Before watching Ordinary People, the directorial debut form Robert Redford, all I knew was it was the movie that beat Raging BuIl at the 1980 Oscars. Not just for Best Picture, but also beating Scorsese for Best Director. This has gone down as one of the great cock-ups in Oscar history, possibly only outweighed a decade later when Scorsese was again beaten. This time it was his undisputed masterpiece Goodfellas, losing to the Kevin Costner wank-fest Dances With Wolves. It must have taken the entire Academy working together to make a mistake that big.
So, does Ordinary People deserve to be remembered for more than just ruing Martin Scorsese’s night in March 1981? The answer is… Sort of?
First things first, this thing is out and out Oscar bait.
Story involving dead kids and/or suicide?… Check.
Someone famous for comedy having a red hot crack at a bit of drama?… Check.
A collection of just some of the most miserable people you’ve ever seen?… Check.
A no bullshit psychiatrist who tells it like it is?… You better believe it.
But all clichés aside, it is definitely worth watching, even if it’s just as a showcase of some pretty great actors doping some pretty great acting. Donald Sutherland is the dad and most sympathetic character in the movie. Mary Tyler Moore is the mother and afore mentioned comedienne trying her hand at drama. Timothy Hutton is the suicidal son and Judd Hirsch is the bullshitless shrink. Hirsch is also reason enough to watch Ordinary People. Every scene he’s in is a relief from what preceded and gives you a little something to help get through what’s to follow.
As a director, it doesn’t seem like Redford was too interesting in reinventing the medium with his first at bat. It’s a downbeat story and is shot that way. He does work with some great locations though, letting his natural Illinois surroundings and weather do the heavy lifting in creating and sustaining just the right (depressing) mood.
All this sounds like I hated Ordinary People, and while I have no plans to ever watch it again, I definitely didn’t hate it. The story is a little on the nose and designed for maximum heart string pullery, but the performances really do make it worth two hours of your time.