Ordinary People (1980)
Written by Alvin Sargent
Directed by Robert Redford
American culture still has problems talking about mental health, but it was considerably more complicated when Ordinary People came out. This was also the directorial debut of actor Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute, a non-profit dedicated to helping independent filmmakers create their work. Redford always stood out as an actor who physically appeared as the atypical Hollywood glamor star but who chose work that didn’t always focus on his looks. Throughout the 1970s, he picked smartly written work closely tied to his political and philosophical views. With his first gig as a director, he managed to make a film that would never be a crowd-pleaser but focused on essential issues that movies often sidestepped.
Before the film begins, teenager Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) attempted suicide and spent months in a hospital recovering. He’s back home now, and his mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), simply wants to forget about recent tragedies like the suicide and the death of Conrad’s older brother Buck. The patriarch of the family, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), truly wants to understand Conrad and talk about what’s happened with his family. Conrad agrees to visit a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch), who forces the young man to stop bottling up his emotions over what has happened in his family while Beth digs in her heels, refusing to show emotion about the pain everyone has gone through.
Ordinary People doesn’t pull punches when it comes to the emotional fallout of Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt. The picture offers a realistic bittersweet ending; there is a sense that life will get better for Conrad, but not everyone involved is willing to directly confront themselves and work through the trauma. There’s a supporting character, Karen, who Conrad met in the hospital who is only in the picture briefly but whose presence and life profoundly affects the young man. We follow through him through highs and lows, and Redford communicates clearly that mental health is an ongoing process that people aren’t ever permanently healed, but they can live life better.
Much of the conversations center around the idea of “control,” specifically emotions. Conrad is scared to feel his feelings and his psych encourages him to really explode in the safety of the office, to be mad at his brother and his mom. Beth has trained herself to never show any emotion she’s labeled as “negative.” She never talks about Buck, she never acknowledges his death or her son’s suicide attempt. Beth grew up in upper-middle-class comfort, and we can imply she had this WASP-y, patrician mindset taught to her over those years. I would assume Calvin did too, but he developed empathy along the way and found comfort in talking about his feelings. The clashes and dysfunction between these people underline the deep unhappiness that infects so many people in the United States from then to now.
For contemporary viewers, we might not realize what a jolt this film was for many viewers. Mary Tyler Moore made her career playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on her own series. These were joyful, sensitive, ebullient women, so playing Beth was a shocking turn. Beth is an intentionally unfeeling person, she barely loved Conrad before Buck’s death, and now she simply goes through the motions of what a mother is expected to do. Judd Hirsch’s performance as the doctor is also done well, subverting a lot of audience expectations about how mental health professionals are portrayed. He’s charming, funny, but also aggressive and refuses to let Conrad off the hook.
Robert Redford didn’t go overboard in the way he chose to film Ordinary People. In a very matter of fact, the story is told, letting the actors’ performances be the spotlight. The picture doesn’t look dull, though, and Redford is intentional about where he puts the camera and his editing cuts. The opening of the film is relatively quick, establishing all the characters and the central situation. There’s a sense of mystery about why Conrad beats himself up so badly, but it’s never teased out in an exploitative manner. Melodrama is absent from this story, as Redford tells us an honest, human-centered story. Not to sound like an old man, but they really don’t make movies like this anymore. You might get an indie film that tackles these issues, but mainstream Hollywood studios seem more interested in making films that feel like theme park rides or very shallow comedies and attempts at drama. While the national dialogue is a lot more open about mental health than when Ordinary People was released, we still have a long way to go.