- PLOT SUMMARY
- CULTURAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
In 1976, Viking Press published a manuscript plucked from the slush pile, Judith Guest's Ordinary People, and it succeeded in garnering critical success. In this best seller, the Jarrett family struggles to heal emotionally after the oldest son's tragic death in a boating accident. The story begins following the suicide attempt of troubled younger son Conrad and builds around themes of alienation, the search for identity, and coming of age. Young Conrad learns to face his feelings with the aid and friendship of a psychiatrist. This reflects a popular trend in the 1970s that valued the idea of self-exploration and psychological discovery.
In 1980 Robert Redford, in his directorial debut, adapted Guest's novel into an Academy Award-winning film starring Timothy Hutton as Conrad, Mary Tyler Moore as his mother Beth, Donald Sutherland as his father Calvin, and Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone C. Berger. In 1981, Redford won an Oscar for Best Director, Timothy Hutton won for Best Supporting Actor, and the film won Best Picture. Mary Tyler Moore was honored with a nomination for Best Actress. Ordinary People, both the novel and film, has been praised for its universal appeal, particularly in its portrayal of grief and realistic family dynamics.
The novel, Ordinary People, takes place in Lake Forest, Illinois, during the 1970s. The story centers on the Jarrett family—Calvin, Beth, and their son Conrad. They are mourning the older Jarrett son, Buck, who was killed in a boating accident. Conrad felt so guilty about Buck's death that he attempted suicide by slashing his wrists before the novel begins. Guest uses three points of view to tell the story, allowing Calvin and Conrad to narrate their own internal conflicts in alternating chapters and also occasionally using an omniscient narrator. Beth's character is developed through the point of view of her husband or her son.
Screenwriter Alvin Sargent meticulously adapted Ordinary People for the screen. Director Robert Redford, in contrast to Guest, adheres to a traditional onscreen storytelling style with an omniscient point of view and a focus on characterization through action. Redford cuts and combines certain scenes and rearranges the order of certain plot points, altering the chronology of Guest's original story.
The film version of Ordinary People opens with several quick camera shots to set the scene. First, the camera pans over a serene setting: empty winding roads, fallen leaves over a small bridge, a pier jutting out over calm water. Next the scene cuts to an imposing school, where inside a student choir sings "Hallelujah." Next Conrad Jarrett, a boy from the choir, wakes up in bed in a sweat.
Viewers next see a stage play in which a husband and wife are having a conversation. The husband tells his wife that he doesn't know a thing about her—especially little things, like what perfume she wears—but he has always been in love with her. The camera pans to the audience, where Beth and Calvin Jarrett are sitting. Calvin is asleep. In the car on the way home, Beth remarks on Calvin's quiet mood. When they get home, Beth sees Conrad's bedroom light on, but ignores it. Calvin goes in to talk to his son and asks if he is okay. Later that night in bed, Calvin makes love to his wife.
The next morning, Beth makes breakfast, while upstairs in his bedroom, Conrad appears anxious. He finally goes downstairs, but declines the French toast Beth offers. She dumps it down the sink even though Calvin tells her not to waste it. Beth rushes out. Calvin assures his son that they just want him to get stronger and suggests he start bringing friends home again. Calvin also asks if Conrad has called the doctor.
The novel opens with similar domestic scenes, but focuses more on internal conflict. In his room, Conrad dreads the day before him and sees routine tasks as daunting. Calvin and Beth are also beginning their day. Calvin, who was raised in an orphanage, thinks about how his fatherless childhood has affected him as a father. Calvin seems lost as his son. Calvin, Beth, and Conrad spend a tense breakfast together.
Family and Friends
Conrad waits outside for his friends to pick him up for school. They tease him about the fact he has to repeat eleventh grade because he missed final exams. The car stops for a train, and Conrad flashes back to a cemetery. After the train passes they continue on; when they see Jeannine Pratt walking to school, they harass her a bit.
In English class, Conrad's teacher asks him for his theory on Thomas Hardy's "Jude Frawley," and inquires if Conrad thinks he is a "powerless" character. Conrad eats lunch alone on the bleachers outside and later nervously calls Dr. Berger to set up a meeting. At swim practice, Coach Salan pushes Conrad to perform better. Later, Beth, Calvin, and Conrad have dinner together. The mood is tense and quiet. Beth talks only about superficial things, and does not address the tension in the room. She tells Calvin about a party they have to attend, but Calvin doesn's want to go.
The film illustrates the internal conflict Guest portrays in the novel through visuals, while the novel strives for a balance of "showing and telling." Similar to the film, the novel demonstrates Conrad's uncertainty and unease with his life through tense conversations with his parents, his swimming coach, and his old friends. But the novel also allows the reader inside Conrad's emotional Page 223 | Top of Article state. For example, in the novel, as Conrad waits for his friend Lazenby to pick him up for school, the reader is privy to Conrad's anxiety. He fears his mental instability is creeping back and feels guilty about worrying his parents. The reader also gets an inside view of Conrad's crush on a new girl at school, Jeannine Pratt, as well as his insecurities about swimming.
Flashbacks and Therapy
Conrad dreams about being caught with his brother Buck in a storm. The film cuts to Conrad standing in front of a building and contemplating whether to go inside. In the elevator Conrad looks nervous and practices small talk aloud. He enters the office; Dr. Berger tells him to sit. Conrad does not. Berger asks why he was in the hospital. Conrad says, "I tried to off myself." Berger inquires about the method and begins questioning him about his feelings. Conrad admits he wants to be more in control. He also confesses he does not like the idea of seeing a psychiatrist. Berger says he knows Conrad had a brother who died in a boating accident. Berger also says he is "not big on control." Conrad decides to see Berger instead of attending swimming practice.
The scene cuts to Beth and shows how extremely organized her kitchen drawers are. Conrad tells Calvin that he went to see Dr. Berger, and an encouraging Calvin asks how the therapy went. The scene then jumps to Conrad at swim practice, where Salan dresses him down and grills him about the therapy methods used in the psychiatric hospital. The scene changes again to Conrad in the school hallway with friends. He meets Jeannine, who compliments him on his singing in choir.
The film omits a detail about Berger that the novel uses as a form of character development. When Conrad meets Berger, the doctor's office has just been robbed. Despite the incident, however, Berger is unconcerned. He seems rather indifferent to the fact that someone broke in, but wonders what to do about the mess left behind. Conrad asks if Berger is going to call the police, but the doctor dismisses the idea because he is certain that calling them would not do any good. This scene between Conrad and Berger establishes Berger as a man who doesn't think too highly of doing things the conventional way. In contrast, the film version of Berger comes across in a more serious, straightforward manner.
In the film, Beth answers the door to greet trick-or-treaters with homemade treats. She mentions spending Christmas in London, but Calvin does not think a holiday is a good idea. Beth wants to get back to normal. The scene jumps to Beth coming home to an empty house. She opens a closed bedroom door and goes inside. She sits on the bed and gazes at her deceased son's belongings. The camera pans around the room to the awards and trophies. Conrad pokes his head in the room, startling his mother. Beth gasps and Conrad apologizes profusely. He tries to make small talk and reaches out to her, but she avoids him.
