53. Ordinary People (1981)

Title: Ordinary People

Release Date: 19 September, 1980

Oscar Ceremony: 31 March, 1981

Director: Robert Redford

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton


Nominees: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Tess


“Don’t admire people too much, they might disappoint you.” – Calvin Jarrett

Once again, a family drama wins the Oscar. I’m going to be completely honest, I had never heard about this movie before. When I quickly read the summary, it sounded like it tackled a subject that would most likely compel me. I also noticed it was Robert Redford’s directorial debut, so I figured it would be interesting. However, I am sad to say that I was let down, although I’m not exactly sure why that is.

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Ordinary People is not really about ordinary people, but rather about the members of an upper-class family from the suburbs of Chicago attempting to be ordinary people after the accidental death of their oldest son. The movie starts not long after the remaining son, Conrad, gets out of the hospital after an attempted suicide. The death of his brother has left him guilt-stricken and alienated from most of his entourage. The mother, Beth, is in denial and refuses to discuss anything related to the situation; she goes about her everyday routine and upper-class hobbies like nothing happened. She also doesn’t give her son much affection. As for the father, Calvin, he’s pretty much caught in between. He seems to be doing okay, but he tries to look after his son and understand his wife.

As much as I feel sorry for their loss, I have to say that following these people’s lives is just about the most boring thing I’ve done all week. This is coming from someone who just stayed home all day, cleaned the house, did the dishes and stared at the rain outside an apartment window. I don’t know whether it’s because I don’t have a brother or because no one I know actually resembles this family, but I had a lot of trouble bringing myself to care about any of them. They’re all so dull and unlikeable. I love Robert Redford, but as a director he did very little to help viewers connect with these characters. Then again, maybe I just wasn’t the intended audience.

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I know the movie was based on a book, and I wonder if the book did a better job at fleshing out the characters. In the movie, they all seem very one-dimensional, and no matter how hard the actors try, they still can’t really bring them to life. There were a few effective emotional moments here and there, but overall it was almost like a sappy Hallmark movie that didn’t age well. Family dynamics haven’t changed THAT much since the 80s and I’ve seen other older movies that work really well, so I don’t understand why this one feels so far removed and dated.

It’s not like I’m not entertained or affected by rich people problems – after all, I experience them often AND I’m a fan of The Great Gatsby, which is pretty much the peak of rich people problems. However, no one in Ordinary People was rich enough to be interesting, or poor enough to be relatable. I admire how the story attempts to tackle how a death can impact a family and how different people react to grief, but this particular story lacked a little something.

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It seemed like the movie started to pick up a bit more near the end, but the beginning had already lost me too much to pay enough attention to any of that. In my opinion, if you’re going to win an Oscar for Best Picture, you need to find a way to sustain people’s interest throughout. A strong start also helps, which is definitely something Ordinary People lacks. Overall, it was still nice of Redford to bring the complex subtleties of upper-class American grief and mental health to the big screen. I’m not quite familiar with the common views and depictions of psychiatry back in the day, but I’m sure this must have felt like a breath of fresh air or the much-needed acknowledgement of the elephant in the room to many people or families out there. Unfortunately, it is now 2017 and there isn’t much of this movie that resonates with me.

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