• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 1, 2022

Ordinary People: Absent Mother


Mary Tyler Moore and Timothy Hutton. Photo: Paramount

Judith Guest gave up her teaching job to focus on writing her first novel, the one that would become ”Ordinary People”, trying hard to get to the bottom of the nature of depression. The novel was well-received, winning awards, and has become a useful tool in high-school classes. Still, most people might know the story primarily from the film adaptation that beat Raging Bull for the Best Picture Oscar.

A devastating tragedy
In the city of Lake Forest, Michigan, life is seemingly getting back to normal for the Jarretts, a socially affluent family that recently suffered a devastating tragedy. While sailing on Lake Michigan, Conrad (Timothy Hutton) and his older brother Buck had an accident that ended with Buck drowning. Conrad blamed himself to the degree that he tried to commit suicide and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. Now he’s reunited with his parents, trying to get back to his old life as a high-school student and athlete on the swimming team.

He also starts dating a girl, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), who’s a positive influence, but he still finds it hard to communicate. His worried father (Donald Sutherland) sends him to a therapist (Judd Hirsch), even though his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) feels embarrassed about her husband and son’s inability to move on and maintain the integrity of the family.

In need of a career change
In the 1970s, Robert Redford needed a career change. He had experience as a producer, but wanted to direct and knew as soon as he read Judith Guest’s novel that this was something he cared about. At first, when he called Guest, she wouldn’t believe this was really him, but a deal was reached. Redford had a hard time convincing a studio that the film was worth making; most of them turned him down. When Paramount supported the project and the casting process began, Redford looked to television. That’s where he found ”America’s sweetheart”, Mary Tyler Moore; he saw a sadness in her that might fit the mother character well, and Moore was eager to do something challenging, that might change people’s perception. Redford was also looking to find an actor who might give the psychiatrist a somewhat unhinged edge; Judd Hirsch on Taxi seemed an ideal choice.

Then there was the role of the depressed son. Timothy Hutton hadn’t done much when he was cast, but this became a major breakthrough for him, resulting in a record-breaking Oscar win; at the age of 20, he was then the youngest recipient of the award. Feeling lonely on set because Redford had told the other actors not to engage with him in order to make him feel off balance, Hutton delivered a very sensitive, realistic portrait of a young person trying to keep all of his potentially overwhelming emotions after the suicide attempt in check.

He’s surrounded by a first-rate cast, but Moore stands out as the narcissistic mother, unable to understand why she’s the only one who knows how to bury her grief in a way that doesn’t inconvenience other people. The relationship between Beth and her son is painful, especially in a memorable scene where the father wants to take a photo of them together; awkward doesn’t even begin to describe it. 

Sweden had Ingmar Bergman. Who thought in 1980 that Redford might look like the American equivalent, but his direction (understated, yet attentive to details) was right for the story. As for the music, Marvin Hamlisch’s arrangement of Pachelbel’s ”Canon” may seem overly manipulative because of its incredibly emotional nature, but it’s really a masterstroke. This film helped popularize it – and sent its audience into therapy. That’s not a bad thing.

Ordinary People 1980-U.S. 123 min. Color. Produced by Ronald L. Schwary. Directed by Robert Redford. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent. Novel: Judith Guest. Cast: Donald Sutherland (Calvin Jarrett), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth Jarrett), Judd Hirsch (Tyrone C. Berger), Timothy Hutton (Conrad Jarrett), M. Emmett Walsh, Elizabeth McGovern.

Trivia: McGovern’s film debut. Gene Hackman was originally cast as Berger; Richard Dreyfuss was reportedly considered for the part. The novel has also been turned into a play.

Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Hutton). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actress (Moore), Supporting Actor (Hutton). 

Last word: “I thought Richard Dreyfuss should play the psychiatrist, so I called him and asked. He said, ‘I can’t talk right now, I’m having a nervous breakdown.’ So I said, ‘Well, I won’t bother you. Hope it all works out.’ Then I went to Donald Sutherland. He said, ‘I don’t want to play the psychiatrist, but I’d love to play the husband.’ (Redford, Entertainment Weekly)



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