My current Top 5

My current Top 5

4/28/2011

Number 38: Ordinary People (Best Picture Ranking)

In 1980, Robert Redford showed a talent for dark drama that had not been visible in his acting performances so far when he directed Ordinary People, a simple but fascinating tale of a family that used to be a role model for the typical ‘perfect American family’ but is slowly breaking apart after the oldest son dies in an accident at sea.

Ordinary People is filled with two kind of characters – those made fascinating by the actors and those made fascinating by the writing. In the middle is Timothy Hutton, giving an unforgettably powerful performance as the younger, surviving son whose own guilt for what happened and inability to connect with emotionally distant mother led to a nervous breakdown. His win for Supporting Actor is clearly category fraud but at the same time I can’t help but be incredibly happy that he did win an Oscar, no matter what category – his performance is certainly among the best ever awarded by the Academy.
Timothy Hutton gave an exceptional performance of an interesting yet ultimately ‘expected’ character. Mary Tyler Moore on the other hand gives a performance that benefits a great deal from the fact that her character is a never-ending enigma – the cold, emotionally unavailable mother has been done before but seldom has she been so human and yet so robot-like at the same time. It’s a case where the character is ultimately much more interesting than the actress bringing her to life but Mary Tyler Moore still adds a lot to Beth herself, too, and doesn’t let her performance be dictated by the screenplay. Judd Hirsch gives a very appealing performance that constantly brings a surprising amount of warmth into the cold structure of the story. Donald Sutherland may have been the only leading cast-member not nominated for an Oscar but he, too, does outstanding work as a confused father who is caught between his wife and his son.

The movie gets most of its energy and effect from the cast but they never overshadow the intriguing plot. Robert Redford directs this small story with a lot of skill and dignity. It’s a story that is driven by the characters and their interactions and Redford never tries to interrupt this wonderful flow. The picture made the smart movie to begin the story when the perfection that Beth so desperately wants is already destroyed – after the death of her first son. That way the viewer is thrown right into the tension of the story but at the same time it is not hard to imagine that, yes, Beth once achieved this level of perfection in her life. Now, her most obvious characteristic is her inability to communicate with her second son – is she blaming him for what happened or is she blaming him more for his inability to cope with his own feelings, or better, hide his own feelings since his problems, his need for a psychiatrist only destroy her family’s façade? Would she maybe even have preferred him to die instead? Again, the character of Beth is one of the most fascinating one to speculate about and the relationship between her and Conrad is the movie’s biggest success. But apart from that, Robert Redford and Timothy Hutton know how to make Ordinary People a story that is both about  Conrad’s family but also just about Conrad – his attempts to start his life anew provide the movie with some unforgettable scenes, especially at the end with Judd Hirsch.

Again, it’s a simple story but underneath it turns out to be a very unique and haunting story that is both intellectually and emotionally appealing.

5 comments:

Louis Morgan said...

I'm a little surprised it did not get even higher, although I suppose I would have it in a somewhat similar position, probably a little higher. I agree basically with everything you say in your review though.

Derek Bowman said...

Ordinary People gets a lot of flak for beating Raging Bull, but it is still a really good film, and I agree that Hutton's performance is great.

joe burns said...

I haven't seen this, but it sounds great!

Anonymous said...

A very good film, it probably would be a little lower in my ranking, Timothy Hutton's performance was perfect and so was Mary Tyler Moore's. Certainly a better choice than Raging Bull for Best Picture.

Anthony said...

I understand "Raging Bull" was an amazing effort with quite possibly Martin Scorsese's greatest direction and Robert DeNiro giving one of the greatest performances ever, among other things....but I have never loved it...never cared to really sit through it on multiple ocassions....but with ORDINARY PEOPLE, I was left stunned by the story and the performances, not to mention the haunting score and the use of Canon in D Major. Redford's direction, though, is only good, but serves the film well enough....but the main foursome sell this script magnificently, esp. Timothy Hutton in a performance for the ages.

One of the most underrated films and wins ever...I'd rank it even higher.