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Ordinary People, Directed by Robert Redford

Paramount Pictures, September 19, 1980 (US)

Screenplay: Alvin Sargent and Nancy Dowd, based on the novel by Judith Guest

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch, and Elizabeth McGovern

Days after I saw Ordinary People for the first time, I kept thinking of the Jarrett family and wondering how they were doing. I could not forget them.

Before we were invited into their lives, the Jarretts—Calvin and Beth with sons Buck and Conrad—were living a perfect North Shore life: perfect house; perfect neighborhood; plenty of affluent, like-minded friends; a calendar full of social engagements; club memberships; two boisterous, popular, athletic boys. One year followed another with probably little time for introspection or analysis.

If nothing “bad” had happened, the Jarretts probably would have been okay. Calvin and Beth would have continued to be stars of their community. Conrad and Beth would have continued to have a friendly, but not close, relationship. Buck would have been her favorite, but she would have been able to have some affection for Conrad.

But then something bad did happen. Buck and Conrad’s sailboat overturned during a storm, and Buck did not survive. And then, Conrad attempted suicide by slitting his wrists (Calvin got there just in time to save him), and subsequently spent several months in a psychiatric hospital.

Whether Beth blamed Conrad for Buck’s death was not clear. But she certainly blamed him for attempting suicide, exposing her to the gossip of neighbors. She might have been able to barely handle being the mother of a son who died in an accident, but she absolutely could not handle being the mother of a son who attempted suicide and needed psychiatric care. That was more than she could bear. And it did not matter how much Calvin wanted her to deal with it. She. Could. Not.

Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton): Listen, I’m never gonna be forgiven for that. Never! You know, you can’t get it out, you know, all the blood in her towels, in her rug. Everything had to be pitched. Even the tiles in the bathroom had to be regrouted. Christ, she fired the goddamn maid because she couldn’t dust the living room right. If you think I’m gonna forgive … that she’s gonna forgive me …

Beth did not want her family’s “dirty laundry” aired in public. She was private and the facade that she portrayed to her friends and neighbors was almost more important to her than her family. Beth could not forgive Conrad for ruining her perfect life and advertising their dysfunction to the world. For example, when the mother of one of Conrad’s teammates informed Beth that Conrad had quit the swim team, Beth exploded.

Calvin Jarrett (Donald Sutherland):  What’s wrong?

Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore): Why don’t you ask him what’s wrong? Maybe you won’t have to hear it from Carol Lazenby.

Calvin: Hear what?

Conrad: Dad, I quit the swim team.

Beth: Carol thought I knew. Cos why wouldn’t I? It happened over a month ago. … It’s really important to try to hurt me. Isn’t it?

Conrad: Don’t you have that backwards?

Beth: Oh? And how do I hurt you? By embarrassing you in front of a friend? Poor Beth! She has no idea what her son is up to! He lies and she believes every word of it.

Conrad: … the only reason she cares, the only reason she gives a fuck about it … is because someone else knew about it first!

At the end of this argument, Beth makes it clear which son she loved most:

Conrad (to Beth): You never came to the hospital!

Calvin: How do you know she never came? You know she came but she had the flu and couldn’t come inside, but she came.

Conrad: Yeah! She wouldn’t have had any flu if Buck was in the hospital! She would have come if Buck was in the hospital!

Beth: Buck would have never been in the hospital!

Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore perfectly portrayed the strained relationship between Beth and Conrad. This was especially clear in the scene where Christmas photos are being taken. Beth seemed to be in agony as Calvin attempted to take a photo of mother and her remaining son. And it was obvious to Conrad.

Calvin: Connie. I want one of Connie and his mother.

Beth: No, I tell you what. Let’s get the three men in there, and I’ll take a picture of you.

(Conrad fumbles taking the picture.)

Beth: Calvin, give me the camera.

Calvin: No, I didn’t get it yet, Beth.

Beth: Come on, give me the camera.

Conrad: Dad, give her the camera.

Calvin: I want a really good picture of the two of you, okay?

Beth: No but I really want a shot of the three of you men. Give me the camera, Calvin. Please …

Calvin: Not until I get a picture of the two of you.

Beth: Cal?


The scene in the kitchen afterward gives you a hint of how Beth got to be the way she is … she is just following the example of her coldhearted mother. When Beth informs her mother that Conrad was seeing a psychiatrist, her mother replies “I thought we were all finished with that.”

To deal with his depression, Conrad had started seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. Conrad’s sessions with Dr. Berger help him discover the root of his agony. Judd Hirsch brings gentleness, compassion and directness in his performance as Dr. Berger. Only at Dr. Berger’s office can Conrad speak the truth and try to discover what drove him to suicide.

Even Calvin begins going to Dr. Berger to talk through some of the issues he was having, and he suggests to Beth that they attend family counseling sessions. But Beth absolutely refuses.

Beth: About what? What are we gonna talk about? Don’t try to change me, Calvin. I don’t want any more changes in my life. For God’s sake, hasn’t enough happened? Let’s just hold on to what we’ve got!

For Beth, privacy was paramount, not solving her family’s emotional problems.

Beth: I don’t want to see any doctors or counselors. I am me. This is my family. And if we have problems, then we will solve those problems in the privacy of our own home, not by running to some kind of specialist every time something goes wrong …

After Calvin began seeing Dr. Berger, he began to take a closer look at his relationship with Beth. One night he parked his car in the garage and just sat there. When Beth came out to see what was wrong, Calvin reflected back on the day of his son’s funeral:

Calvin: I was wearing a blue shirt. And you said: Wear a white shirt and the other shoes! It was nothing at the time. But it’s always seemed to stay with me. And I, for some reason, been thinking about it and it suddenly occurred to me what difference did it make what I wore at Buck’s funeral?

