful, it’s not hard to see why the outcome was as it was. People want to be filled with hope, not beaten down.

Whether it was a mistake or not, this does not take away from the fact that Ordinary People is a good, and affecting movie. Certainly, there are some of things about the film that are a bit dated – Mary Tyler Moore’s hairstyle and penchant for a members-only jacket being just two examples – and the acting, especially by Moore and Hutton, is somewhat too over the top at times, but this does not change the fact that it is effective. If it’s a mistake, at least it’s not a Greatest Show on Earth or Gladiator mistake.

My only real quibble with the movie comes down to the performances of Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland, one of which was acclaimed, the other not. Because she played against her usual type, as the warm comedienne, Moore received a nomination for best actress, even though her acting looks a little pedestrian to me. She shows exactly three emotions in the movie: happiness when everybody thinks her world is perfect, horror when the cracks appear, and explosive anger when she doesn’t get her way. It’s all a bit one note, to my taste, without any subtlety, and if she weren’t playing against her normal type, I can’t help but think it might have gone overlooked. Sutherland, on the other hand, is all subtlety, so subtle that he didn’t even rate a nomination for the film. Given that he is truly the glue that holds the movie together – go ahead, imagine the film without him and tell me you’d like it – and does it masterfully, it’s baffling that he didn’t rate further recognition.  I mean, look at him in the final scene from the film and tell me he isn’t good.



Elizabeth McGovern had a small part in the picture, playing Timothy Hutton’s high school love-interest. While she is undeniably pretty, and is definitely a woman – witness her nudity in Ragtime – there’s always been something about her voice that makes me think she’s a post-op transsexual, where the man, now a woman, is struggling to create an effective woman’s voice. Anyway, the trivia with Ms. McGovern isn’t the transsexual bit but the fact that Steven Soderbergh originally wanted her for the Andie McDowell part in Sex, Lies and Videotape but she never read the script because her agent kept it from her. Try to imagine Hugh Grant playing opposite Elizabeth McGovern the next time you watch Four Weddings and a Funeral. That could have happened.

Also popping up in the movie, in a small role, was Adam Baldwin, best known to me as Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket. He doesn’t really have much to do besides getting his ass kicked by Timothy Hutton, which is truly the type of thing that only happens in the movies.

For A Complete List of Best Pictures and Those Watched, Click Here.

1 Comment

Filed under The Best Picture Project

One response to “The Best Picture Project – Ordinary People (1980)

  1. I agree that Sutherland’s performance is all subtlety and really holds together the film well. I would still prefer this to Raging Bull, though.

    You can read my review on !

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