Rather than focusing on Beth, the novel reaches deeper into Calvin's psychological conflicts as he thinks about the argument with his wife and why he feels tempted by his attractive secretary, Cherry. For example, he wonders who he really is, and recalls his youthful dreams of becoming a soldier or an athlete. He questions his career choice, remembering how he took up a law career after his mentor, the famous tax attorney Arnold Bacon, offered him advice and a clerkship. Calvin also realizes that he never learned how to deal with grief.
Privacy, Dreams, and the Past
Calvin and Beth drive to their friends' party, despite the fact that Calvin does not want to go. Party guests make small talk about business, golf, and money. Calvin retreats to a staircase with friend Annie Marshall. The two talk about their kids, and Calvin tells her about Conrad's therapy with Berger. Beth overhears, and on the drive home lashes out at Calvin for speaking about what she considers a "very private matter."
Conrad asks Berger if he should tell him about his dreams and wonders if he should be taking tranquilizers, because he feels "jumpy." Berger does not have much faith in dream analysis or tranquilizers. Conrad thinks the hospital was easier because "nobody hid anything there." In the next scene, Conrad sees Karen, a friend from the psychiatric hospital. They are awkward and tense with each other as they discuss seeing doctors. Before the scene ends, she turns around Page 224 | Top of Article and, in a loud voice that startles other patrons in the restaurant, says, "Hey, would you cheer up?"
The novel includes the scene in which Conrad meets up with Karen. He tells Karen that he is seeing a psychiatrist, and she admits that she once saw one too, but stopped. She tells him that he must help himself, with faith in God. The film omits Karen's religious commitment. The novel also shows Calvin as drinking more in response to his problems. He tries to connect with Conrad and tells Beth that the family should postpone their vacation until the spring. He and Beth argue about their holiday on the way to a neighbor's cocktail party, and in the novel, the event is depicted in a much more intimate fashion than the way it is portrayed in the film. In the novel, when the Jarretts' friends ask Calvin and Beth about Conrad, the situation seems close, claustrophobic, almost as if Calvin and Beth feel they are under a microscope. In contrast, the party portrayed in the film is large, and when Calvin talks to a friend about Conrad, he seems to be divulging their business in a much more public forum.
Furthermore, in the novel, Guest describes Conrad's upsetting dreams as another way for the reader to see a different level of Conrad's fear and anxiety. For example, Conrad dreams that he is at the ocean and wanders into a drainage tunnel with walls that close in on him. Dr. Berger, whom he visits the next day, tells him the dream does not mean anything. Berger tells Conrad to lie on the floor for a "change in perspective." Conrad admits he is nervous all the time and does not want to swim anymore. At the same time, he fears quitting because he does not want to seem like a failure.
Tension in the Family
The film highlights the tension between Beth and Conrad. Conrad is in the backyard staring up at the sky. Beth comes outside to see if he needs a sweater and wonders what he is thinking about. Conrad tries to bond with her by mentioning how Buck once wanted a dog. Beth changes the subject, but to get her attention, he loudly barks. Their conversation ends abruptly. Back inside the house, Beth sets the table and Conrad offers to help. She declines and tells him that he can clean the closet upstairs in his room instead, insisting that it "really is a mess." The phone rings and Beth answers it, ignoring Conrad to talk with a friend. Her laughter prompts Conrad to remember Buck making his mother laugh. Conrad later talks with Berger about his problems connecting with his mother.
The scene shifts to Calvin and Ray, his law partner of many years, walking down the street. Ray says Calvin is "losing it" and wonders what's wrong with him. He uggests that he stop worrying about Conrad. Calvin flashes back to a memory of his sons fighting over a sweater, then to a disjointed memory of him pounding on a door, a stretcher, and an ambulance. These flashbacks are not included in the novel, but heighten the drama and emotional development in the film.
At swim practice Coach Salan tells Conrad that he has a bad attitude and is messing up his life. The action moves to Conrad at his school locker, where Lazenby says Salan told the swim team that Conrad quit and presses Conrad for a reason. Conrad avoids him. At a therapy session, Conrad tells Berger that he cannot relate to his mother. He also admits that he wants to keep control and stop feeling "lousy."
The novel explores Conrad's anxiety about the swim team and his conflict with his friends on a deeper level, as the reader is actively engaged with Conrad's point of view. For example, as Conrad watches swimming practice and fears getting back into the pool, he repeats the mantra, "Doesn't matter doesn't matter I didn't really want to swim." Though the viewer sees that reaction in the film, the novel allows a glimpse directly inside Conrad's mind.
The novel also provides more dimension to Calvin's feelings. When Calvin runs into Lazenby's mother Carole and asks her to have lunch with him, the reader understands how Buck's death has made Calvin feel as if nothing is the same as it was before the tragedy: "because she looks so real and so alive, he is absurdly glad to see her; asks her to go to lunch with him on the spot." Calvin longs to connect physically and emotionally with someone.
Family and Budding Romance
The tension between Beth and Conrad comes to a head in a scene involving Conrad, Calvin, Beth, and Beth's parents. Conrad's grandmother is taking photos of Conrad, Calvin, and Beth. When Calvin asks to snap a picture of Conrad and Beth, she tries to avoid having her picture taken with her son by saying she will take the pictures. Conrad lashes out and tells Calvin to "give her the goddamn camera." Beth later speaks to her Page 225 | Top of Article mother about Conrad, wondering out loud if they should send him to boarding school.
After choir practice, Conrad catches up to Jeannine in the hall, where she compliments his singing. They walk together, talking about music. After seeing her to the bus, Conrad walks home elated. When he gets home, he calls Karen, but talks to her mother who says Karen is not home. Conrad looks through the phone book for Jeannine's number, but has difficulty mustering the nerve to make the call. When he finally does, the conversation is a bit shaky, but she accepts when he asks her out on a date.
While the film portrays the family tension in more straightforward and simple manner, the novel layers internal and external conflicts and builds the plot along with the character development. For example, the novel shows Conrad beginning to heal as he fills his time with studies, birdwatching at the park, and Christmas shopping for his family. He makes a "Life List" and sets goals. In a session with Berger, Conrad confesses that he hasn't told his father about quitting swimming because he doesn't want him to worry. He continues to talk about his lack of connection with his mother. Berger encourages Conrad to allow himself to feel bad and to stop thinking so much. Conrad runs into Jeannine after school and invites her to have a drink with him. Their date boosts his self-esteem. On the way home, a display window prompts him to remember a skiing trip he took with Buck.
Christmas and Forgiveness, Flashback and Family Therapy
Calvin and Conrad bring home a Christmas tree but Beth arrives home angry after hearing from a friend that Conrad quit the swim team. Calvin asks why Conrad did not tell them. Conrad says that "the only reason she cares is because someone else knew about it first." After Beth leaves the room, Conrad confesses his resentment that his mother did not visit him in the hospital, telling his father that he is certain she would have visited Buck in the hospital. Conrad flees to his bedroom.
