Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Twenty-Seven

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#27 — Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)
It’s worth considering Robert Redford’s place in the entertainment firmament when made Ordinary People in 1980. It was his first film as a director, so he was completely untried and untested in that capacity, as opposed to general respect he now has, even though his filmography is spottier than most care to admit. Sundance was just a glimmer of an idea, without a single workshop mounted or a film festival staked on devotedly celebrating independent cinema (Redford was involved with the fledgling Utah/US Film Festival that Sundance eventually subsumed and replaced, but there was little prestige associated with that endeavor). Redford was merely a movie star, given only begrudging respect for his acting abilities. He was widely perceived as a guy who things came to too easily, as if his appearance and demeanor as a man seemingly genetically engineered to be mortal god of the American West led to success being bestowed on him like offerings from the humbled faithful.

Thus, Ordinary People was something of a shock, which caused it to be initially overpraised and then, later, undervalued. Redford took Alvin Sargent’s screenplay based on Judith Guest’s 1976 novel and fashioned a sharp, lean, understated and emotionally ferocious drama. The film focuses on upper middle class family the Jarretts, whose pristine, composed front is a shaky disguise for a trio of psyches in turmoil, somewhat inspired by the untimely death of a golden boy son. The surviving brother, present for his sibling’s demise and unable to help, has descended into a bleak depression and familial conflict arises as much as anything from the way his grueling, honest emotions are a threat to the home’s appearance of composed perfection. It’s not pain that’s the problem; it’s letting the pain be visible to others, to outsiders.

It was hardly revolutionary to build a film around the concept of the rottenness festering under the veneer of privilege at the heart of go-go American suburban life, though it was far less prevalent a topic then as it is now. What’s remarkable about Ordinary People, though, is Redford’s perfect calibration of the various agonies on display. He works expertly with his actors to show how disenchantment can become a daily grind, shouldered like a job. Timothy Hutton justly won an Oscar for his portrayal of haunted, damaged Conrad, a young man always on the verge–of either breakdown or breakthrough, both outcomes seem constantly possible–yet never quite emerging from the purgatory his guilt has cast him into. As the matriarch, Mary Tyler Moore sheds any hints of sitcom sparkle to play a woman swarmed by her own anger and judgment with an imposing intensity that Donald Sutherland meets with his trademark wounded grace as her husband. The film becomes an object lesson in the ways that combustible relationships leave behind irretrievable scorched souls.

There’s a winning bravery in the film, perhaps fueled by Redford’s widely perceived need to constantly prove himself, to demonstrate a talent worthy of the attention he receives. He believes in the craft of acting, in the artistry of filmmaking, in the capability of entertainment to transcend diversion and shift the globe onto a sturdier, more sustainable axis. The latter half of his public career–built more memorably around his advocacy efforts than most of what he’s done in his day job–has been ongoing proof of that. Enjoyable as some of his prior efforts as an actor were, Ordinary People was the first firm demonstration that he understood and appreciated the power of his chosen medium, and, more impressively, had the personal capability to take advantage of its potential strength.

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