Whether Ordinary People deserved to win the Oscar for Best Picture over Raging Bull or whether you think it’s better than Scorsese’s masterpiece is always up for debate. I know most people will agree that the latter film is one of the greatest films ever made, and I agree. Let’s not kid our themselves, Raging Bull is the better choice, but legendary actor Robert Redford’s directorial debut is definitely not one of those films you should overlook or dismiss. It’s an absorbing and involving study of a very broken family having to face the facts, that sometimes the puzzle of life isn’t always complete. There’s going to be missing pieces.
Based on the novel by Judith Guest, the film is mostly centered on Conrad Jarrett (an Oscar-winning Timothy Hutton, making him the youngest to ever win in the Best Supporting Actor category) struggling with the guilt over the death of his beloved, older brother Buck during a boating accident. His parents Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (the late Mary Tyler Moore) try to keep up appearances and the facade of having it all together while dealing with Buck’s death and Conrad’s recent suicide attempt. The emotionally stunted Calvin makes an effort of showing Conard affection and love, but Beth can’t reciprocate. She’s too aloof and angry, or maybe she blames Conrad for what happened.
Conrad seeks help from Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), a sympathetic psychiatrist, in order to come to terms with the tension that continues within the family. Eventually, Calvin goes to see Berger himself, and wants Beth to join him and Conrad, but she doesn’t want their issues out in the open. Things start to quiet down, and Conrad begins the healing process, where he accepts things for what they really are. As he hugs Beth, Calvin witnesses her refusal to return the affection, which basically is the last straw for him. He later tells her that he thinks he doesn’t love her anymore. Her love died with Buck. She leaves but Calvin and Conrad grow closer. Their bond is stronger than ever. As for the family’s future, that’s too uncertain to tell.
The film usually rises above its status as the “film that beat Raging Bull for Best Picture” to paint a very honest picture of people under the microscope. Yes, you can say that it’s “white people problems,” but it’s more than that too. Its characters’ flaws are exposed, and we see them for what they really are. That’s also a reflection for the rest of us. We all have issues that we wish to keep hidden, to save face. When those issues are out in the open, we just can’t deal with them, and we’re left vulnerable. Maybe that’s the reason why most people too often dismiss the film. It’s too real. After all, it is the film that put everyone in therapy.
It’s also a showcase for tremendous acting. Hutton deserved his Oscar for his overwhelmingly heartfelt performance. At the time, it was remarkable for a young actor to have so much range and depth. Moore, against type was a bold thing for many people, especially those who were fans of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Here, she’s not the bubbly, independent woman of the 1970s; she’s the self-involved, impenetrable mother of the 1980s. She’s brilliant. She tries to let that pent-up anger out, but she just can’t do that. Her emotional exterior is just too strong for that. She received a well-earned Best Actress nomination for this film. However, Sutherland is the MVP of the entire film, being the glue that is trying to keep the family together, but it’s just not sticking anymore. His performance, especially in the confession scene near the end, is one of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen in my life. There have been so many times where the Academy has overlooked him, and they really made a big mistake here. If there was one role he should have been nominated for, it is definitely Calvin Jarrett.
There are great supporting performances by Hirsch (who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor), Dinah Manoff as Karen (Conrad’s friend from the hospital he met during his stint), and a beautiful debut by Elizabeth McGovern (as Conrad’s girlfriend). Redford’s direction is remarkable and Alvin Sargent’s script is terrific. Every aspect adds up to create a classic film that I think holds up quite well. I love it and Raging Bull.
The new Paramount Presents Blu-ray has a new 4K restoration and new interviews with Hutton and Guest, as well as the theatrical trailer. It will be available March 29, 2022.