Friday, 6 April 2012

Ordinary People (1980)

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

I had never heard of the film Ordinary People before I started searching out films set in Illinois for this challenge. This in itself proves the worth of the objectives, because the film is very powerful, very moving and superbly acted by an all-round ensemble cast who have to dig deep into some very uncomfortable territory. And I am not the only person to think so. In 1980 Ordinary People won the Academy Awards for Best Film, Best Director (Robert Redford), Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton, still the youngest person to have won that award) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Alvin Sargent). There were nominations too for Best Actress (Mary Tyler Moore) and another Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch). It won five Golden Globes and was nominated for three more. This was a very successful and critically praised movie. I’m actually quite shocked that I had never heard of it previously.

The film centres on the Jarretts, a well-to-do family in the well-to-do suburbs of Chicago. There are three of them: tax attorney father Clive (Donald Sutherland), homemaker mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) and high school student Conrad (Timothy Hutton). But there used to be four. The absence of eldest son Buck (Scott Doebler) haunts the family as the first of two serious incidents to have impacted upon their lives. During a sailing trip the two sons got into trouble when their boat capsized. Conrad survived. Buck didn’t. The second incident relates to the reaction to that event. Four months prior to the current time Conrad had attempted suicide. The film then relates how the different family members try to process those events. Conrad was hospitalised following his suicide attempt. Back at home now he has trouble relating to his family or his friends. Eventually he starts to open up to two individuals: Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), a girl in his choir with whom he goes on a date, and Dr Berger (Judd Hirsch), a psychiatrist whom he reluctantly agrees to see but who has a major and far-reaching impact upon him. Calvin tiptoes around Conrad with forced jollity, hesitant to push his son too far. Meanwhile Beth remains glacially distant, trying to make everything go back to normal, as though nothing had ever happened.

Of course, none of this is apparent at first. The story is not rushed. The specifics of the story and the characters’ reactions to them emerge gradually. But back behind the scenes a kettle is boiling, the pressure building up. Events come to a head at Christmas. After several cringingly awkward attempts to “connect” with his mother Conrad finally snaps when her unease at posing for a photo with him becomes clear. She later bites back in anger when she discovers from another mother that he has dropped out of swim team without informing them. She accuses Calvin of being soft on the boy and always taking his side. She persuades her husband to take a trip with her to Houston, leaving Conrad with her parents. The pressure finally explodes during their absence, leaving me twisting on the couch for fear that Conrad would again attempt to take his own life (there is a nail-biting scene when runs to the bathroom, runs the sink, and plunges his writs into the water… before splashing it over his face). In panic he turns to the only person he feels he can trust: Begrer. In a late-night emergency counselling session a catharsis is reached, Conrad screaming at Berger as though he were Buck: “I said put the sail down but you said keep it starboard and then we go over! And you say ‘Hang on, hang on!’ but then you let go! Why’d you let go?” Realising this Berger replies, as Buck: “Because I was tired!” “Oh yeah? Well screw you, you jerk!” Maybe therapy sessions are over-used and old-hat now, but I have to admit that scene hit me like a punch in the gut. “What was the one wrong thing you did?” “I hung on.” Conrad did not kill Buck, but he is stricken with the feeling that he could have done more. He is angry with his brother for dying, and he is angry with himself for living. He has survivor’s guilt.

One other scene had me likewise tearing up, and that is Cal and Con’s reconciliation at the end of the film. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just the age I am at, but father-son relationships always have me blubbing, whether it’s Ordinary People or Doctor Who. Just as Conrad is coming to understand himself, Calvin is coming to understand his family. And in particular his brittle, high-strung wife. Beth does not like emotions to be aired in public. She does not like the family’s dirty linen to be aired in public. She does not want her family to be seen as exceptional and talked about. After Calvin meets with Dr Berger his thoughts turn to one episode: on the day of Buck’s funeral Beth told him to change his shirt and his shoes. It bothers him that she was concerned with the family looking appropriate on the day their son was being buried. “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?” The only answer Beth can give is “I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.” She cannot name it. She cannot say that she loves her husband. Calvin’s assessment is damning: “We would have been all right if there wasn’t 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 like you buried all your love with him.” Had Buck not died, had Conrad not tried to kill himself, the family unit would have gone on intact as it always had. But the stresses and strains of the last year had revealed that there was an emotional hollow at the heart of that family. Needless to say, Beth walks away without saying a word. Only in the privacy of her room can she finally break down. (Calvin’s comments about Beth and mess are foreshadowed earlier in the film when Conrad tells Dr Berger that his suicide attempt stained the towels, rugs and tiles in the bathroom).

