Ordinary People

Isn't Mom allowed to have a breakdown?
★★★★
☆☆
Released: 
1980
Director: 
Robert Redford
Starring: 
Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton, Judd Hirsch
The Setup: 
Family is dealing with the death of one son and suicide attempt of the other.
Discussion: 

I took a lot of psychology classes in high school, this would be the mid-80s, and I swear I saw this movie in class about 300 times. Slightly less than I saw Sybil. I hadn't really thought about re-watching it too much, until a reader wrote me about watching it recently and seeing it in a different light than ever before, namely: "Why isn't Mom allowed to behave poorly? Her son died, too. Why isn't Mom allowed to have a breakdown?"

We see in the credits that this is adapted from a novel by Judith Guest, and has a screenplay by Alvin Sargent, of Paper Moon, Nuts [HAHAHAHA!!!] and the Spider Man movies. And it's the first movie directed by Robert Redford, which just makes it all the more extra-special. And, you should know going in, the tagline for this movie was: "Everything is in it's proper place. Except the past!" Okay, I just had to add that exclamation point.

We open with a sort of photo essay set to some Vivaldi or whatever, showing us around this bucolic town that looks like New England, but is actually upper-class Illinois. We see Conrad, played by Timothy Hutton, singing in the high school choir, then cut to him waking from a nightmare. Meanwhile Mom Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore in a role she was nominated for, and Donald Sutherland as Calvin, awaken as well. Beth asks Calvin how he's feeling and kisses him affectionately, which one suspects is here to prove to us that she's not a completely emotionally closed-off harridan. She's made french toast for breakfast, but when Conrad says he's not hungry, whips it right out from under him and shoves it down the sink disposal before he can have a second thought. Meanwhile Dad is a little over-chipper and too encouraging, and sensitive Conrad senses the tension in both his parents and is completely freaked out. It will soon be revealed that they had an older son, Buck, who died a few months ago, and then Conrad tried to kill himself and was hospitalized.

Conrad goes to school--is that Adam Baldwin of My Bodyguard and Serenity in the car? Why yes, it is--and calls this psychologist he's been referred to, who takes his call WHILE WITH A PATIENT! Time to hang up right there, I say, but Judd Hirsch as Dr. Berger turns out to be the number-one super-duper therapist of all time, another thing that irked the woman who wrote me about this movie. You're supposed to understand that at the time it was still considered that psychologists were only for crazy people. Berger turns out to be the very stereotype of the Jewish, gently-challenging-but-ultimately-supportive therapist, and consistently smokes in session [Eeeee!], and charges a mere $50 per hour! Of course, that was then. Anyway, it is revealed that Conrad received shock therapy in the hospital, and they set up for regular sessions.

Now Beth goes home and sits in the big metaphor, I mean her dead son's room, which they have left exactly as he had it, with all his sports trophies and all that. Please silently shake your head in sad recognition. Conrad finds her there, and they have a little scene in which we see that Beth can be quite real, warm and human, but cuts off abruptly when matters threaten to turn for the emotional. Then Mom and Dad go to a cocktail party, and Beth is furious on the way home that Calvin should have told a friend that Conrad is seeing a psychologist. That must be swept under the rug to maintain an outwardly perfect appearance! Meanwhile Conrad is in therapy ["Forget how it looks! How does it FEEL?!"], then goes to meet his friend Katie, who also tried to kill herself and was at the hospital with him. She seems a little too cheerful, and becomes visibly uncomfortable when he says he misses the hospital. She soon leaves, and there goes that friendship.

Later Conrad tells his mother he has something important to tell her, but she becomes distracted and he never says it. Soon he quits the swim team, without telling his parents, and loses the three friends he used to hang out with because of it. There's more therapy ["When I try to feel all I feel is awful!"] and then a big scene at Mom's parent's house. Dad wants to take a picture of Mom and Conrad together, and they become more an more uncomfortable together Conrad finally snaps, right in front of Beth's mother. There is then a scene where we see Beth with her own mother, and where a lot of this came from. First she breaks a highly-symbolic plate, then lets slip to her prim n' proper mother that Conrad is seeing a psychologist, causing her mother alarm, and also causing her to note with concern that he's Jewish. I believe the point of all this is to explain Beth's perspective, and how she got to be so buttoned-up.

Then Conrad flirts with Elizabeth McGovern. Then Beth has a freak-out that Conrad hadn't told them he quit the swim team, and the worst thing is she had to find out about it from the neighbor. She says Conrad has a plan to hurt her, and Conrad flings that she didn't come to visit him in the hospital, and that he'll never be forgiven for his suicide attempt, because he got blood all over her towels and rugs and she had to throw them out. This was in the days before Ikea, you have to understand, when towels, rugs and children were about on par in terms of value.