Calvin asks Beth to speak to Conrad with him, but she refuses. Calvin talks to Conrad alone. Conrad doesn't want his father to be angry. He also confesses to Calvin that he believes Beth hates him and will never change. Conrad later tells Berger about the argument, but says he doesn't really blame his mother because he caused the problems in her life. He describes the bloody mess in her tidy bathroom after he attempted suicide. Berger wants him to recognize his mother's limitations and to let himself off the hook. Conrad realizes he needs to forgive himself.
Calvin goes jogging with a friend, but when they part, Calvin continues to run, thinking back to the family argument while decorating the Christmas tree. Calvin later meets with Dr. Berger and admits he feels responsible for Conrad's suicide attempt. He also feels as though his family is drifting away from him. He confesses that he thinks Beth cannot be close to Conrad because the two are too much alike—neither of them cried at Buck's funeral.
Calvin returns home. Beth finds him sitting outside in the car and asks what is wrong. Calvin wants to discuss Buck's funeral. Beth had made a fuss about the shirt he had chosen, and he had always wondered why the shirt mattered. Beth hugs him but says nothing. This scene is not included in the novel, but provides visual character development and shows the disconnect in the relationship between Calvin and Beth.
Later, Beth meets Calvin for lunch. He suggests they see Berger together as a family. Beth refuses, insisting problems need to be solved in private. She wants Calvin to go away with her and tells him she has already talked to her parents about staying with Conrad.
Conrad and Jeannine go on a date. They go bowling, then out to eat. Jeannine asks Conrad about his suicide attempt. He tells her that she is the first person who has asked him. She asks why he did it, and he says he "fell into a hole that got bigger and bigger." Conrad's friends from the swim team come into the restaurant acting raucous, making Jeannine laugh. Conrad becomes upset by her reaction. She apologizes, but he shuts down.
The novel delves further into Conrad's sexuality than the film does. While Conrad visits the library, a pretty young woman admires him openly. Conrad is surprised and tells Berger about the encounter at their next therapy session. He also opens up to Berger about his sexual feelings for girls and about his masturbation habit. Berger says his behavior is normal, and suggests he ask a girl out on a date. Later in the novel, Conrad makes love with Jeannine.
The novel provides more opportunities to illustrate Conrad's growing relationship with his father. For instance, on his eighteenth birthday, Conrad clears out the garage with Calvin and the two bond.
Beth and Calvin Go Away; Conrad has an Epiphany
Calvin and Beth take a trip to Houston alone. In the meantime, Conrad goes to a swim meet and watches from the bleachers as his friends lose the meet. After the meet, Stillman asks Conrad if he has had sex with Jeannine. This leads to a fistfight. Everyone but Lazenby walks away, calling Conrad crazy. Lazenby asks Conrad if he wants to talk and offers his help, but Conrad says it hurts too much to be around him.
Conrad returns to his grandparents' house and phones Karen. A man tells him that she has killed herself. Horrified and upset, he flashes back to his brother's boating accident and tears out of the house. He runs to a pay phone and calls Berger, who immediately meets him at the office. In an emotional scene, Conrad tells Berger that he blames himself for the accident, but also blames Buck for not holding on to the boat or turning back at the first sign of bad weather. Berger asks him, "How long are you going to punish yourself?" and demands to know, "What was the one wrong thing you did?" Conrad admits that he blames himself for living.
Conrad loiters outside Jeannine's house. She comes out and apologizes for her behavior at the restaurant and invites him for breakfast. Meanwhile, Calvin and Beth are golfing in Houston. Calvin mentions Conrad and thereby upsets Beth. She accuses Calvin of being controlled by Conrad. On the return trip, Calvin thinks about the early, simple days of his relationship with Beth.
Calvin and Beth arrive home. Conrad hugs his mother and tries to reach out, but she resists. That night Beth wakes and finds Calvin gone. She goes downstairs and finds him crying at the dining table. He accuses her of being weak and cold, with the inability to love anyone. He also confesses that he does not know if he loves her anymore. She goes upstairs and packs a suitcase. She only allows herself one sob, but true to her character, prevents herself from crumbling.
In the novel, Guest offers more character development than does the film in this section. Beth and Calvin discuss the trip to Houston. Calvin remembers the early years of his marriage and other trips they took. In the novel, by getting inside Conrad's head, the reader is able to experience the gradual change in Conrad and sees firsthand when he finally considers how the loss of Buck affected his friends and family.
Also in the novel, Guest gives Jeannine Pratt a more developed narrative. Conrad plans for a date with Jeannine, but she has to stay at home and take care of her brother. Jeannine reveals to Conrad that her parents have a messy relationship but she wants them to reconcile. When she becomes upset, Conrad comforts her. Conrad gains more confidence through his relationship with Jeannine.
The scene in which Conrad discovers Karen has committed suicide plays out differently in film and novel. In the novel, when Conrad reads the newspaper, he finds an article reporting the suicide of his friend Karen. Reeling from the news, he retreats to his bed where he drifts in and out of dreams and memories. He remembers his relationship with Karen and his own treatment in the hospital. He thinks of the day he tried to commit suicide. He wakes in the middle of the night and goes for a walk, but a policeman encourages him to go home. He tries to sleep, but has nightmares about the boating accident. Conrad believes Buck would have survived if he had held on to the boat.
Conrad awakens and calls Dr. Berger in the middle of the night. They meet at the office, where Berger encourages Conrad to release his pent-up emotions. Conrad admits to Berger that he needs to be let off the hook for not saving Buck. Berger suggests that Conrad might be subconsciously striving to be Buck and encourages Conrad to be himself. Berger mentions the death of Karen, which prompts Conrad to weep. Berger reassures Conrad that feeling horrible about certain things can be a good thing. He advises Conrad to stop punishing himself for things that were out of his control. Conrad returns to his house in Lake Forest where he flashes back to a horrible childhood incident when he and Buck were playing a game of torture, and to the time he spent with Karen.
Conrad watches his mother drive away in a taxi. He finds Calvin in the backyard and asks what happened. Calvin says Beth is going to Houston for a while and tells Conrad not to blame himself. He admits he never worried about Conrad, because he always appeared in control, but should have worried more. Conrad tells his dad he loves him, a sentiment Calvin reciprocates. The camera pulls back to show the house, with the two on the steps in an embrace.
The ending of the novel is a bit less dramatic, visually speaking, than the ending of the film. Page 227 | Top of Article Beth leaves Calvin and does not say good-bye to Conrad. Calvin tells Conrad his mother has gone and plans for the two of them to live in a rented house in Evanston, where Conrad will finish high school. Conrad begins to criticize his mother for her departure, but Calvin turns the tables on his son and suggests Conrad needs to learn how to take criticism himself. Conrad agrees and advises his dad to criticize him more often. Conrad tells his father he loves him. The novel also includes an epilogue, which takes place in the new house where Conrad and Calvin live. Conrad finishes his therapy with Dr. Berger but insists they will remain friends. He also goes to Lazenby's house to make amends. Conrad is slowly healing.
Karen is Conrad's friend from the psychiatric hospital. Conrad tries to reconnect with her after they leave the hospital, but they are no longer close. When Conrad learns she has committed suicide his discovery precipitates a crisis. Exploring his emotions about her death helps Conrad to finally heal the pain from his brother's tragic death. In the film, Karen is played by Tony Award-winning actress Dinah Manoff, best known for her sitcom roles.