When Conrad meets with Karen (a former patient of the same psychiatric hospital), they both smile and try to act like everything is okay, but in reality they are both just pretending. While Karen doesn’t think she needs psychiatric help (“the only one who can help me is myself”), Calvin knows he does and keeps seeing Dr. Berger.

One night Conrad attends a swim meet and watches his former teammates lose. After having a brief fight with one of his teammates over a rude comment, a crying Conrad tells his brother’s best friend that it hurts too much to be around him. When Conrad gets home and needs someone to talk to, he calls Karen’s house and is told that Karen has killed herself. Conrad is distraught and arranges to meet with Dr. Berger in the middle of the night. It is then when Conrad figures out whom he has to forgive.

Conrad: I feel bad about this, I feel really bad about this. And just let me feel bad about this!

Dr. Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch): Okay. Listen. I feel bad about it too.

Conrad: Why do things have to happen to people? It isn’t fair.

Dr. Berger: You’re right. It isn’t fair.

Conrad: You just do one wrong thing … and …

Dr. Berger: And what was the one wrong thing you did? (Urging) You know … You know …

Conrad: I hung on. I stayed with the boat.

Dr. Berger: Now. You can live with that. Can’t you?

After Conrad makes this breakthrough with Dr. Berger, his mood improves, and one night he attempts to give his mother a good night hug. The expression on Beth’s face during the hug is emotionless, certainly not what you would expect from a mother who’s depressed son finally makes a loving gesture. Calvin sees her face. And he now knows. He knows about Beth. And he knows what he needs to do.

Calvin realizes that his wife is not capable of loving Conrad, and possibly not capable of loving him. When Beth wakes in the middle of the night and finds Calvin crying in the dark in the dining room, Calvin (in a brilliant performance by Donald Sutherland) tells her what is in his heart.

Calvin: 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? Do you really love me?

Beth: I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.

Calvin: We would’ve 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 any more. And I don’t know what I’m going to do without that.

The screenplay of Ordinary People by Alvin Sargent was excellent, and I’m sure it was extraordinarily difficult to write … attempting to convey all of the emotion and drama of the Judith Guest book using only a limited amount of dialog and scenes. But it was the direction of Robert Redford that really made this story come to life. He made so many great decisions:

  • The performances that Redford was able to get out of Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, and Judd Hirsch could not have been more perfect.
  • The stately white house that was chosen as the Jarrett’s home was the perfect setting for this tale of the affluent. It was stunning on the outside and elegantly furnished and decorated on the inside. Beth set the table each night with cloth napkins in silver napkin rings (now setting only three places instead of four).
  • Beth’s beautiful wardrobe evoked someone who was always in control, wearing the appropriate outfit for every occasion. Around the house, Beth wore a gray, almost military-looking robe in several scenes. I always imagined it was scratchy wool. It was beautiful, but uncomfortable, just like Beth.
  • When Beth was packing at the end of the movie, she pulled out the most expensive-looking suede suitcases that I had ever seen. Her suitcases were impeccable but her family was falling apart.
  • Even the restaurant scenes were memorable for the distinctive backgrounds: the wood-paneled booth with stained glass windows where Conrad chatted with Karen, and the beautiful blue and white tile background of the booth where Calvin and Beth ate lunch.
  • The scenes between Jeannine Pratt and Conrad evoked typical teenage nervousness: the way Conrad was hesitant to call her, the way Jeannine stuffs her hands down into her pockets, the awkward conversions.
  • The scene when Beth was sitting on Buck’s bed in a daze looking at Buck’s trophies and photos, you got the idea that she was now in a world that she no longer recognizes. It was almost as if she could not believe what had happened.
  • Dr. Berger’s dark, shabby office was in high contrast to the Jarrett’s beautiful, well decorated home. This office represented the real world where truth was told, and dealt with, rather than glossed over and made to look pretty.
  • The choice of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” as the song Conrad’s high school choir sings and as the theme song for the movie was an outstanding choice. It is a gentle song that makes you think of high art and the refinement of the upper class, while being so beautiful that it almost makes you cry.

Because I loved this movie so much, I almost don’t want to read the book. In the book, I’m sure that there are many additional scenes that would bring more insight into these characters and the events that took place in their lives. How could the characters in the book be any better, any truer, any more real? I don’t want to learn one more fact about Conrad or Beth or Calvin. Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton are the Jarrett family to me.

There is a myth that most people’s lives are usually perfect. Especially rich people. But rich or poor, most people have to go through terrible, traumatic things. Sometimes it is one horrific event; for others it is a constant, nagging pain that goes on year after year, not rising to the level of tragic but always weighing on you. No matter how rich you are or how careful you are, sometimes trouble and tragedy find you. This movie demonstrates that some people can handle it and some people cannot.

I was 23 years old when this movie came out, and it really made a big impact on me. I had not been exposed to such raw emotions like that before … a mother hating her son and a son hating himself.

I’ve only seen the movie 3 or 4 times since it came out 34 years ago, but so much of the dialog still comes to mind immediately. From time to time I still hear Conrad saying “I feel bad about this, I feel really bad about this.” And I hear Dr. Berger saying “Forgive yourself.”