SPOILERS > > > As often happens, a turning point in the film occurs at about the halfway point, when Dad Calvin goes to see Dr. Berger himself. This indicates his coming to Conrad's "side" and beginning to become alienated to his wife. When he gets home he has some lingering issues from a year ago at Buck's funeral, when she wanted him to change his shirt and tie, and who cares, their child was dead! She, of course, can't process the emotional content. They decide they're going to take a little vacation without Conrad.

While they're gone, Conrad has a date with Perkins which ends poorly, and later he calls and finds out Karen killed herself! I had a moment of shock, thinking Perkins was Karen, but no, it's actually the other friend from the hospital, from the beginning of the movie. Conrad calls Dr. Berger, and OF COURSE he's perfectly happy to see him in the middle of the night! He's the suuuper-therapist! But who knows, it was the early 80s, he's sensitive and touchy-feely, and Conrad HAS allowed Berger to take several years off his life with all that second-hand smoke in the enclosed environment. Berger confronts Conrad that he feels responsible for Buck's death, and, well, I think we've had a breakthrough. I think we all deserve a hug, and then I think we should all bring in something very personal to us and share its meaning with the group.

Meanwhile, Beth and Calvin are out golfing with friends, when Calvin casually mentions Conrad and Beth is all like "Ugh, why do you always have to bring HIM up?" They have a huge fight right there, and it's a fairly powerful scene, however, based on the ENTIRE movie up until now, there is NO WAY socially-oversensitive Beth is going to get into a screaming and very personal fight right in front of their friends on the golf course! All she's done the entire rest of the movie is worry about what her friends might think. After they get back, she wakes to find Calvin downstairs in the middle of the night. He says he thinks she buried all her love with Buck, and finally "I don't know if I love you any more." Beth, rather than stay and try to work things out--that might involve her dealing with her own feelings--goes upstairs and packs, and is gone by dawn.

In the morning, Conrad takes in stride that his mother has left the family, and now he and Dad can have a big relating party. I think we can let the healing begin! We just had to get rid of the problem, which in this case was Mom. Bye, Mom!
< < < SPOILERS END

So, back to my friend's question: Why isn't Mom allowed to behave badly, or have her own breakdown? I think one has to take the context of the times into the equation, and note that this is an early 80s movie, from a book written in 1976, and it's about touchy-feely emotional openness trickling down to the masses--part of what made this movie so new, unique and powerful at the time. So I don't think the movie presents it as that Mom isn't allowed to behave bad, it presents it that the problem is she won't open up and share her feelings. They'd be DELIGHTED for her to have a breakdown, so long as it was all about her unruly feelings, and not generated by her bottling those up. But no, she's closed off, and worse yet, she cares more about what her neighbors think than her family's feelings! The fix is in for her when she refuses to go to therapy and work on her own emotional issues.

The movie, however, doesn't totally demonize her, and goes out of its way at the beginning to show that she has a warm and affectionate side--so long as you don't ask her to engage in any deep or ambiguous emotion. But still, these scenes seem there quite purposely to balance the argument and weigh against charges that she is a cold fish from the start. Another thing one suspects is that Judith Guest, in writing the novel, self-consciously chose to have it be the mother, as opposed to the father, as a conscious attempt to work against dominant cliches that it is men who can't handle anything emotional.

Nevertheless, Mom lost a child too, and she should be cut a little slack if she's going to act badly. But the one unforgivable sin in this movie is not processing your emotions. Keeping them bottled up and being reserved is NOT acceptable. And it must be observed that I don't see either Calvin or Conrad trying to reach out to HER or to understand where SHE might be coming from. Nope, if you aren't prepared to share with the group, you just need to leave. Buh-bye.

All that aside, I was surprised to find that, for what it is, it's actually quite a compelling little movie. It is well-written enough; everything is carefully in its place, if perhaps a little transparently so, and the characters are all well-defined and each have compelling arcs. There's not a lot of directorial flourish, but hey, it's Redford's first movie. The performances are all first-rate, especially Moore's, who more than earned her nomination, and maybe should have won. Plus, it just all WORKS. It keeps you involved and entertained while bringing to light issues that weren't often talked about at the time, and it'll make you cry. Now, 30 years later, it's still compelling and serves as an excellent time capsule. It was surely influential on the wave of psychologically rich dramas to follow, such as The Squid and the Whale. Much as I dreaded re-watching it, I am now solidly behind Ordinary People.

Should you watch it: 

Hello, as if you haven't seen it already. But if you haven't, and you want to curl up with some ice cream and do some weeping, here ya go.