The Best Picture Winners: Ordinary People (1980)

| December 22, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

For the second year in a row, the Academy voters took the opportunity to  recognize a film about the the decimation of domestic tranquility.  Ordinary People, like Kramer vs. Kramer was also based on a popular book (this one by Judith Guest) about the deteriorating of a family, this time over the weight of unresolved grief.  Yet, unlike the gimmicky drama of Kramer, Robert Redford’s adaptation was far more grounded, not to mention far more satisfying.

The story examines the Jarret family; father Calvin (Donald Sutherland), mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Conrad (Supporting Actor winner Timothy Hutton) who are unable to pick up the emotional pieces after the untimely death of the eldest child Buck in a boating accident the previous year.  Much of the emotional ice in the family is coming from Beth, who is unwilling to open her heart to anyone.  This has serious repercussions, not only on her marriage to Calvin, but on Conrad whose inability to deal with the situation has bred a suicide attempt.

What strikes me about Ordinary People is how well it deals with the family, pulling up their personalities and their inadequacies not from the machinations of the script but from the core of the characters.  This is a deeply felt movie and Alvin Sargent’s script seems to move with the organic nature of life rather than gimmicks.  It would give all of its players a chance to show their stuff, particularly Mary Tyler Moore, cast against type and proving that she could be more than just a sitcom star.

The movie would mark, of course, the beginning of two brilliant careers.  Timothy Hutton would win the year’s Best Supporting Actor award and go on to a terrific career.  And Robert Redford, one of our national treasures, would begin his directing career with this film (and win the Oscar) going on to direct a body of work that has more quality than quantity.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.