Dr. Tyrone C. Berger
Dr. Berger is Conrad's therapist. In the novel, he is quirky and eccentric. In the film, Berger is more low-key and focused. Berger teaches Conrad that expressing his feelings is vital to good mental health. He helps Conrad recognize that he is not responsible for his brother Buck's death and that he needs to forgive himself for both surviving the boating accident and attempting suicide. In the film, Dr. Berger is played by Judd Hirsch, who received an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
Beth Jarrett, Conrad's mother, is a perfectionist and expects those around her to be perfect as well. She views Conrad's suicide attempt as punishment directed at her and cannot understand her son's emotional problems. She resists sharing her feelings and wants life to return to the way it was before Buck's death. In the end, she distances herself from her husband Calvin, blaming him for becoming depressed about what has happened to their family. Calvin sees that Beth's perfectionism and practicality function to cover up her fears about losing control. In the novel, Beth's character is developed through the points of view of her husband and son. In the film, Beth is played by Mary Tyler Moore, who won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Drama) and received both an Academy Award nomination and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts nomination for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for the role.
Buck, Conrad's, brother, dies in a boating accident before the story begins. Throughout the story, Conrad's need to be in control and feelings of guilt and responsibility are contrasted with Buck's easygoing manner. In the film, Buck is played in flashbacks by Scott Doebler.
Calvin, Conrad's father, battles his grief over his son Buck's death and his sense of guilt about Conrad's suicide attempt. Calvin tries to hold the family together, but his overwhelming concern for his son causes a rift between he and his wife. In the end, he becomes closer to Conrad when he realizes he needs to accept his emotions, rather than control them as his wife does. He finally puts his son first. In the novel, Calvin Jarrett provides one of the main points of view. In the film, Calvin is played by Donald Sutherland.
Ordinary People opens after seventeen-year-old Conrad attempts suicide in the wake of his brother Buck's death in a boating accident. It follows his personal development as he works through his guilt with his therapist, Dr. Berger, over surviving the accident. In the process, he deepens his relationship with his father, Calvin, and learns to accept and forgive himself for his suicide attempt. Much of the novel is told from Conrad's point of view. In the film, Conrad is played by Timothy Hutton, who won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, as well as a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture for his debut performance.
See Buck Jarrett
Ray is Calvin's law partner of many years. He tries to advise Calvin on his marital troubles. Calvin feels misunderstood by Ray, who, like Beth, does not understand the depth of his grief over the loss of his son, Buck, and the worry and concern he feels for his troubled son, Conrad. In the film, Ray is played by James B. Sikking, best known for his role as Lieutenant Hunter on the popular 1980s television series Hill Street Blues.
Before Ordinary People begins, Lazenby had been one of Conrad's best friends; both boys were on the swim team. However, Conrad finds the friendship difficult to sustain after Buck's death. Their friendship crumbles until Conrad can once again appreciate Lazenby's genuine concern. In the film, Lazenby is played by Fredric Lehne, whose career spans television, film, and theater.
Jeannine is Conrad's first serious girlfriend. Both she and Conrad have a personal history of depression and family difficulties. Because Jeannine can relate to Conrad's personal struggles, she makes him feel less isolated and alone. He is attracted to her compassion and empathy. In the film, Jeannine Pratt is played by Elizabeth McGovern.
Salan coaches the swim team. He is very hard on Conrad when his performance on the team suffers after Buck's death and his own suicide attempt, even grilling him about his hospitalization. Conrad's feelings of guilt and shame are triggered by this confrontation and lead him to quit the swim team. In the film, Salan is played by M. Emmet Walsh, who has acted in over one hundred film and television productions.
Stillman is a diver on Conrad's swim team whose irritating remarks and insensitive behavior lead Conrad into the first fight of his life. In the film, Kevin Stillman is played by Adam Baldwin.
Grief is a central theme in Ordinary People. Each surviving member of the Jarrett family—Beth, Calvin, and Conrad—battles to cope with Buck's tragic death. Their grief, collective and individual, greatly exacerbates problems in the family dynamic and serves as the catalyst for both emotional healing and the family's breakup.
Each family member marks Buck's death in a different way. Conrad blames himself for Buck's death; his unbearable guilt and emotional pain causes him to attempt suicide. Only when he begins to work through these emotions with Dr. Berger can he properly grieve. Calvin's grief prompts him to examine his relationships with both his wife and his surviving son. In mourning Buck and learning to understand Conrad's pain, Calvin takes stock of his tightly controlled life and decides to make healthy changes. On the other hand, Beth grieves because she cannot accept the fate of her favorite son.
The conclusion of Ordinary People illustrates power of grief to both bring people closer together and to tear them apart. Calvin and Conrad both stop blaming themselves for Buck's death and Conrad's suicide attempt, fully feeling their grief and in the process, embracing each other. Beth, however, flees her family rather than descend into the grief that would force her to accept Buck's death.
Both Conrad and Calvin struggle with figuring out what kind of people they want to be in the wake of Buck's death. In both novel and film, Conrad is portrayed as feeling lost once his brother, who he idolized, is gone. In therapy with Berger, Conrad recognizes that his suicide attempt stemmed from thinking of himself as worthless compared to Buck (who was a star athlete) as well as from his inability to measure up to Buck's legacy. As Conrad comes to feel valued by Jeannine and more loved by his father for who he is, and as he uncovers and accepts his feelings, he becomes more true to himself.
Calvin, too, struggles with coming to terms with his identity, although the novel, with its more detailed character development, explores this theme more fully. Calvin's controlled relationship with Beth and his adherence to social expectations have buried his true desires. His grief over Buck's death and worry over Calvin's suicide attempt force him to reevaluate his priorities, however. He grows into a more loving and connected father as a result, although he loses his wife, Beth, who refuses to accept the changes stemming from the family's tragedy.
Conrad, Beth, and Calvin all struggle with feelings of isolation even as they live as a family unit. After being released from the hospital, Conrad feels alone and misunderstood. He has a difficult time connecting with friends and family and struggles to open up to Dr. Berger. Conrad cannot see that others grieve for Buck as he does. By the end of the film, however, Conrad has built fulfilling and honest relationships with Jeannine, Dr. Berger, and his father and realizes that sharing his pain with them will help him heal. Similarly, Calvin tells Berger that he feels like he's drifting, an image that definitively marks the disconnectedness between him, Beth, and Conrad. He sees himself as standing alone and cannot even turn to Beth, who purposely withholds her emotional support. Calvin tries to reach out to Beth by asking her to talk to him about Buck's death, but she refuses. Beth also tries to prevent Calvin from reaching out to others. While Calvin and Conrad turn to one another by the end of both the film and the novel, Beth remains isolated, packing up her things and leaving Calvin and Conrad behind.
