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Ordinary People (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on September 20, 2014

There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing over Oscar “snubs and flubs”, those decisions made by the Academy which many perceive as mistakes.  One of these so-called mistakes that gets a lot of attention is the 1980 Best Picture award for Ordinary People over Raging Bull.  I don’t hold the Academy in particularly high esteem and in my opinion, they’ve made far more bad decisions than good ones.  But for me, this one was the right choice (had The Shining been in the running, it might be a different story).  I won’t deny that Scorsese’s film has far more exciting technique, superior cinematography and an impressive performance and physical transformation in Robert DeNiro.  It’s a great movie.  But ask me which film I’d rather watch at any given moment, and Redford’s will win every time.

I also won’t deny that Ordinary People has some issues.  Pachebel’s “Canon in D” is a risky choice, risky because it’s so safe.  It’s a musical shortcut to poignancy, and it’s used quite a bit here.  But I think Redford deploys it beautifully, particularly in using it to bookend the film in two different styles, as if in the space of the movie the family has completed an especially painful cycle and come through transformed.  I would also say the movie has a somewhat simplified take on psychotherapy.  Conrad’s declaration “I think I’ve just figured something out” comes off as rather false and convenient.

But it’s maybe the only phony moment in the whole film.  The emotional honesty on display is frequently devastating.  At least three moments elicit all-out sobs, in addition to numerous occasions of getting choked up.  The more you see the film, the more the smallest gestures contain some touching truth, like Beth’s withdrawal of the French toast.  Because the family drama slowly unfolds over the course of the movie, this scene means little when you first see it.  When you return, it’s clear that at least two different things are going on here.  It’s a passive-aggressive swipe at her son, and it also genuinely stings Beth, to offer love in one of the few ways she knows how and have it rejected.

Mary Tyler Moore is so crazy good in this.  I would say she’s never been better but then it occurs to me that I haven’t seen much else she’s been in.  Perhaps there’s some hidden gem in her filmography.  Because she certainly has talent.  It’s not easy to be given a character this unlikable and make her even a little bit sympathetic.  On the surface everything seems to be pointing to what a bad mother she is, what a cold, unfeeling person.  But each time I watch it I feel a little bit more of Beth’s pain, empathize a little bit more with her struggle.  She has learned the hard way that a fortress of wealth and privilege does not protect you from tragedy… but she keeps trying to pull that fortress back up around her anyway, because giving and receiving love has become too hard.  In the end, she is still unlikable, but she’s understandable.

And every other performance is exquisite as well.  Donald Sutherland is so beautifully earnest but also misguided in his attempts to please everyone.  You love him to pieces but it’s not that simple.  As vicious as Beth’s criticisms of his fathering style can be, there’s a slight sting of truth to them… maybe he is too indulgent.  Even Conrad himself wishes that his father would be harder on him.  Which brings us to Timothy Hutton, making an impressive entrance on the big screen.  This kid has to do an awful lot of emotional acrobatics, and pulls it off gorgeously.  One scene that sticks with me is when he shuts down after his date takes an unexpected turn.  We’ve all been there, or at least I certainly have.  You’re hurt and you put on this show of not being hurt but at the same time you’re making it absolutely clear that you are hurt.  It’s like you’re daring those around you to care about you.  You see it in his eyes, in his stiff posture.  He knows he’s being shitty but he can’t stop himself.  Oh yeah, I’ve been there.

One reason I never much cared for Robin Williams’s performance in Good Will Hunting was because it felt old hat and cliché after this.  When I said in my review of that film, “I’ve seen a few too many scenes where the friendly, laidback, no-bullshit shrink finally gets through to the troubled, guarded youth”, Judd Hirsch is who I was really thinking of.  I can’t say for sure that this movie defined that sort of role, but it did for me.  To me, Dr. Berger is the original and the others are poor copies.  And let me pick up where that quote left off: “…but that’s okay.  Heck, I like those kinda scenes.”  I truly do.  I don’t think real-life therapy often has these emotional breakthroughs we see in the movies, but goddamn if it isn’t cathartic.  Sobbing like an infant.

Some call this movie manipulative.  All movies are manipulative.  They mold a viewer’s perception.  Even Bresson with his expressionless performances is manipulative, in what he chooses to show and how he chooses to show it.  We use the word manipulative as a criticism when for some reason we feel the manipulations are too cheap and easy.  I don’t think there’s anything cheap or easy about Ordinary People, not even the use of Pachebel.  I think there’s a lot more nuance than people give it credit for, nuance which often doesn’t reveal itself until after multiple viewings.  And the truth is, I don’t care if the movie is manipulative, or if it’s technically masterful, or if it’s breaking new ground, or if one of the actors put on a bunch of weight for it.  I care about how I feel when I watch it, and when I watch Ordinary People I feel so many things and feel them so deeply that it’s almost miraculous.  I can love movies for a lot of different reasons and there are movies I love more than this one.  But very very few are so emotionally rich and satisfying.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)

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