Ordinary People shouldn’t work. Not as a movie, anyway. The 1976 novel by Judith Guest deals with the nature and perception of grief, exploring in intricate ways how a major loss can affect a family—in this case, the Jarretts: father Calvin, mother Beth, and son Conrad, who are all mourning the loss of Buck, the elder brother and son, who died in boating accident. The book shifts its narrative focus between Conrad, who is recently released from a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide, and Calvin, who finds himself pulled in different directions by his son and wife, while also reflecting their different experiences with Beth, whose own journey through grief remains only glimpsed by the reader. It was Guest’s way of underscoring the fact that in a situation like this, even in a family, you can never fully know what someone else is feeling. And all that’s fantastic for a book, but how do you turn it into a movie? How do you transmute the invisible process of grief into something tangible and action-oriented? How do you externalize something that, by definition, is internal?
Director Robert Redford (in his first time behind the camera) and screenwriter Alvin Sargent are smart not to even try. Instead, the focus in the film version of Ordinary People is on the aftermath: the physical things left behind, the effect of a loved one’s presence in the room, of those periods of grief and growth as the surviving family members find themselves increasingly at odds with who they imagine each other to be.
An example: Early in the film, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) is putting away silverware in the kitchen while Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Conrad (Timothy Hutton) are in an adjoining room, and Redford lingers for an extra heartbeat on the image of her holding three napkin sets instead of four. The framing of the shot and Moore’s body language as she hesitates so briefly that we almost don’t see it are all that we need to absorb the emotional toll of what used to be an everyday task. The film is loaded with moments like this, where Redford allows the actors simply to exist and be uncomfortable around each other, their words doing everything to persuade others that they’re OK, while their faces and body language betray the truth. Even when diving into memory and reconstructing the accident that robbed the family of their firstborn, Redford avoids shock or easy sentimentality. The first images we see are Conrad’s memories of the incident—a storm, a capsize, everything over so fast—silently playing out while the sound and dialogue of the present scene in the “real world” keeps going. The images intrude on us the way they must on Conrad.
The narrative backbone of the film becomes Conrad’s attempts to grieve and move on, anchored by a series of appointments with a therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). These serve as signposts throughout the movie, as well as indicators to mark the gradual passage of time. (The plot unfolds from the beginning of the school year through the Christmas holiday, and the lighting in Berger’s office grows progressively dimmer and more autumnal, which can also be read as a mirror of Conrad’s descent into the root causes of his grief before he can begin to heal.) The sessions in turn push Conrad in new directions that propel the narrative—does he want to stay on the swim team or quit, should he ask out the girl in choir or not, will he speak up when his mother hurts his feelings, etc. As a result, what could easily feel like an endless series of conversations instead becomes an escalating cause-and-effect between discussion and action.
None of which would matter without the right performances, though, and the ones here are stellar. Casting Moore was a stroke of genius. By the time of the movie’s release, she’d been famous for 20 years as one of the most beloved comic actresses in TV history, bringing a warmth to Laura Petrie and Mary Richards that made her an icon. Here, though, she plays a woman doing everything she can to withhold her emotions, who feels alienated from her own life, and who on some level blames her surviving son for the other one’s death. Bringing those decades of cultural reputation into this role and then detonating them is a chance that few actors ever get, and Moore doesn’t waste a single frame of the opportunity. It’s not that Beth doesn’t love Conrad, either: Rather, as Berger points out, her weakness is that “she can’t love [him] enough.” There’s a scene late in the film when Conrad, who’s spent so many months trying to get close to his mother, simply hugs her and leaves the room. Moore, seated when this happens, turns her head to the side and bends forward just a little as he leaves, consumed by the silent weight of her loss and her love and her inability to extricate one from the other. The writing and directing are so deftly handled throughout that Beth is never really a villain, either, or not exactly. Rather, she’s trapped by who she thinks she needs to be and the image she assumes she needs to project. She’s inflicting pain because she doesn’t realize how much pain she’s actually in.
Similarly, Hutton does an amazing job capturing Conrad’s sense of fragility and pain. Only 19 at the time of shooting in late 1979, and having lost his own father earlier that year, Hutton feels like a live wire in search of grounding. (To heighten the character’s isolation, Redford asked Sutherland and Moore not to interact with Hutton outside of filming.) He’s never properly still; he’s either jittery or stunned flat, unable to find anything approaching a happy medium until the end of the film. His work earned him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, making him the youngest to win the award. The film also won Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Sargent, and Best Director for Redford, and on top of that, it earned nominations for Moore and Hirsch.
The title of the movie and the book come from the novel: “They are ordinary people, after all. For a time they had entered the world of the newspaper statistic; a world where any measure you took to feel better was temporary, at best, but that is over. This is permanent. It must be.” What makes the film so powerful is the deft, careful way it peels away the shell of something that could be happening in any home in any neighborhood. There’s an intimate understanding that these things happen to everyone, and the fact that these characters are well-off is proof that no status or milieu can inure someone from the effects of loss, nor do they make grief easier to survive. Because if grief is anything, it’s a muscle: something to be exercised, maintained, understood. Something that will help you stand.