A central theme in both the film and novel versions of Ordinary People is forgiveness. Neither Conrad nor Calvin can begin to heal until they forgive themselves for the roles they think they played in the tragedy. Conrad blames himself for not saving his brother and for surviving the boating accident. His guilt is compounded by his suicide attempt. He cannot forgive himself and feels his parents cannot forgive him either. Calvin blames himself for not paying more attention to Conrad, thus missing the signs of his son's depression and hopelessness. He also blames himself for not showing Conrad the love he deserves. Both characters, to some degree, fear that the other blames him; however, the final scene in which Conrad and Calvin embrace
marks both their forgiveness of themselves and their love and acceptance of the other.
In contrast, Beth cannot forgive Conrad or Calvin for their need to grieve Buck's death and move on. Her failure to see her own part in the family dynamic and her inability to accept and forgive her husband and son leaves her alone in the end.
The themes that emerge from Ordinary People—grief, identity, isolation, and forgiveness—rely upon character development. In the novel, Guest tells the story through the alternating points of view of Conrad and Calvin, allowing the reader to get an inside look at each character's thoughts. In the film, however, director Redford uses an omniscient or "objective treatment" approach. As a result, the film relies on characters' actions, rather than thoughts, to develop each character and explore the central themes of the film.
In the novel, Guest relies on the internal conflict of her characters to build sympathy, compassion, and understanding in the reader. While Redford cannot use a character's thoughts to show conflict, he has other cinematic techniques at his disposal. He often uses quick cuts from one scene to the next, a technique which does not lend itself to character development, but does increase the drama and sense of tension in the film. Redford also uses music, specifically the haunting, fragile Pachelbel's Canon, to underscore the emotions of certain characters and scenes.
Use of Flashbacks
Both the film and novel versions of Ordinary People use flashbacks. In the novel, Guest relies on them to build drama, show character development, and provide a sense of mystery that keeps the reader turning the page. With every flashback, Guest provides clues as to the tragedy surrounding Buck's death and shows Conrad getting closer and closer to facing his inner demons and forgiving himself. The flashbacks are often woven into Conrad's dreams, and Guest indicates flashbacks with italics. In the film, Redford also uses flashbacks, but they vary in clarity and mood. Some are Page 231 | Top of Article fragmented and nightmare-like, while others contain clear memories of the past. Both Guest and Redford use flashbacks to take the viewer out of the present-day narrative and to offer glimpses of what lies at the bottom of the characters' emotional struggle. The reader and viewer begin to see the truth behind the Jarrett family's grief and remorse. The most significant flashback comes toward the end of the film when Conrad remembers the boating accident and, in reliving the events, realizes that he blames his brother both for taking them out in the storm and for drowning.
Both the novel and the film versions of Ordinary People reflect the growing interest in both psychotherapy and the quest for personal fulfillment in the 1960s and 1970s. In earlier decades, family problems were considered private, and people suffering from depression did not commonly seek a doctor's help. By the 1970s, many people began to reject what they saw as the pointless stoicism and emotional emptiness of the previous generation. They came to see personal fulfillment as something that was their right, and they used new methods to achieve it. Psychotherapy, which had been far too expensive for any but the wealthy, became accessible to middle-class people when major health insurance companies began covering psychiatric treatment and counseling during the 1970s. "Popular psychology" books such as How to Be Your Own Best Friend (1974), and I'm OK, You're OK (1969) became huge bestsellers. The fact that one of the top rated television shows in the United States, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978), featured a main character who was a psychiatrist further demonstrates just how popular psychotherapy had become.
In the context of psychiatric healing and personal fulfillment, Beth comes across not as strong and brave as she might have been seen by an earlier generation, but as repressed and cold. Calvin's decision to leave his marriage, which might have seemed like a unmanly failure to earlier generations, is instead shown as a move that is necessary for Calvin's happiness, and therefore perfectly understandable.
Ordinary People focuses on personal evolution and growth as it explores the emotional upheaval resulting from a family tragedy. Though the wardrobe and set design undoubtedly position the film in the 1970s, the realistic dialogue and conflict, not to mention Redford's direct cinematic style, give the film a universality which still appeals to today's audiences.
A Shift in Tradition
The late 1960s and early 1970s also produced the term "generation gap," as traditional morals, values, gender expectations, and notions of sexuality began to shift. Guest's version of Ordinary People weaves narratives about three distinct generations. Though the film does not dwell on this through line, Redford does include scenes that show the disconnect between the generations. Both Beth and Calvin struggle with the conservative values they inherited from their parents' generation. Controlling one's behavior and maintaining a sense of social propriety at all times was the deep-seated norm. Beth and Calvin both adhere to the rigidity of cultural expectations with which they were raised in order to deal with their emotions. Though Redford offers plenty of interaction between the characters to illustrate their struggle with self-control, he also reveals this element of their characters through the subtleties of wardrobe choice and gesture. Before Buck died, Beth wore bright colors and her hair long, as shown through flashback. After his death, she grows more conservative, with shorter hair and darker clothing. Calvin is also conservative, wearing a buttoned-up suit when he meets with Berger. Redford also shows Beth carefully setting the table for dinner, putting everything neatly in its place. The napkins are tightly rolled in rings, even when they are put away inside kitchen drawers.
A Revolution in Gender and Sexuality
Though neither the film nor the book blatantly mention the influence of feminism, Redford picks up on Guest's allusion to effects of the movement which began in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement and gained force in the 1970s. Women publicly fought for legal equity and for the restructuring of gender roles and social institutions. In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed and, under the leadership of Betty Friedan, campaigned for equal opportunity and an end to sex discrimination. The film leaves out details from the book that show the women moving past their traditional housewife roles and reclaiming their independence—for example, the fact that Carole Lazenby, a housewife, is taking a college course to further her education and the fact that Jeannine's mother
is divorced, a marital status that at the time was just starting to become socially accepted. In the film, Redford keeps the focus on Beth, showing how she must break free from the conventional role of the passive housewife in order to do what she must for personal survival. At the end of the movie, rather than confess her deepest feelings, Beth packs a bag and leaves her husband and son, choosing to escape rather than demonstrate weakness. Ironically, the men in the book take on what was seen during that time as the more traditionally "female" traits: they share their emotions and open themselves up emotionally. Calvin is left to raise his son alone as Beth pursues a new life on her own, a radical ending that befits the wave of new ideas about gender.
Character development in both novel and film also includes allusion to the sexual revolution of the 1970s. At the time, as gender notions were being reevaluated, traditional ideas about sexuality were also being reexamined. In the book, Guest pays more attention to Conrad's sexuality than Redford does in the film. While Guest frequently refers to Conrad's masturbation habit and categorizes it as a release of emotional and physical tension, Redford merely touches on that habit in therapy sessions between Berger and Conrad. In the novel, Guest also confronts the issue of teenage sexuality by having a sexual relationship progress naturally between Conrad and Jeannine. In the film, however, Redford picks up on the romance between Conrad and Jeannine, but does not show the couple engaging in sexual activity. Redford also chose to leave out the romantic issues between the young single secretaries and their boyfriends, as well as the affair between Cal's friend Ray and one of the secretaries. Furthermore, in the novel, when Calvin and Beth attend their friends' party, Guest suggests a certain level of physical flirtation and admiration between the couples, implying a particular sense of marital openness. Redford's party scene is a bit more impersonal and revolves mostly around business conversation.
