By the time ROBERT REDFORD’S ORDiNARY PEOPLE came out in 1980, MARY TYLER MOORE had already established herself as a dynamic performer. I always loved MTM – that smile, the hair, and her effervescent energy. With THE DiCK VAN DYKE SHOW and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, MARY proved she is a very funny woman who can share the laughs with an equally talented cast of people like DiCK VAN DYKE, BETTY WHiTE, ED ASNER, GAViN MaCLEOD etc. Clearly it was always easy to love MARY TYLER MOORE.
However, what makes MTM even more cool to me is that as adept as she was at comedy and sharing the laughter – she was also a formidable dramatic actress, and no other film displayed this talent as much as ORDiNARY PEOPLE – a film in which MTM was polar opposite to the smile and warmth that MARY TYLER MOORE exuded. ORDiNARY PEOPLE concerns the disintegration of an upper-middle class family in Lake Forest, Illinois, following the death of the older son in a boating accident. The screenplay by ALViN SARGENT was based upon the 1976 novel of the same same, by JUDiTH GUEST.
The film was a critical and commercial success, winning that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as nominations for TiMOTHY HUTTON and of course, MARY TYLER MOORE as Best Actress. Although she didn’t take the prize that year – she certainly proved herself as an actress with dimension.
Essentially, ORDiNARY PEOPLE is about The Jarretts; an upper-middle class family trying to return to normal life after the death of one teenage son and the attempted suicide of their surviving son, Conrad (TiMOTHY HUTTON). Conrad, who has recently returned home from a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital, feels alienated from his friends and family and begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (JUDD HiRSCH). Berger learns that Conrad was involved in a sailing accident in which his older brother, Buck (whom everyone idolized), died. Conrad now has to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt. It’s not the lightweight stuff that was THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. It’s heavy and hardly full of laughs.
Then you have Conrad’s father, Calvin (DONALD SUTHERLAND - who I love), awkwardly struggling to connect with his surviving son and wife. Conrad’s mother, Beth (MTM) struggles to comprehend her loss, maintain her composure, and focuses on what her family once was, and cannot be again. Beth appears to have loved her elder son more (though perhaps more what he represented?), and as a result has now grown cold toward Conrad. She is fixated with maintaining the appearance of perfection and normalcy. MTM is quite amazing in this sense – completely embodying Beth in this role – without even the slightest hint of the MTM we had all grown to know and love up until that point. Conrad works with Dr. Berger, and learns to try to deal with, rather than control his emotions. He starts dating Jeannine (ELiZABETH McGOVERN), and begins to regain a sense of optimism. He suffers a setback when he learns that Karen, a friend of his from the psychiatric hospital (DiNAH MANOFF – if anyone remembers her as Marty in GREASE, or T.v.’s EMPTY NEST) committed suicide. Conrad struggles to communicate and re-establish a normal relationship with his parents and schoolmates. He cannot seem to allow anyone, especially Beth, to get close – and it’s within these parts of ORDiNARY PEOPLE we are able to appreciate again just how MTM dominates the screen as a cold and unforgiving mother.
I will not spoil how ORDiNARY PEOPLE concludes, although many of you already know. I will say that it has always left an impression on me – in the best possible sense.
Today I salute not only a fantastic film, but an actress who epitomized her role. MTM wasn’t afraid to be cold – and to shed that which made her so lovable to instead play the part of a mother who couldn’t help but alienate her son – which is an aspect of the role that drew MTM to the film. Please check the following youtube links – for the ORDiNARY PEOPLE trailer as well as an in-depth interview with MTM herself where she reflects on her involvement with the film.