Justin Wiemer's contribution to the Carry On Campaign included the desire that I should review a movie that, to put it gently, hasn't ever been terribly much in my favor. I will honestly admit that in rewatching it for the first time in a decade, I was forced to upgrade it from "no damn good" to "decent enough for what it is", though if it's another ten years until I see it again, I don't suppose I'll feel very sad.
Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People certainly don't manage to land at the bottom of the list; I, for one, wouldn't even put them in the bottom third. But neither are they Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull, a pair of histrionic masterpieces made by made geniuses in full bloom, the dyad that (along with Heaven's Gate) slammed the door shut on a tremendously fertile period in American filmmaking that has not since then been duplicated, at least not for such a protracted stretch. By voting down those two gonzo pictures in favor of smaller, cleaner, infinitely less ambitious chamber dramas, the Academy put its imprimatur on a far blander future, inaugurating a decade in which Oliver Stone's admirably sloppy Platoon was the sole example of formal inventiveness among the anointed Best Pictures.
This sort of thing happens all the time, and it end up giving a lot of perfectly fine movies the unenviable reputation of "The piece of crap that beat Movie X for Best Picture!" Ordinary People, it turns out, is a perfectly fine movie: not in such dire need for image rehabilitation as, say, How Green Was My Valley, but self-evidently better than forever being dismissed with a huffy "I can't believe that beat Raging Bull", though I am perfectly happy to let future generations continue to gawk in unbelieving dismay that first-timer Robert Redford's overworked direction managed to steal an award from Martin Scorsese.
The ordinary people promised by the title are the Jarretts, a family living in the affluent North Shore suburbs of Chicago.* We do not know, as the film begins, what has happened to the Jarretts, but it was something nasty, you can just tell from the way that they keep talking around each other, and the way that Redford and cinematographer John Bailey keep shooting the actors in solemn medium shots full of hushed white negative space, with encroaching darkness to suggest the coming metaphorical winter. Whatever it was, it led teenager Conrad (Timothy Hutton) to become a shut-down husk, father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) to become nervous and hopelessly conciliatory, and mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) to become snappish and icy and obsessed with appearances. The details dribble out, particularly once Calvin effectively browbeats Conrad into seeing a laconic psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), and most of what afflicts the family began with the accidental death of the family's golden boy, Conrad's older brother Buck; the bulk of the film lies in studying how the survivors deal with their conflicting emotions, and the strain it puts on the family.
And by studying, I do mean studying. The tone of Ordinary People is relentlessly analytical; it isn't a character story as much as it is a case file. One can understand the appeal of such stripped-down material for a first-time director trying to find something manageable: lots of interiors, not many characters, very little movement to interrupt the talking hither and yon. That's the very problem, though: Redford (who was allegedly inspired to film Judith Guest's novel because it reminded him of his own family, the poor bugger) was every inch a first-time director, and his treatment of all that talking was largely inert. Ingmar Bergman made material like this rousingly cinematic several times; the younger Alan J. Pakula was frequently able to make similarly psychiatric screenplays crackle onscreen. Redford trusts completely to his actors to bring any sense of liveliness to the proceedings - not an entirely misplaced gamble, either - and contented himself, as director, largely to finding new and exciting angles from which to present the Jarrett homestead to appear as sterile and upper-middle class as possible. It's not ineffective as much as it is workmanly; the really ineffective parts come whenever he actually tried to do something kinetic, such as a dinner party that, I think, is meant to dramatise the idea that well-off society types spend all their time talking and none of it saying anything, but only really succeeds in communicating that Redford also remembers the opening party scene in The Graduate, and likes cross-cutting.
He also largely bungled most of the location photography, rendering shopping malls, restaurants, schools, and the like in a sort of uniform medium-wide from 90º thing that makes it tremendously difficult to differentiate one location from another, resulting in slapdash editing that's wildly unsuccessful at making visual sense of the narrative (Ordinary People was the last film to win the Best Picture Oscar without a Best Editing nomination, coincidentally enough). The particular moment that leaps to mind: in one scene, Beth rides an escalator in what is clearly a mall, and in the next, she is eating with Calvin in what might be a mall. The relationship between these two shots, and why, indeed, the escalator shot needed to be included at all, is wholly uncertain, in a cussedly distracting way (and this is not the only little one-off scene of no narrative purpose littering the film: the 30-second Halloween sequence stands out especially).
All this is a tremendous pity, for Ordinary People is honestly a fairly strong character study otherwise; Alvin Sargent's screenplay isn't without its flaws, but he mostly captures the rhythms of how people talk to each other when they have no idea how to do it, and his strip-tease of revealing the details of the Jarrett family trauma is outstanding: first only allowing that Conrad is somehow obliged to re-build his life and piece by piece revealing new, ever more sobering depths: suicide attempt, dead brother, the assorted nastiness between all the family members. It's insinuating in a way that a simple information dump in the first scene absolutely would not have been, though at least one piece of information, explaining Conrad's weird attachment to and fear of the swim team is probably delayed later than necessary.
There are two significant missteps in characterisation: Dr. Berger is presented as banally saintly, a movie therapist through and through, the kind who says cunning things that trigger massive emotional outbursts, but only at dramatically appropriate times; while nobody besides Moore has any idea what to do with Beth. Is she a hateful upper-middle class ice queen? A woman suffering mightily from her inability to express love? The only anchor for a disintegrating family? Moore's performance pitches tent somewhere between "ice queen" and "suffering woman", leaning heavily toward the latter, and it's entirely fair to say that she alone saves what could easily play as a meanspirited ending, in which the nasty ol' mom gets what she had coming, turning it into something nuanced and tragic, solely through her facial expressions in her final conflict with Sutherland, and in one of the film's most effective moments, a hug from Hutton that she can't quite return. It's not the staggering tour de force that people seemed to regard it as when she was still a sitcom queen, making her big dramatic coming-out; but it's certainly a fine performance that brings a hell of a lot to an arguably under-written role. The other stand-out in the cast is Hutton, who never came close to this performance again, playing a much better role about the way the script calls for it; but the amount of time he has to spend not talking and really not even visibly emoting must have been daunting for a young actor essentially making his debut, and Hutton carries it off wonderfully, saying everything he needs to with the stiffness of his body and the omnipresent, slightly worried cast to his face.
Thanks largely to those performances (Sutherland is perfectly fine, and does probably all he can with a character who simply isn't as interesting), Ordinary People is entirely emotionally honest, though that's not the same as being actively emotional; it's at its best when it's coolly removed from the action, and at its worst when Redford tries to make a big emotionally manipulative play, using Pachelbel's Canon in D major like a nuclear weapon, and giving Hutton at least one more big screaming award show clip scene than the film or the character were asking for, the film is exactly the mawkish middlebrow prestige picture of its worst reputation. Those moments are few, thankfully, and for the most part, the film is a solid, if largely uninspiring family story that stands out as one of the stronger examples of a fairly dubious trend in Oscardom.