From Paramount Studios
Directed by Robert Redford
Mary Tyler Moore
M. Emmet Walsh
Oscar's best picture nominations in 1981 landed on Coal Miner's Daughter, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Tess and Ordinary People. The latter copped the grand prize and in my opinion it was a shoo-in. Controversy swirled around the win then and exists to this day because Raging Bull didn't win. I didn't think then or now that Raging Bull should have won. DeNiro got the Oscar for it and it was richly deserved but that was enough. There was never any doubt that Sissy Spacek would win for Coal Miner's Daughter but that picture shouldn't have won either. The best picture of the year was clearly Ordinary People and Robert Redford, in his directorial debut, also deserved his Oscar. This is a magnificent movie.
I didn't read the book by Judith Guest but it seemed like I was the only one who hadn't. It had big movie written all over it and when Redford became attached to it, all of Hollywood was clucking about who would play the four leads, juicy parts one and all.
As the film opens, teenage Conrad Jarrett has just returned home from a stay in a hospital. He had tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists. At issue is the enormous guilt he feels at surviving a boating accident in which his older, beloved brother is drowned. The loss of the older brother and Conrad's suicide attempt has fractured the family and one wonders whether it will ever recover.
While Conrad is seemingly the starring role, the character whose actions involve all other characters, it is just as much about his mother, Beth, who is even more damaged than Conrad and the two of them seem to be at interminable odds. The father, Calvin,
is stronger than his wife and son, is the peacemaker and the voice of reason. His focus is on his surviving son and he is gradually more and more alarmed at his wife's apparent lack of concern and warmth for her son.
Conrad ultimately begins seeing a therapist who painstakingly tries to get the boy to open up about the accident and his relationship with his mother. As a person who loved my therapy sessions, I thought these scenes were the most rewarding of the film. They always encourage my tears. Judd Hirsch, who plays Dr. Berger, and Timothy Hutton, as Conrad, were riveting together... sad, illuminating, thoughtful, heartfelt. They would both rightly go on to be nominated as best supporting actors with Hutton scoring a win.
It was shortly before the filming started that the actor lost his own father, actor Jim (Where the Boys Are) Hutton, and he said that he was able to channel that grief into this role. I don't think he's ever had another role as good.
Donald Sutherland, who was originally thought of for the shrink role, asked to play the father instead and Redford gave in to that request. Known for his myriad roles as druggies, hippies, deadbeats and anything else that allowed for a glimpse into the counterculture, Sutherland seemed an odd choice for the strait-laced, button-down father but he pulled it off with great aplomb.
Mary Tyler Moore, too, seemed an odd bit of casting for a character as dark as Beth Jarrett. She could have used some of the laughs generated by Mary Richards and Laura Petrie in two of television's most iconic comedy series. But Redford wanted her from the start. One can only wonder why. Did he see something in her that was troubling? Had he seen her as a person who was laughing on the outside but crying on the inside? Did he see in her a coldness or aloofness that would serve her well in bringing Beth to life?
Well, good eye, Redford. I have taken by licks over the years for not particularly caring for Moore. While I quite enjoyed her second TV series, I thought she was the least interesting actor and character in it. I was geeked over the casting for this film and clearly remember being stymied by her inclusion.
I couldn't have been more wrong in my skepticism. Many actresses wanted this part but I cannot imagine anyone doing a better job than Moore. Whatever Redford saw in the actress is there plain as day on the screen. This is one of the most beautifully realized and memorable performances in movie history. Beth Jarrett has been named as one of the most hateful of movie mothers and while I would not argue with that, I really found her more sad.
Maybe the best part of you died when Buck died, Sutherland's character says in one of the film's most touching scenes. He is sitting at the dining room table in the middle of the night, crying. We would have been alright if it weren't for the mess. You can't stand mess. And she couldn't. Beth needed everything orderly and easy. She was embittered at her favorite son's death and angry and withdrawn with her surviving son who dearly needs her love and attention. She is incapable of giving him either. She was more into keeping up appearances than keeping up her strength for her hurting son.
Unfortunately Beth is not strong. She is ready to resume her life outside the family home, visiting friends, golfing, traveling, seeing plays, attending parties, but she is not willing to resume her life inside the home. She is the weakest link in her family. She is not able to comfort anyone else. She is not dealing well with her grief. She feels provoked by Conrad who is really only looking for love and forgiveness. He got it from his father but not his mother. She didn't even go see him while he was in the hospital and he confronts her with that in one of the film's most electric scenes, one I usually play a few times while watching the DVD. Involving the three family members, it is so beautifully acted and intelligently written, bursting with misunderstanding, accusations, hurt and colorful language.
In a session with Berger, he tells Conrad not to blame his mother for not loving him more than she's able. It appears through it all, Conrad is going to have to grow up, to turn a corner, to forgive himself, to look to himself for the answers. Berger will not permit him to say I don't know as a response to Berger's intimate question-asking. Some of the therapy scenes are raw and tough because Berger will not allow Conrad to feel sorry for himself. The rub is that you, as the audience member, find yourself feeling terribly sorry for Conrad. Berger knows that Conrad hides his feelings. They are powerful and they hurt.
Rather than speak to her husband about his concerns, rather than offer some degree of comfort to him, Beth chooses to leave the family home. How the fate of their marriage will play out is left as an unknown but it's just the perfect conclusion. The same can be said of the final scene between father and son in their backyard. Dad offers emotional support and some tough love and the film ends with hope. It was a rough couple of hours getting there.
I thought it was a brilliantly executed film, a moment of triumph for all connected with it. I have always loved beyond words family dramas and this goes to the head of the class. It won four Oscars including that lovely best picture award and was an incredible financial success.
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