Ordinary People was a critically acclaimed novel. Redford's adaptation was perhaps even more well received; it garnered Academy Award wins and nominations. In 1981, Redford won an Oscar for Best Director, Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film took Best Page 233 | Top of Article Picture honors. Mary Tyler Moore received a nomination for Best Actress.
Jay Scott of The Globe and Mail was one of the few critics of the film. He declared that the film was "earnestly boring," calling it a "manipulative domestic tearjerker" in the vein of Kramer vs. Kramer. According to Scott, the adaptation didn't seem rich enough for film, but rather more like an "overwritten, overprocessed TV drama."
But the majority of film reviewers found the movie to be a powerful portrayal of a family in crisis. Critics praised Redford for his ability to draw out his characters' motives, emotions, strengths and flaws. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times credited Redford with allowing each character "the dramatic opportunity to look inside himself, to question his own motives as well as the motives of others, and to try to improve his own ways of dealing with a troubled situation." Richard Schickel of Time Magazine applauded Redford for creating "an austere and delicate examination of the ways in which a likable family falters under pressure and struggles, with ambiguous results, to renew itself." Schickel argued that "the power of Ordinary People does not lie in originality but in the way it observes behavior, its novelistic buildup of subtly characterizing details."
Michelle S. Lee
Lee has taught courses in composition, rhetoric, film adaptation, and literature. In this essay, she discusses how director Robert Redford uses extra scenes in his film remake of Judith Guest's Ordinary People to raise the emotional stakes and to dramatically portray each character's inner turmoil.
Both Judith Guest's novel and Robert Redford's film adaptation of Ordinary People stay true to the same narrative: an upper-middle-class family struggles to cope with the loss of its eldest son following a boating accident. Before the tragedy, the Jarrett family prided themselves on appearances. They lived by propriety, living in a neat, comfortable home, wearing the right clothes, involving themselves in socially acceptable activities, and saying the perfect thing at the perfect time. Their lives were tidy, as much in the privacy of their own home as at school, the office, or lunch with friends. But this self-control successfully hid their deeply rooted fears—fears that Conrad, Beth, and Calvin each resist after Buck's untimely death, fears they must confront in order to grieve and heal. In the film version of Ordinary People, Redford adds a few key scenes to Guest's original to further emphasize this thematic through-line, to take advantage of an omniscient, rather than limited, point-of-view, and to ramp up the drama.
One scene Redford chooses to alter occurs in the third chapter of Guest's novel. Conrad comes home from swimming to an empty house and, in his room, finds a photograph in a desk drawer of the "First Place Medley Relay Team." His brother Buck stands in the middle of the team, "all confidence." He quickly stuffs the picture back into the drawer and leaves his room, startling his mother. They have a stilted conversation about her golf game and his swim practice until she begs off with a headache. In the film, Beth arrives home to the empty house first. She is compelled to enter Buck's room, where she gazes at his photos, medals, and trophies. She sits on his bed, obviously grieving for her lost son. At the same time, she does not cry or outwardly display her mourning. Conrad comes home unbeknownst to her and sticks his head in the door of the bedroom, scaring her. She tells him never to do that again, and the viewer wonders what her words mean exactly: don't scare her, don't make her feel something unexpectedly, don't intrude? Mary Tyler Moore, who plays Beth, keeps her facial expressions and gestures tightly controlled, but the viewer senses a chaos beneath the rigidity. Richard Schickel notes this quality in Moore's portrayal, marking "the coldness that can sometimes be found at the heart of those all-American girls she often plays." Roger Ebert echoes Schickel in saying that Moore as Beth "masks her inner sterility behind a façade of cheerful suburban perfection." Beth is not cheerful in this scene, but rather held together by a thread. Timothy Hutton, playing Conrad, both captures what Roger Ebert calls the "sulks, rages, and panics of adolescence" Page 234 | Top of Article and the vulnerability of a boy needing his mother. Redford's choice to have Conrad catch Beth in Buck's bedroom raises the stakes for both characters and for the narrative itself. Conrad is trespassing on Beth's private moment, Beth fears being caught in a vulnerable state, and Conrad blames himself for his mother's private anguish and withdrawal, not to mention the fact that his brother is gone. Though the scene is not in Beth's or Conrad's point of view, the viewer realizes that this empty, yet emotionally loaded room lives between the two characters, a room they cannot share.
Another scene Redford changes unfolds in the twenty-sixth chapter of the novel. Conrad reads the newspaper only to discover an article reporting the suicide of his friend Karen. Stunned by the news, he retreats to his bed into a night of dreams and memories: his relationship with Karen, his own treatment in the hospital, his attempted suicide, the boating accident. He even carries on an imaginary conversation with Buck about the accident. Upset, he awakens and phones Dr. Berger. Berger meets with him and says he needs to release his pent-up emotions. In the film, however, Conrad phones Karen, wanting to see her. When he calls, a man answers and tells him she killed herself. The personal delivery of the horrifying news sends Conrad into an emotional tailspin. Devastated, he remembers his brother's boating accident, which Redford shows in a flashback, and runs out of the house. He phones Berger, who agrees to meet him at the office. Similar to Guest's version of the scene, Conrad tells Berger that he blames himself for the accident, but also blames Buck for not holding on to the boat or turning back at the first sign of bad weather. Berger asks him how long he will punish himself, and Conrad confesses that he blames himself for living. In making Karen's suicide the impetus for Conrad's action—desperately asking for Berger's help and finally releasing pent-up emotions—Redford actively marks the moment of Conrad's emotional shift, the moment when Conrad chooses to connect to another human being and is not rejected. In Guest's novel, Conrad works through his memories and spends the night in his head before he is driven to reach out.
A third scene Redford reconfigures does not fully appear in Guest's novel. Toward the end of the novel, Calvin remembers how he had cried at Buck's funeral, but Beth had not. Both she and Conrad had been "stony and calm throughout." Calvin recalled that she had only cried after Conrad had attempted suicide. In the film, Beth's "stony" demeanor at the funeral becomes the crux of an argument between Calvin and Beth. Calvin returns home from talking with Berger, where he mentions the fact that Beth never cried at Buck's funeral, and sits in the car, thinking. Beth comes outside to see what is wrong. Calvin urges her to talk about Buck's funeral, where Page 235 | Top of Article Beth had made a fuss about the shirt he had chosen to wear. Calvin tells her he had always wondered why the shirt mattered. Beth hugs him, but says nothing. She shows compassion and connection to Calvin, yet resists answering him. By putting this scene early in the film, Redford builds the stakes for Calvin and Beth and generates questions for the viewer: Will their marriage survive? Will Beth ever share her feelings with Calvin? The scene continues to reinforce a simple line of dialogue from the novel—as Audrey, a friend of both Beth and Calvin, tells Calvin in the novel, "[E]motion is her enemy." Redford neglects to mention how Beth reacted after Conrad's attempted suicide. By depicting Beth solely as "stony and calm throughout," Redford reinforces the idea that Beth will forever keep her emotions in check, even in the darkness of her own garage, even from her own family. Redford also portrays Calvin as a man who wants to change, to heal, to share his feelings so he can move on. He wants to connect with his wife, but begins to realize that she doesn't have the ability.
