Ordinary People

Dir: Robert Redford, 1980. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch. Drama.
Ordinary People

Back in the day, if there was one historical injustice that could get any red blooded film-geek or cinaphile extremely agitated, it was the fact that Martin Scorsese had not won an Oscar. Of course in 2006, he finally did win for the overrated The Departed, putting that controversy to bed. But before that, film-geeks would foam at the mouth, especially knowing that the Godly director had lost twice to actors making their directing debuts.

In 1990, Goodfellas was robbed by Kevin Costner's goody-goody Western Dances With Wolves. And ten years earlier Raging Bull lost to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

Interestingly enough, numerous polls of the best films of the eighties put the Scorsese picture at the top of the list. Ordinary People usually doesn’t rank. Now let me throw my hat into the fire...and risk my safety in film-geek circles...Ordinary People is a better film then Raging Bull.

There I said it.

Yes, Raging Bull has some incredible filmmaking with its stunning tracking shots in beautiful black & white. And it has that amazing showoff performance by Robert De Niro. While Ordinary People is just a quiet story about a suburban family dealing with the effects of a crisis. Raging Bull has all the tricks and the violence and the anger, but what it lacks  is what Ordinary People has plenty of: heart. Ordinary People sneaks up on you and moves you, where Raging Bull only leaves you bruised and exhausted.

In 1980 Robert Redford was a pretty boy superstar, but kind of lightweight as an actor. It must have been a surprise when he chose to direct an adaption of a Judith Guest novel as his first film and not a vanity project that he would star in (that would come later with The Horse Whisperer). In a powerful Oscar winning role, Timothy Hutton plays a tortured teenager fresh out of a psychiatric hospital trying to adjust to life as a high school student. Donald Sutherland, at his best, is his loving father, who is falling apart as his perfect family crumbles. And Mary Tyler Moore gives a career redefining performance as the ice cold mother trying to cover up those cracks in the family’s walls and keep up the impression of stability at any cost.

As the seasons change on screen to the tune of Pachelbel’s "Canon in D Major" the conflicts grow and develop in the family. What could play like a Lifetime Channel TV Movie actually feels more like Ibsen or Chekov. The relationships are so complicated, never letting the obvious happen and, like real life, the audience is never given an easy escape from an uncomfortable situation. And it does tug at the heartstrings; it has moments that are as moving as any in film history, but you never feel it tugging. Putting tears in the viewers eyes is one trick the old master Scorsese could learn from first time director Redford.


Ordinary People won four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch) and Best Actress (Mary Tyler Moore).


Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 22, 2010 3:41pm
Steve Earle and the Dukes
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