81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Ordinary People

October 11th, 2009 · No Comments · 1980, Adaptation, Color, Composer: Marvin Hamlisch, Drama, F-Word, Mary Tyler Moore, Ordinary People, Paramount Studios, Robert Redford, Swearing

Ordinary People I’ve always liked Mary Tyler Moore. She was incredible as Laura Petrie in The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966), and she was superb in her own series, the highly acclaimed The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). To be honest – and, let’s face it, who isn’t honest when he blogs? – I had a crush on MTM during the 1970s. I thought she was hot.

There. I admitted it. Got if off my chest. (Yes, I do feel better. Thanks for asking.)

In Ordinary People Mary Tyler Moore portrays the cold-fish mother (Beth Jarrett) of an affluent family who’s oldest son drowns in a boating accident. Conrad Jarrett, their youngest son (played by Timothy Hutton), survived the accident and is now haunted by guilt. Donald Sutherland is the father (Calvin Jarrett) who seems too happy all the time. Judd Hirsch is the psychiatrist (Dr. Berger) to whom Conrad turns to talk through his feelings.

After All Mary Tyler Moore In her autobiography, After All, Mary Tyler Moore relates the circumstances – including meeting director Robert Redford (whom she calls “Bob”) – that lead to her being in the movie:

I read the novel Ordinary People when it was first published in 1976. Like most people whose appreciation put it on the best-seller list, I was moved by the story of a family who seemingly had everything but was shattered to bits by the death of a son. The character of the mother, Beth Jarrett, a woman trapped by her expectations of self and family, was of particular interest to me. She made me think of my father and his rigidity. I never thought of it becoming a movie while I was reading the book, so I certainly didn’t see myself in her skin.

Yet two years later, when I was told that Paramount was going to film it with Robert Redford directing the Alvin Sargent adaptation, I knew it was going to be a modern masterpiece, or the next thing to it, and that I was meant to be a part of it. Redford himself thought of me for the role, saying later that as he occasionally caught sight of me walking Malibu Beach, he wondered about what might be the “dark side” of Mary Tyler Moore.

She writes that she found Robert Redford “warm and funny, and so charming that within minutes I forgot who he was.” But then, “I would feel a thunk in my chest as my mind screamed out – THIS IS ROBERT REDFORD!”

He told me I was the one whose face he saw as he read the book. There was, however, the issue of whether my television image (Mary Richards) might in some way impose itself on the piece…I never wanted anything so much.

“Bob” eventually chose MTM for the part…and the rest is history.

I don’t usually like “mini-plot” movies with most of the action occurring internally within the characters. I hated Accidental Tourist (1988), for example. Watching William Hurt passively react to everyone and everything around him made me nuts. It would have been more fun to watch paint dry. The movie The Reader (2008) was similar in that the Ralph Fiennes character reacted so slowly and with such passivity (brought on by mental anguish) that I wanted to scream.

People too emotionally stunted to function drive me crazy. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a person, except in a movie. And that’s the last place I want to encounter such an individual – when I have to pay to do it.

“A little advice about feeling, kiddo,” says Dr. Berger to Conrad. “Don’t expect it always to tickle.”

That’s a great line. And great wisdom. I learned that from my Zen friends. Accept reality. Embrace feelings. Just be with what is. That’s Zen.

“You know, I think this can be saved. It’s a nice clean break,” says Beth Jarrett as she holds two halves of a broken plate together. Irony? Metaphor? Foreshadowing?

The Cast
Donald Sutherland (1935- )………………………….Calvin Jarrett
Mary Tyler Moore (1936- )……………………………Beth Jarrett
Judd Hirsch (1935- )……………………………………Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Timothy Hutton (1960- )………………………………Conrad Jarrett
M. Emmet Walsh (1935- )……………………………..Coach Salan
Elizabeth McGovern (1961- )…………………………Jeannine Pratt
Dinah Manoff (1958- )………………………………….Karen
Fredric Lehne (1959- )………………………………….Lazenby
James Sikking (1934- )…………………………………Ray Hanley
Basil Hoffman (1938- )…………………………………Sloan
Adam Baldwin (1962- )…………………………………Stillman

Directed By
Robert Redford (1936- )

Writing Credits
Judith Guest (1936- ), (novel)
Alvin Sargent (1927- ), (screenplay)
Nancy Dowd (1945- ), (uncredited)

Firefly I was surprised and pleased to discover that one of my favorite actors is in Ordinary People: Adam Baldwin. Adam, many years later, appeared in three of my favorite TV series – The X-Files, Angel, and Firefly, all of which rank in my Top Ten. Firefly is in my Top Five. Adam is great in his recurring roles in The X-Files (he played Knowle Rohrer) and Angel (he played Marcus Hamilton). But if you really want to see Adam Baldwin at his finest, you need to own Firefly. Few TV series ever got to be as good. Hey, I’ll even provide you with a link to buy Firefly on Amazon. I’d give you the money, too. But I don’t want to make things too easy for you.

The X-Files Season EightOrdinary People was nominated for six Academy Awards and won four: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Timothy Hutton), Best Director (Robert Redford, in his first effort behind the camera), Best Picture, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Alvin Sargent). Nominated but not winning were Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Judd Hirsch) and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Mary Tyler Moore).

This movie is the 53rd Best Picture Oscar winner and the 39th adaptation (a movie written from or based on a novel, short story, play, or other pre-existing work), which means as of this film Hollywood chooses adaptations as Best Picture 74% of the time.

AngelAccording to IMDB: “The first draft [of the script] took a year and a half to write, and the second took another year, as it was very difficult to adapt a novel which featured very heavy dialogue with almost no descriptions of characters or settings.”

My impression of Ordinary People is that it’s a good movie, but not a great one. Something seemed off about it, either the acting or the dialogue. The dialogue seemed heavy-handed or forced. Not natural. And, in a couple of the emotional scenes (Timothy Hutton’s break down with the psychiatrist and Donald Sutherland’s tearful confession to MTM near the movie’s end) I thought the acting was weak.

Still, as far as emotionally stunted characters go, the ones in this movie are better than most. In fact, I liked Ordinary People better than The Accidental Tourist and The Reader. And I know I’ll like it much better than The English Patient.

But I’ll take Firefly over Ordinary People any day.

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