Although Redford's vision of Ordinary People faithfully follows Guest's novel, the director creates a few extra scenes to highlight themes prominent in the narrative and increase the dramatic stakes. Redford adds scenes that emphasize each character's need for self-control, as well as each character's fear of, and desire for, connection and intimacy. Redford's added scenes illustrate Guest's emotional arc through action and reaction and rely on the expressions and behaviors of the actors to make Guest's internal conflicts come to life.
Source: Michelle S. Lee, Critical Essay on the film adaptation of Ordinary People in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
In the following essay, Beyard-Tyler discusses Guest's involvement with the film adaptation of her novel.
Because she was involved from the beginning, Guest came to know the actors who portrayed her characters. In the novel, Conrad Jarrett is a deeply troubled seventeen-year-old whose suicide attempt makes it impossible for his family to deny the changes brought about by his brother Buck's accidental death. Timothy Hutton was selected to play Conrad in a debut which won an Academy Award. Judith Guest loves him.
He is beautiful. He's the sweetest kid, gentle like Conrad, very sensitive and yet funny. He's got a good sense of humor and he's bright, but he always struck me as being vulnerable. You fantasize about all actors being like the characters they play. Sometimes you think, if I just knew that guy, I know I'd love him. You would really love Timothy Hutton. He's very much like Conrad.
Audiences seem to know this and are doubly affected by the character Hutton plays and the person Hutton seems to be.
Mary Tyler Moore's performance as Conrad's mother is different. The audience must see her in a role unlike their expectations of her. Nonetheless, Guest feels it is Moore who "really brings off" the character of Beth Jarrett, the mother who could not accept changes in her family. Perhaps it is because Beth is a person who cannot talk about herself that Guest found her to be a very difficult character to write about.
I felt when I saw Mary Tyler Moore acting that she really brought the character to life. And yet, she remains as enigmatic as before—something about her portrayal. The first couple of times I saw the movie, I cried a lot, but the only scene that I consistently cry in still is the scene in Texas with her on the golf course, the only time she really opens up and tells people what's going on inside her. I find it so moving, I can hardly bear it.
Another deeply moving scene occurs near the end of the film when Beth's husband Calvin (played by Donald Sutherland) confronts her with his despair. This scene is one of the few major departures the film makes from Guest's novel.
I've had a lot of discussions with a lot of different people about that scene, and I've pretty much come around to thinking I have a personal quarrel with it that has little to do with the overall quality of the movie or the scene. I've just always felt that the point I was trying to make is that when one person starts changing in a family, everybody has to change. There is no way you can keep responding to a person in a given way if the person's reactions and responses to you are changing. And so, I think that the conflict should be her unwillingness to change. If that's true, her only option is to get out. Neither Beth nor Calvin wants her to go, but since she can't face staying and fighting it out, she has to leave. In the movie, however, he seems to be kicking her out when he says to her "I don't think I love you anymore."
When Guest discussed this difference with Redford, he agreed but felt the scene worked Page 236 | Top of Article well for the movie. And it does. As Guest points out, "It's a really subtle difference, one that probably isn't important to anyone but me." As her many viewings of the movie imply, it's also not a difference that interferes with her appreciation of the movie.
Source: Karen Beyard-Tyler, "Judith Guest on ‘Ordinary People’," in The English Journal, Vol. 70, No. 5, September 1981, pp. 22-25.
In the following essay, Scott finds several problems with the movie version of Ordinary People.
Judith Guest's 1976 novel Ordinary People, in which an affluent WASP high school student named Conrad Jarrett attempted to take his life (razors and wrists), was spare and lean and vigorously unsentimental. In the film adaption, written by Alvin Sargent and directed by Robert Redford, what was spare seems stingy, what was lean seems thin and what was unsentimental has franchised a Kleenex concession: Ordinary People (at the Plaza) has all the earmarks of an earnest hit, Kramer Vs. Kramer division.
The only thing that could keep it from box-office bingo is the fact that it is earnestly boring.
The setting is Lake Forest, Ill., Chicago's Rosedale, where the luggage is suede, the cars overpowered, the lipstick pale, the swimming pools aquamarine and the autumns auburn. These are not Ordinary People: they are Ordinary Rich People, and John Cheever, worst luck, is nowhere in view. Into their careful yet paradoxically carefree existence (wealthy WASPs in Hollywood movies have earned the right to be carefree because they have been careful) comes Conrad (Timothy Hutton) and his dripping wrists. They ooze all over monster mummy's carpets (Mummy is played, and played very well, by Mary Tyler Moore) and they burn like acid through plastic poppa's facade (Poppa is played, equally well, by Donald Sutherland).
Mum, a snooty soul with a large circle of golfing friends, discovers that she cannot forgive Conrad for having bled on her carpets and she's not too happy about his failing to save the life of her favorite son, either (a boating accident). Pop, on the other hand, wants to get to know his boy: he wants to be rid of masks, to be Real, to Understand.
Naturally, knowing how to be Real and how to Understand do not come easy in Lake Forest—which Redford records with the same libellously slick condescension Mike Nichols brought to the "plastics" party scene in The Graduate—and Pop sends Conrad to Dr. Berger, a godlike if not god-fearing shrink (Judd Hirsch, in the Robert Redford role).
Dr. Berger is the one character in the film who really does have all the answers, including the big one: there ain't any. He is the one character who does not want to be in control of his surroundings ("I'm not big on control," he says). He is the one character who believes emotions should be expressed. He is the one character whose environment—his office—is a mess. He is the one character who is wise beyond his income and profound beyond his syntax. (He is the one character who sounds like Jack Webb on Dragnet—after est.) And he is the one character who is Jewish.
This final fact is absolutely essential to exposing the myths by which Ordinary People operates: its WASPs are as colorless as the WASPs in Woody Allen's Interiors (Miss Moore's Mum is no more than a younger version of Geraldine Page) but its Jew is a brand new stereotype: to Dr. Berger goes the Sidney Poitier Pristine Pedestal Award.
In his debut as a director, Redford has treated his cast lovingly. Within the boundaries of their wizened roles, his actors perform competently, although Timothy Hutton's Conrad can be caught calculating his effects, and his big Night Must Fall tour de force, when he regresses psychologically to the scene of his suicide trauma, is a psychiatric and esthetic embarrassment. If the problem is neither in the acting nor in Redford's direction (workmanlike), where is it? The filmmakers have said repeatedly that they have been "true" to Miss Guest's novel, which is not entirely accurate. Where, for instance, is the Epilogue, in which she graciously acknowledged the essential banality and ephemerality of her tale? But they have treated her words with more reverence than might have been necessary. Or wise.
That other manipulative domestic tearjerker, Kramer Vs. Kramer, was also based on a novel of merit but, when the story reached the screen, it had shifted tone and altered allegiance; it had been reconceived for the movies. The problems of adapting Ordinary People are greater—its predominant virtue cannot be transferred to the screen. How do you pictorialize an author's analysis of the psychic states of people notable for refusing to articulate their thoughts, or even to feel their feelings? How Page 237 | Top of Article do you communicate in images an omniscient psychological dissection? Redford and Sargent sidestep the conundrum and settle for blindly reproducing Miss Guest's dialogue.
