***½/**** Image B- Sound C+
starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Timothy Hutton
screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest
directed by Robert Redford
by Bill Chambers It's not a fashionable thing to say, but here goes: I don't mind that Robert Redford's Ordinary People beat out Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull for Best Picture at the 1981 Academy Awards. I was irate when Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves trumped Scorsese's Goodfellas at the 1991 ceremony (and to have twice lost Best Director to actors-turned-first-time helmers is an especially salty twist of fate for Scorsese), but cinephiles--and yes, I consider myself one--tend to be a little stubborn about Raging Bull, a movie in grave danger of becoming a designated classic, a default selection on Top 10 lists everywhere. Although Ordinary People went home with Oscar, history ultimately swapped its place with Raging Bull as the black sheep of that infamous race.*
Perhaps above all else, Ordinary People should be recognized for overcoming its stigmatized ensemble. As aggro Italian-Americans, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci are essentially playing to type in Raging Bull. For Ordinary People, a heavy drama, Redford sought out sitcom regulars Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch, in the process wholly subverting her we're-gonna-make-it-after-all image while seeing his armchair therapist on "Taxi" through to its logical conclusion. Moore is frighteningly convincing as a homemaker who has begrudged suicidal son Conrad or "Connie" (Timothy Hutton) of affection since the accidental death of his brother, firstborn Buck. Conrad is, in no uncertain terms, messed-up good by this, and makes an appointment, at the urging of his hopelessly optimistic father (Donald Sutherland), to see touchy-feely psychiatrist Dr. Berger (Hirsch).
Ordinary People is not especially stylish, although John Bailey's cinematography perfectly evokes that autumnal after-school chill. Why I prefer it, in some respects, to the two hours of film school that is Raging Bull--wherein Scorsese's artistic indulgences finally give way to a mastery of the medium--has to do with location, location, location. Raging Bull unfolds on the mean streets of New York, in tenement buildings and boxing rings. It's the milieu in which Scorsese grew up, more or less, and all the details, from the sound design to a dribbling cup of coffee, ring true. But Redford's Ordinary People takes place on my turf, the white-picket façade known as suburbia; while I'm not so provincial that movies set outside my familiar world fail to speak to me, the fewer number of scenes alien to my experiences in Ordinary People gives it a direct line to my subconscious, for better or worse. I also find it packs a cleaner emotional wallop, though again I'm vulnerable.
Besides being observant (Beth's mother asks, with pitch-perfect suburban tactlessness, "Dr. Berger--a Jewish shrink?"; an uneventful choir performance is one of Conrad's sweatier nightmares, presumably because it reflects the reality without a shred of dream logic), Ordinary People, by way of Alvin Sargent's screenplay (based on the same-named novel by Judith Guest), is structured in the manner of a whodunit (with nods to the detective work of one Oedipus Rex): Berger's keen bystander is asking questions that trigger Big Revelations in Conrad. If the answers are clear to us from the outset, the film was made twenty-one years ago, during the relative infancy of pop psychology, well before people started engaging in collective therapy through Oprah and Springer. I guess its age, or rather its state-of-the-art-ness, has become one of the film's fundamental weaknesses, for the reason I just mentioned and because it's not immune to the now-comical stylistic idiosyncrasies of the era, such as hazy filters on the lens to suggest idyllic times and a reverb effect added to reused snatches of dialogue. Likewise, I can fathom how some might resent the classification of white, upper-middle-class suburbanites as "ordinary."
Conrad's journey, though, the unravelling, is exceptionally told--and his increasingly charged exchanges with those around him are sharp and uncloying. There's a spontaneous streak in Conrad's dialogue that Hutton pulls off with grace; it's an unsentimental feature debut that won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Indeed, Ordinary People's central quartet is one of the few ensembles that support the implementation of a Group Oscar category. (Sutherland's performance, encapsulated by a devastating final monologue, has gone criminally uncelebrated for too long, and Moore has the fleeting presence of a female Brando here. (Her spectre looms over scenes she's not in.)) A powerfully bittersweet closing scene is icing on the cake. Redford became a slicker filmmaker hereafter (The Legend of Bagger Vance looks every penny its $60M budget, yet is only a fraction as accomplished), but he's really just chasing this first high.
If Paramount's bare bones Ordinary People DVD is disappointing, that's because it was originally to have included commentary from Redford himself. (Its release was even postponed to accommodate said track.) Given the studio's history, don't count on Paramount revisiting the title any time soon. What we do get is a 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced widescreen transfer that's about as nice as the LaserDisc's, which is to say, acceptable but not great. Though blacks range deep and the palette of fall colours looks more dynamic than ever before, shadow detail wavers, and there is mild print damage. The sound is ordinary Dolby 2.0 mono, while the only extra is the film's surprisingly powerful theatrical trailer. Originally published: August 15, 2001.
*Coal Miner's Daughter, The Elephant Man, and Tess also ran; those films' respective directors were each nominated save Coal Miner's Daughter's Michael Apted, whose spot went to The Stunt Man's Richard Rush. I personally would've denied both Redford and Scorsese the statuette and given it to David Lynch for The Elephant Man, which strikes an extraordinary balance between the cinematic virtuosity of Raging Bull and the gut-wrenching emotionalism of Ordinary People.