Ordinary People. “We were going to our son’s funeral and you were worrying about what I wore on my feet!” Robert Redford’s beautifully crafted and measured directorial debut bested Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull in the Academy Awards, taking the Oscars for Best Picture and Direction. Honors for Ordinary People also went to nineteen-year-old Timothy Hutton for Best Supporting Actor (making him the youngest male to win this Oscar), and to screenwriter Alvin Sargent for his sensitive, intelligent adaptation of Judith Guest’s acclaimed novel about the impact of a teenage son’s death on a family. Those who don’t “get” this movie are missing a remarkably fine, intimate personal drama about people unable to articulate the truth of their inner lives. Understandably, its appeal proved strongest in the United States, where its impressive commercial showing reflected 1980s America’s receptiveness to the subject of getting in touch with one’s feelings.
Hutton plays high-school teen Conrad Jarrett, overwhelmed by guilt and suicidal depression since his popular older brother downed in the sailing accident he survived. There is no understanding or help for him from his distant, unsympathetic mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), a control freak preoccupied with neatly ordered appearances and firmly in denial of her resentment. His successful, easygoing father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is concerned for the boy but doesn’t know how to talk to him about what matters or express his own feelings. It falls to a frank, hands-on psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) to reach Conrad and encourage him to acknowledge his deep distress and anger. Ultimately, only his father’s love can save the boy, when connecting with him forces a painful choice.