If Robert Redford was going to make his directing debut, he couldn’t have done much better than “Ordinary People.”
The deeply moving 1980 screen version of Judith Guest’s novel — which EPIX shows Wednesday, July 21 — earned an Oscar for Redford among its four wins, which also included best picture. A relative novice to the business at the time, Timothy Hutton picked up a best supporting actor trophy as Conrad Jarrett, a profoundly troubled Chicago-suburb teen whose quest to come to terms with his emotions has a huge impact on other relationships.
The main one is that of his parents, Calvin and Beth, superbly played by Donald Sutherland and (in a calculated break from the television image she had cultivated for so many years) Mary Tyler Moore. While Calvin is warm and concerned, Beth is cold and impatient … and though he has tried to look past her flaws, that becomes all but impossible as Conrad recovers from a suicide attempt linked to his guilt over a family tragedy.
With great hesitancy, Conrad goes to see a recommended psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch, also excellent), whose irony-infused approach to counseling gets through to the young man and slowly sets the stage for psychological doors to be unlocked. As that happens, Beth resists the new awareness awakened within her household, which also prompts changes in Calvin — who maintains that he’s “just trying to hold this family together,” despite the realization that he ultimately may not be able to.
Veteran screenwriter Alvin Sargent (also an Oscar winner here) does an exceptional job in retaining author Guest’s ideas and making them accessible to the mass audience, particularly in showing the progress in the therapy sessions without making it seem too accelerated for dramatic purposes. He and Redford also provide a choice part for much-later “Downton Abbey” staple Elizabeth McGovern, making her film debut as a quirky classmate who becomes Conrad’s would-be girlfriend; her scene as a clearly inexperienced bowler is wonderfully clumsy and classic, and one only can imagine the delight Redford took in guiding it. (Also seen in an early role: Adam Baldwin.)
Despite the perfection of other performances here, the biggest acting revelation in “Ordinary People” is that of Moore. One only needs to glance at a few minutes of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or her eponymous 1970s sitcom to recognize the huge challenge she faced in preventing her usual persona from seeping into her work as the icy Beth, and it’s a masterful job from start to finish. She has to keep a tight rein on it, really only getting to show all of the character’s colors in a marital fight on a golf course.
“Ordinary People” is every bit the rare movie experience it promises to be, and 40-plus years later, it still has a singular place among great American films.