Unfortunately, out of Miss Guest's precisely composed context, the words are archly literary: Ordinary People's people are ordinary, ordinary TV people in an ordinary, overwritten, overprocessed TV drama. The most this sincere little movie expects of you is tears; it would be modestly pleased if its mirror reflects a little sliver of your life; it does not want to shock you, provoke you, frighten you, intellectually stimulate you, or even teach you anything you do not already know. If the hero of Leave It to Beaver had grown up, gone to high school and taken it into his head to off himself, the made-for-TV-movie that could have ensued—Leave It to Beaver Tries to Leave It—might have been a lot like Ordinary People.
Source: Jay Scott, "Redford's Ordinary People Earnestly Boring," in Globe and Mail (Canada), September 27, 1980.
In the following review, Ebert reviews director Robert Redford's cinematic interpretation of Guest's novel.
There's the surviving son, who always lived in his big brother's shadow, who tried to commit suicide after the accident, who has now just returned from a psychiatric hospital. There's the father, a successful Chicago attorney who has always taken the love of his family for granted. There's the wife, an expensively maintained, perfectly groomed, cheerful homemaker whom "everyone loves." The movie begins just as all of this is falling apart.
The movie's central problems circle almost fearfully around the complexities of love. The parents and their remaining child all "love" one another, of course. But the father's love for the son is sincere yet also inarticulate, almost shy. The son's love for his mother is blocked by his belief that she doesn't really love him—she only loved the dead brother. And the love between the two parents is one of those permanent facts that both take for granted and neither has ever really tested.
Ordinary People begins with this three-way emotional standoff and develops it through the autumn and winter of one year. And what I admire most about the film is that it really does develop its characters and the changes they go through. So many family dramas begin with a "problem" and then examine its social implications in that frustrating semifactual, docudrama format that's big on TV. Ordinary People isn't a docudrama; it's the story of these people and their situation, and it shows them doing what's most difficult to show in fiction—it shows them changing, learning, and growing.
At the center of the change is the surviving son, Conrad, played by a wonderfully natural young actor named Timothy Hutton. He is absolutely tortured as the film begins; his life is ruled by fear, low self-esteem, and the correct perception that he is not loved by his mother. He starts going to a psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) after school. Things are hard for this kid. He blames himself for his brother's death. He's a semi-outcast at school because of his suicide attempt and hospitalization. He does have a few friends—a girl he met at the hospital, and another girl who stands behind him at choir practice and who would, in a normal year, naturally become his girlfriend. But there's so much turmoil at home. The turmoil centers around the mother (Mary Tyler Moore, inspired casting for this particular role, in which the character masks her inner sterility behind a facade of cheerful suburban perfection). She does a wonderful job of running her house, which looks like it's out of the pages of Better Homes and Gardens. She's active in community affairs, she's an organizer, she's an ideal wife and mother—except that at some fundamental level she's selfish, she can't really give of herself, and she has, in fact, always loved the dead older son more. The father (Donald Sutherland) is one of those men who wants to do and feel the right things, in his own awkward way. The change he goes through during the movie is one of the saddest ones: Realizing his wife cannot truly care for others, he questions his own love for her for the first time in their marriage.
The sessions of psychiatric therapy are supposed to contain the moments of the film's most visible insights, I suppose. But even more effective, for me, were the scenes involving the kid and his two teen-age girlfriends. The girl from the hospital (Dinah Manoff) is cheerful, bright, but somehow running from something. The girl from choir practice (Elizabeth McGovern) is straightforward, sympathetic, able to be honest. In trying to figure them out, Conrad gets help in figuring himself out.
Director Redford places all these events in a suburban world that is seen with an understated matter-of-factness. There are no cheap shots against suburban lifestyles or affluence or mannerisms: The problems of the people in this movie aren't caused by their milieu, but grow out of themselves. And, like it or not, the participants have to deal with them. That's what sets the film apart from the sophisticated suburban soap opera it could easily have become. Each character in this movie is given the dramatic opportunity to look inside himself, to question his own motives as well as the motives of others, and to try to improve his own ways of dealing with a troubled situation. Two of the characters do learn how to adjust; the third doesn't. It's not often we get characters who face those kinds of challenges on the screen, nor directors who seek them out. Ordinary People is an intelligent, perceptive, and deeply moving film.
Source: Roger Ebert, "Review: Ordinary People," in Chicago Sun Times, January 1, 1980.
Beyard-Tyler, Karen, "Judith Guest on Ordinary People," in The English Journal, Vol. 70, No. 5, September 1981, pp. 22-25.
Clemons, Walter, "Out of the Ordinary: Ordinary People," in Newsweek, July 12, 1976, p. 71.
Ebert, Roger, Review of Ordinary People, in Chicago Sun-Times, January 1, 1980, http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19800101/REVIEWS/1010325/1023 .
Guest, Judith, Ordinary People, Penguin Books, 1976.
———, "How I Wrote Ordinary People: The Author of the Bestselling Novel Discusses How She Handled the Challenges of Establishing a Point of View, Avoiding Sentimentality, and Finishing a Piece of Writing," in The Writer, Vol. 8, No. 120, August 2007, p. 24.
Janeczko, Paul, "In Their Own Words: An Interview with Judith Guest," in The English Journal, Vol. 67, No. 3, March 1978, pp. 18-19.
Mitgang, Herbert, "Reading and Writing, Literary Vigilantes," in New York Times, October 23, 1983, p. 24.
Ross, Jean, "An Interview with Judith Guest," in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 15, edited by Linda Metzger, Gale Research. 1985.
Schickel, Richard, "Cinema: Nuclear Explosion in Chicago," in Time, September 22, 1980, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,952759,00.html .
Scott, Jay, "Redford's Ordinary People Earnestly Boring," in The Globe and Mail, September 27, 1980, p. E5.
Seger, Linda, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Henry Holt and Company, 1990.
Campbell, John and Stephen Hunt, "Sundance: The Kid's Fest is Hip, Hot, and Here to Stay, Moving Pictures Magazine. Jan./Feb. 2005, http://www.movingpicturesmagazine.com/departments/belowtheline/sundance .
Moving Pictures Magazine, available online, is a magazine devoted to articles about filmmakers and filmmaking. This long article contains details on Redford's growing influence in Hollywood as a director, producer, and founder of the influential Sundance Film Festival.
Mintz, Steven, Hollywood's America: United States History through Its Films, Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
Mintz offers a thorough historical grounding for American films of the twentieth century.
Quart, Leonard and Albert Auster, American Film and Society Since 1945, Praeger, 2001.
This cultural history of American film provides a detailed social and political context through which films of different periods can be interpreted. The book is divided into chapters by decade, and provide a detailed discussion of Ordinary People.
"Robert Redford," Internet Movie Database (IMDb), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000602 .
IMDb provides comprehensive information on the projects of people involved in the film industry. Redford's entry contains a complete list of films in which he acted, directed, or produced, along with links to further information on each film.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2278600021