Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dysfunction Junction

"Don't admire people too much. They might disappoint you."

Cal (Donald Sutherland)

"Families can go along for years without ever facing the underlying problems in their relationships," Roger Ebert wrote. "But sometimes a tragedy can bring everything out in the open, all of sudden and painfully, just when everyone's most vulnerable."

That, Ebert said, was the underlying premise of "Ordinary People," which premiered on this day in 1980. It was a remarkable achievement for first–time director Robert Redford and a great cast that included Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern.

It may have been even more remarkable for Moore and Hirsch, who almost certainly were best known for their TV comedy performances when this movie was made. Both were rewarded with Oscar nominations — as were Hutton (who won) and Redford (who also won). I guess everyone couldn't be nominated — and Hutton beat castmate Hirsch for Best Supporting Actor — but Sutherland was left out. I will confess that I didn't understand that. I thought then — and I still think today — that his performance was one of the best of his career.

And, while I like McGovern, I didn't really think her performance merited an Oscar nomination.

The movie richly deserved the Oscars it received — but it could be very difficult to watch. Once was probably enough for most people. It was gritty. It was candid. It was emotionally uncompromising.

That does not make for the kind of movie that most people want to watch for entertainment. While there are probably exceptions to that, I can't say that I know anyone who has a copy of it in his/her DVD collection.

"Ordinary People" picked up the loose threads of an ordinary American family in emotional turmoil after the death in a boating accident of the oldest son. That tragedy exposed those unaddressed issues, like a festering sore, of which Ebert spoke. Most families have them (I'm tempted to say all families have them, but I suppose I should leave open the possibility that there are some exceptions to that rule — although, personally, I doubt it), those issues of which no one speaks until circumstances leave them no choice.

In "Ordinary People," I suppose the most jarring performance against type was delivered by Moore, whose career up to that point had been in popular sitcoms. Her performance as the emotionally distant and apparently unfeeling mother was hugely effective; Redford said it was the heart of the piece, and Moore played the part to perfection.

Beth (Mary Tyler Moore): Calvin? Why are you crying? Can I ... can I get you something?

Cal (Donald Sutherland): I don't ...

Beth: What did you say? Calvin, what did you say? Tell me!

Cal: You are beautiful. And you are unpredictable. But you're so cautious. You're determined, Beth; but you know something? You're not strong. And I don't know if you're really giving. Tell me something. Do you love me? You really love me?

Beth: I feel the way I've always felt about you.

Cal: We would have been all right if there hadn't been any mess. But you can't handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. I don't know. Maybe you can't love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was as if you buried all your love with him, and I don't understand that, I just don't know, I don't ... maybe it wasn't even Buck; maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried. But whatever it was ... I don't know who you are. I don't know what we've been playing at. So I was crying. Because I don't know if I love you anymore. And I don't know what I'm going to do without that.

Ebert described the family flawlessly.

"There's the surviving son, who always lived in his big brother's shadow, who tried to commit suicide after the accident, who has now just returned from a psychiatric hospital," wrote Ebert. "There's the father, a successful Chicago attorney who has always taken the love of his family for granted. There's the wife, an expensively maintained, perfectly groomed, cheerful homemaker whom 'everyone loves.' The movie begins just as all of this is falling apart."

At the heart of what Ebert calls the "falling apart" of this family was "the complexities of love." Moore, as I say, was the icy character everyone thought she was, incapable of loving her husband or her youngest son, at least to the extent that she clearly loved her first born. Sutherland played her husband, a truly sympathetic character who wanted to love and support his wife and surviving son but, like so many men of his generation, had trouble expressing his emotions.

Hutton, as the youngest son, suffered the most from the death of his brother. Ebert called him "tortured," and that is a good description. He blamed himself for what happened to his brother. He was always afraid — and he was resentful of the fact that his mother clearly favored his brother over him. As Ebert observed, he attempted suicide — and spent four months in a psychiatric hospital. Yep, lots of issues for this family.

Hirsch played a psychiatrist who tried to help Hutton's character. Next to Moore's, his performance was probably the most jarring for audiences of 1980. At the time, Hirsch was probably best known for playing Alex the affable cab driver on Taxi. In "Ordinary People," he had to deal with post–traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt. That's a pretty toxic cocktail.

But he helped Hutton's character tremendously, at one point telling him, "A little advice about feelings, kiddo. Don't expect it always to tickle."

As I wrote earlier, "Ordinary People" richly deserved the Oscars it received — the three I have already mentioned and a fourth one for Best Adapted Screenplay.