Saturday, February 04, 2012

Screen Gem Saturdays: Ordinary People

One of my very favorite movies is "Ordinary People." Those of you who loved Mary Tyler Moore from her TV shows will be surprised by Beth Jarrett, the somewhat cold character that she plays in this movie. Beth & Calvin (played to dopey perfection by Donald Sutherland) have lost one son to a boating accident and are dealing with the attempted suicide of their other son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton). Robert Redford was impressed by Judith Guest's novel, bought the rights to it, and won an Oscar for his first job as a Director. Here he is with Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Conrad's love interest.

The movie deals with Beth's avoidance of the suicide attempt and any other unpleasant topics that might cause her to be the topic of gossip amongst her wealthy friends.

Judd Hirsch plays the quirky offbeat analyst who tries to get Conrad to open up about his feelings, rather than repressing them.

Both Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton were nominated for Oscars, with Hutton taking home the prize. This scene is particularly touching as mother and son awkwardly try to communicate with each other but sadly fail once again.

Redford discusses a scene with Donald Sutherland, where he awkwardly shares with a colleague what his family is going through as they take a jog through the park:

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Major Pepperidge said...

Somehow I've managed to never see this movie! Is this the film that put Elizabeth McGovern on the map?

Mike, Studio City said...

Tim is very good in the TV show 'Legacy'. Oh and have a fun weekend.

Douglas McEwan said...

Well, different tastes for different people. I loathed Ordinary People when the publicity and undeserved great reviews conned me into sitting through this turgid, unpleasant movie. I hated everything about it, starting with its lying title; There is nothing "ordinary" about the over-wealthy (These people are RICH! Only a movie star like Redford could consider these stiffs "Ordinary"), over-priviledged lifeless WASPS that populate thtis airless, stifling movie. Had I been lucky enough to read Pauline Kael's review of it before blowing a few bucks to see it back in 1980, I'd be a happier man. Here are some excerpts from Ms Kael's write-up:

"Autumn leaves and wintery emotions. This is an academic exercize in catharsis; it's earnest, it means to improve people, and it lasts a lifetime. ...
The movie is about the harm repression can do, but the movie is just as repressive and sanitized as the way of life it means to expose, and it backs away from anything messier than standard TV-style psychiatric explanations. ... Alvin Sargent's adaptation of the ... novel is heavy on psychobabble. The joker about this movie is that part of the audience weeps for the unloving Wasp-witch mother, who cares only for appearances, and who can't change because of the pride and privacy she was trained in; she seems the gallant last standard-bearer for the Wasp Family Ethic, and the picture somehow turns into a nosegay for Wasp repression."

Ms Kael's preceptive review can be read full-length in her book Taking It All In. She won me as soon as she wrote that she knew she cared nothing for these characters the moment she saw the drapes. Oh yes. Me too.

Davelandweb said...

Major - Yes, you are correct!

Mike - Thanks - the weather is fantastic for it!

Doug - Everyone's entitled to their opinion and I still stand by mine - love this movie and ESPECIALLY Mary Tyler Moore's performance as the wasp-witch mother. She is neither all bad nor all good; the hallmark of an excellent actress who can keep her character from becoming a cardboard stereotype. As for Kael - her bitchy and negative style is not really something I particularly admire (somehow I am guessing that it is her style which made you a huge fan of hers...not necessarily her accurate critiques). As for the title of the film - why would you even begin to think it was supposed to be taken literally?

Douglas McEwan said...

Of course, "Bitchy" and "negative" remarks are not, per se, inaccurate remarks. Indeed, with many movies, only comments others would describe as "bitchy" and "negative" are accurate. I only read Kael's review of this movie well after I'd had the misfortune to sit through the turgid film, and I chimed with the write-up so deeply because it is thoroughly and completely accurate.

It is true that I enjoy Kael's writing even when I disagree with her on a movie, as I often did, but I also found her accuracy rate higher than any other critic. And she was just as energetic in her writing for movies she loved as ones she hated, as the makers of Bonnie & Clyde and Last Tango in Paris know very well, as it was her raves that saved those movies from obscurity. She was certainly not a movie snob, among the many movies she loved and championed were Jaws, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Godfather Parts I & II, Carrie, and Young Frankenstein.

As for why I think the title is not meant ironically, that is because I grew up in just such a melieu of overprivelidged, upper-middle-class Wasps (No black people, except our maid. The only Latinos around were gardeners. When we were selling my boyhood house, we were actuallly put under pressure by the Neighborhood Association not to sell our house to "Asians" (Not the word they used), since they had been unable to make it illegal to sell to non-whites. In short, people who were "comfortable," i.e. too much money, too often voting for Republicans. These awful people I grew up surrounded by relentlessly referred to themselves as "ordinary people," and truly believed they were, never mind that the vast majority of truly ordinary people have vastly less money than they, and have to deal with real problems, like not being evicted and not starving, rather than invented emotional "problems," like excessive angst over your neighbors learning that you have human emotions, or just trying to find books whose spines on the bookshelf matched the drapes. (You think I'm kidding? I'm not.) Ordinary people have too many actual problems to even bother with the navel-gazing narcissism that infects the Wasps of this movie.

Admittedly, my feelings on Mary Tyler Moore have altered over the years. I remain a fan of her great TV series, but I am now a good friend to a man who co-created a later TV series for her that ran only a few episodes, and his tales of working with her in her highly insecure, post-success years, are horror stories of star temprement to chill the blood. Apparently she is a lot more like the character she plays in this movie than she is like "Mary Richards," (And a great deal more like the Geraldine Page character in Sweet Bird of Youth than any character she ever played) and this colors how I perceive her post-MTM Show work.

Davelandweb said...

Just remember, your opinion about Kael's accuracy is being judged by your own tastes. Everyone has their own tastes about movies, so I find it somewhat futile to base my opinion on a writer who is getting paid to write an entertaining critique that will help their readership.

It also seems from your long writing that your problems with "Ordinary People" stem just as much from your personal baggage as they do from the movie itself. I do my best not to let the personal life influence what I think of somebody's art. It's easy to be judgmental of those in the spotlight.