The two parents are very different. In family dramas it is usually the mother who is the nurturing supportive parent, with the father the emotionally distant one. Not here. And all credit to the two actors for inhabiting their roles so completely. Donald Sutherland’s Calvin is encouraging and tactile (Beth comments that he is always hugging people). He may be a tax attorney who commutes into Chicago on a daily basis, but he cares about his family. And he cries. Welcome to the birth of the New Man. (He is pretty alone in this however; his colleagues can only spout incomprehensible tales about floating stock options). But Mary Tyler Moore deserves even more credit for blasting away her sitcom past with a role so horrifically yet believably emotionally stunted (interestingly Judd Hirsch also broke out from his starring role in the sitcom Taxi – bold imaginative casting from debut director Robert Redford all around!). Beth is a Stepford Wife with little if any obvious humanity about her. Except she is not Calvin’s fantasy woman. She has made herself like this, building her own protective walls. A clue to why she is the way she is comes from a revealing interchange with her own mother; when she mentions Dr Berger her mother immediately wants to know whether he is Jewish. Why? What possible use could such information have? But it shows the fussy mannered WASP pretensions that she herself grew up in. Possibly the most unpleasant revelation is that she never came to visit Conrad while he was hospitalised. Con accuses her of favouritism: “You woulda visited Buck if he was in hospital!” She shoots him straight back down: “Buck would never have been in the hospital!” She cannot understand Conrad’s turbulent emotions because hers are so deeply buried that it seems as though she hates him.

Conrad's End: Beth and Conrad attempt to only connect...

In a way this gives the film a scapegoat. The situation is not Conrad’s fault. It is not Calvin’s fault. It is Beth’s fault. But Beth, somewhere, deep inside, is hurting too. Maybe more than anyone else: all she wants is a nice stable family, and Calvin has snatched that away from her. We see the father and son reunion; we do not see what becomes of Beth. Really, nothing is anyone’s fault. Shit happens. People deal with it the best way they are able. There is the implication that talking about things, bringing all the skeletons in the closet out into the light, is the best way to deal with stress. This is a very American viewpoint, the viewpoint of a fundamentally optimistic and open society. But Beth comes at things from a more reserved, almost British, angle: it is up for the individual concerned to deal with their own problems their own way, and if that means repressing anything uncomfortable, so be it. The film is a call for people to be open and in touch with their feelings. But as Dr Berger warns, “Feelings are scary. And sometimes they’re painful. And if you can’t feel pain… you won’t feel anything else either.”

So why had I never heard of this film? I think the title doesn’t help. Ordinary People is a very, well, ordinary title, nothing really to stick in the memory. I can understand that the film title had to stay true to the original source material, Judith Guest’s 1976 novel of the same name. This had proved a hit in the US, making it easy to hang a film off it. I suppose it has a deeper meaning. The Jarretts are not particularly exceptional. They are the same as any family one might pass in the street. How many of those are too trying to come to terms with – or cover up – a deep family trauma? How many families that you assume are functioning normally are actually cracking apart under stress? I’m reminded once again of Dostoevsky’s quote from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Beth aspires to be one of the crowd, just another happy American family. But inside they are dying.

What have I learnt about Illinois?
I’ve learnt where the families with money live. We had the Los Angeles suburbs in Orange State. We had the New York suburbs in Revolutionary Road and The Stepford Wives. Now we have the Chicago suburbs stretching north up the Lake Michigan shoreline: Lake Forest and Highland Park. And they look nice places in which to live: big houses, parks of autumnal golden trees, bridges and streams. This is a very pastoral-themed part of the world. Compared to the flatness of the Texas golf courses (Cal cannot get over how flat the land down there is) the Illinois scenery seems to be more in keeping with the English idea of beauty – a nature tamed but not eradicated. Appropriate somehow for the movie’s themes. No wonder Beth likes Houston so much.

Calvin commutes in to Chicago by train daily. The city as shown here seems crowded and dirty in comparison.

Can we go there?
Lake Forest sits half way between Chicago and Waukegan in an area known as the North Shore. It must be a haven for wealthy suburban kids - a quick look on Wikipedia shows that Risky Business, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Mean Girls were all set in the North Shore area as well.

The film was shot extensively in the local area: Lake Forest, Highland Park, Lake Bluff, Fort Sheridan and Northbrook. The house used for exterior shots of the Jarrett residence is located on Greenbay Road, east Lake Forest (interior scenes were shot nearby in Fort Sheridan). Jeannine’s house is on Scott Street. Lake Forest High School, whose alumni include actor Vince Vaughan and writer Dave Eggers, was used for the film’s school (though the pool scenes were filmed at nearby Lake Forest College instead). Their school colours are indeed blue and gold. After Conrad’s first full conversation with Jeannine he skips through Triangle Park – notable for the copper deer statue shown in the film – singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Their first date occurs at McDonalds on Sheridan Roaf, Highwood. Earlier Con had met up with Karen at the Walker Bros Original Pancake House on Green Bay Road in Wilmette. Conrad uses the pay-phone at Lake Forest Train Station to make his emergency call to Dr Berger; Berger’s office is supposedly somewhere in Highland Park. Cal also has a scene above the Chicago River, in amongst all the tower blocks of Chicago’s Loop.

The golf course scene was meant to be in Houston, but instead it was filmed in Apple Valley, California.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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