Saturday, January 10, 2015
(September 1980, U.S.)
You've heard me talk about how the year 1990 was the worst year (so far) of my adulthood! Well, in case I haven't mentioned it before, the year 1980 was the worst year of my childhood, for a multitude of reasons that I won't get into now (I must have had back luck with years that ended in zero!)! On the positive side, though, the year was filled with a lot of great movies. Only problem was that I was still too young (only thirteen years-old) to see many of them, including THE ELEPHANT MAN, RAGING BULL and ORDINARY PEOPLE. Truth be told, however, had I been old enough to see ORDINARY PEOPLE, it would have likely depressed me ever more than I already was and perhaps would have even caused me to fear the oncoming adulthood of my life. What would I have feared? Marriage, professional career, child rearing, the thought of losing a child, the thought of surviving and recovering such a loss, losing the love of my spouse, the ability to love again - all of it!
By the time I was old enough to finally get around to seeing this film, I had already read Judith Guest's original novel for eleventh grade English class and I actually managed to stick with it to the very end. It was a great book and I still own a paperback copy somewhere on my book shelves. One can surely understand why famed actor Robert Redford would choose this story to breakout in his directorial debut. It's a depressing and heartbreaking story of an ordinary family living on what could be considered an ordinary house on an ordinary street in an ordinary suburb of Illinois. To the outside world, all seems to be functioning normal. Look deeper, though, and we realize everything is not in its proper place, especially the tragic past of this family the Jarretts (just like the movie poster says). Calvin (played by Donald Sutherland) is a traditional hard working, caring and loving husband and father who struggles on a daily basis to keep his family afloat (no pun intended!) following the tragic death of one of his sons (Buck) in a boating accident. Beth (played by Mary Tyler Moore) is...well, how can one put it...a lot like my own mother! Beth is incredibly structured to the point where she is grossly overcompensating her own fears and weaknesses. Everything must be neat and tidy, and I don't just mean the house, but in life, too! When things in life get messy, she hasn't the patience, the time or the strength to cope with it on any mature level.
(Wait! Am I discussing Calvin's mother or my own?? Hmmm...)
To be completely fair, I, myself, have been accused of such emotional characteristics, as well, particularly by my own wife (also named Beth, by coincidence); the difference being that in the end I always roll up my sleeves and deal with the problem like a man!
The real story of ORDINARY PEOPLE, though, is of surviving son Conrad (played by newcomer Timothy Hutton in what inaugurated a very brilliant acting career!) and how he must battle surviving the boating accident, the loss of his older brother, a previous attempted suicide, alienation from friends and family, an over-protective father and a mother incapable of showing him any real love and affection. That's a whole lot for a young high school kid to take on at once, even for screen fiction. Enter psychiatrist Dr. Berger (played by Judd Hirsch fresh from TV's TAXI) to help Conrad get through the rough edges. The character of Dr. Berger, in fact, is one that shows the profession of psychiatry in a rather different light than previous film efforts, in that his professional attitude is not so one dimensional. He's a no-bullshit man who's not willing to allow his patient to wallow in any self-pity or blame. Through their sessions (though not immediately), Conrad slowly begins to understand not only what it means to survive such a tragic loss in his life, but to also forgive himself and those around him who may not have lived up to his expectations. As children, we all want the proper love and affection we feel we deserve. As Calvin's mother is unable to dote such affections on him (though she could very easily with Buck when he was alive), he must learn to forgive her limitations and accept her for who she and always will be. Yeah, right - that's sounds great on paper and on film. But I suppose the reality is that when our parents don't live up to what we want them and expect them to be, such automatic forgiveness is not that simple, especially when our parents don't even bother to ask for our forgiveness in the first place!
As a relevant token of triumph for the film, Conrad is, indeed, saved in the end and it appears he will go on to live a better and healthier life thanks to his new friendship with Dr. Berger. The price, however, may be his parent's marriage as they are seemingly at the end of their line together, and by all accounts, the loss of love between them appears to be Beth's fault. You see, it's very easy to repeatedly say, "I love you" to others like some sort of machine, but there are, in my opinion, daily practices, routines and functions of that love that must take place or that love will inevitably not be enough to sustain itself. For some, it may be sex. For others, it may be the simple act of nurturing attention that serves to reassure and validate us of who we are in the eyes of those we've chosen to spend our lives with. That sort of attention may sound a bit petty to some, but I believe it's part of the daily survival of marriage. If we're too afraid, too weak or just too bogged down in our daily personal rituals to remember such attentive acknowledgments, then love and marriage have the potential to die. And that's exactly what happens to Beth and Calvin at the end of ORDINARY PEOPLE. Still, there's a glimmer of hope for this family because not only has Conrad survived his demons, but it appears that the bond between father and son will now grow stronger...and it all ends with the simple words of, "I love you."
ORDINARY PEOPLE won the Oscar for best picture of 1980. It's an extraordinary motion picture, but for my money, Martin Scorsese's RAGING BULL should have won instead (it's also one of my top ten favorite films of the 1980s). But have you noticed that it's film of supposedly ordinary, yet emotionally unstable families that takes home the big Oscar prize? Remember KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979) and AMERICAN BEAUTY(1999) also??
Favorite line or dialogue:
Calvin Jarrett (to Beth): "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 Jarrett: "I feel the way I've always felt about you."
Calvin Jarrett: "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."
WAIT! I'm not done yet! Are you ready for a real interesting piece of personal trivia to go with this post? By the time I'd read the book and seen the film of ORDINARY PEOPLE many times, I actually felt a strong yearning to know what would inevitably become of the Jarrett family. So what did I do about it? Well, in March 1999, I actually sat down to write a synopsis of a continuing story of the Jarrett family which I called ORDINARY PEOPLE - 20 YEARS LATER. The title speaks for itself and my ideas incorporate the same principal characters. Guess what became of it? Nothing! Time moved on, I wrote other things, I got married, became a father and the principal actors of the original film got too damn old! However, I would like to take the opportunity to share that synopsis with you now and perhaps you'll tell me if you think it would have made a worthy follow-up (especially you, Robert Redford, if you're reading this!). Now obviously, my idea is based on a story that I don't own or claim the rights to, so I suppose I'm making myself vulnerable by sharing a story idea like this on the web. But since it's an idea that could never see the light of day because too much time has passed and the actors are too old now, I'm probably safe in doing this. Besides, if you're unethical and criminal enough to blatantly steal my story idea after I've publicly announced that's it's my own right here on my own film blog website, then frankly, be my guest (I hope North Korea hates you for it! LOL!!!)!
That being said, here it is...ORDINARY PEOPLE - 20 YEARS LATER introduced for the very first time right here, right now before your very eyes...
It is 20 years after the events of ORDINARY PEOPLE…
CONRAD JARETT (Timothy Hutton) has long forgotten the pain and turmoil surrounding his brother Buck’s death and his own attempted suicide. He is now a successful architect with his own practice. He has a beautiful wife and two eith year-old twin boys. CALVIN JARETT (Donald Sutherland) continues his life as he always has; his professional career the same, living in the same house he raised his sons in and he has never remarried. BETH JAREET (Mary Tyler Moore) never returned home after leaving her family that morning twenty years ago. She now lives in London and is married to a wealthy diplomat, living the life of luxury, privilege, style and grace she has always truly dreamed of. She’s had almost no contact with her son ever since.
The story begins with Conrad returning alone to his home town of Lake Forest, Illinois to attend the funeral of DR. BERGER, the psychiatrist who saved his life when he was a boy. While staying with his father, he accidentally discovers one day the he (his father) is terminally ill with prostate cancer. Putting his family and business on hold for a while, he stays at home to see his father through the rough times ahead. Living in the old house, wandering through his old home town, Conrad is constantly visited by old ghosts (inserted flashbacks from ORDINARY PEOPLE), including a chance-run-in with his old high school girlfriend, JEANNINE (Elizabeth McGovern), who apparently never left her home town. All of these reminders constantly revert back to one thing; his unresolved relationship with his mother.
Acting on nothing more than impulse, Conrad flies to London to see his mother. Once there, he’ll not only tell her of his dying father, but will also attempt to put back together the broken pieces of a relationship discarded long ago. Reunited, Calvin and Beth are just as awkward and tense with each other as they ever were. Beth still cannot show him affection and Conrad does not try to get any. Upon hearing of her ex-husband’s illness, she is reluctant to return to the United States because her former life and marriage are long forgotten. Returning to them (even temporarily) is considered too disturbing and too “messy” in her eyes. Conrad and Beth talk, they argue and they fight. Conrad pushes whatever buttons he feels are necessary to save himself and his mother from destroying each other, including confronting Buck’s death once and for all.
In an unexpected twist to his visit, Conrad asks his wife to join him in London with their two sons, in the hopes that when Beth meets her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, she may finally break free of the icy emotional shell she has long been a prisoner of. It works. Upon meeting her twin grandchildren for the first time, the first thing she notices is that they both have Buck’s eyes. She is unexpectedly and miraculously overcome with feelings of love and affection, and in that moment, while on her knees embracing the boys, she looks up and for the first time and really, truly sees her son; her beloved Conrad.
Beth returns home to Illinois with her family to find Calvin confined to a hospital bed. During the short time she and her ex-husband spend together, there is resolution and forgiveness. The story ends with Calvin’s funeral. Beth and Conrad embrace each other like they never did before. Similar to the end of ORDINARY PEOPLE, Conrad tells her, “I love you, Mom.” Through her tears, she replies, “I love you, too, Conrad.”
- Eric F. (March 1999)
Hell, I think it would have made a great movie!