Saturday, September 19, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Ordinary People" (1980)

Scene from Ordinary People
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Ordinary People
Release Date: September 19, 1980
Director:  Robert Redford
Written By: Judith Guest (novel), Alvin Sargent (screenplay)
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Hutton
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 124 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Robert Redford)
-Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Actress (Mary Tyler Moore)
-Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Coal Miner's Daughter
-The Elephant Man
-Raging Bull
And the winner is...

There is this sense that The Academy Awards are an embodiment of films exploring significant themes. During the 1940's, this was most evident with various films exploring the effects of World War Ii on citizens and soldiers alike. In the 70's, films about the Vietnam War began to crop up and not only reinvent the anti-war narrative, but cinema as a whole. While there have been many films to explore big, grand themes, it is often forgotten that the idea of a family life is just as important as politics and justice. In fact, it's likely where the bad behaviors started. In 1980, director Robert Redford made his directorial debut with a film that explored the issues head on, resulting in one of the most impacting, grounded dramas to ever win Best Picture.

While it was Redford's first time behind the camera, it wasn't his first Best Picture win. In 1973, he co-starred alongside Paul Newman in The Sting: a film that earned him a Best Actor nomination. By this point in his career, he was an acclaimed actor who had made a name for himself with various films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The anticipation was high as he took on Ordinary People. But why did he direct instead of just starring in it, as the studios had suggested? Having read author Judith Guest's book prior to its publication, he bought the rights and immediately began adapting it. This process took years due to the screenplay being heavily focused around dialogue with minimal description. When it was figured out that this raised new challenges, Redford decided to direct it himself.

According to legend, Redford had always had Mary Tyler Moore in mind for mother character Beth. The other roles were less defined, most specifically with the therapist Berger. The role was initially given to Gene Hackman, who backed out. Judd Hirsch promised to fill the role only if he could shoot his parts in eight days as not to interfere with his role on the TV series Taxi. Meanwhile, the role of son Conrad featured an audition by Michael J. Fox, who was passed over for first timer Timothy Hutton. The role of Jeanine was played by Elizabeth McGovern, who became the first actress to be allowed to film a movie while attending Juiliard College. In some cases, the film was considered to be an example of actors playing against type, with popular TV sitcom actors going dramatic. 

The approach to filming wasn't in the best conditions. Redford had planned to put more focus on Ordinary People, but became consumed with his previous film - Brubaker - after its shooting schedule went over-time, thus not leaving a lot of time for preparation. He also ended up earning the base salary for the film. In one scene where Donald Sutherland is talking to Moore, Sutherland thought that he cried too much. This wasn't caught until later, by which point Moore wasn't able to reshoot. Instead, Redford read her lines as Sutherland performed them with less emotion. The restaurant where they filmed a few scenes in Wilmette, Illionis went on to have a picture of Redford shooting the film prominently displayed later on. The film also had emotional ties to its subject matter. Hutton's father had died prior to the shooting, though he doesn't claim to have used it as influence. Meanwhile, Moore's son was killed during the film's production. She had also separated from her husband at the time.

The Academy Awards were delayed a day due to the attempted assassination on President Ronald Reagan. This year's acting winners also were around the same age and all under 40; a pattern that was rare. Ordinary People became the last film to win Best Picture without receiving a Best Editing nomination until 2014 with Birdman. Likewise, Hutton became one of the youngest Best Supporting Actor winners at the age of 20. He also was one of the few who won for his cinematic debut. Redford won for Best Director, becoming only the third person to win for their directing debut (there are five overall). It was also one of the only times in history that there were back-to-back winners dealing with family and social issues along with Kramer v.s Kramer. In an odd twist, Best Actress nominee Moore had less screen time than Hutton, who was nominated in supporting. While acclaimed for his work elsewhere, Sutherland was the only major cast member not nominated. Also, Redford's other movie Brubaker received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

The film has gone on to have an interesting legacy as one of the few films about dysfunctional families that got it right. Guest's book was later made into a stage play. While Hutton's career wasn't nearly as fruitful as everyone else in the film, he did continue to do compelling work throughout the 80's. With many considering it one of the best films of the 80's, it remains a gripping drama that set the bar for family dramas to come. It also helped to launch Redford's excellent directing career, though he wouldn't work again until 1988 on The Milagro Beanfield War. While it isn't widely associated with the film, composer Marvin Hamlisch's score remains very popular for updating Johann Pachelbel's "Canon in D Major" to a more orchestrated and quicker pace. There was also a lyrical version that opened the film.

While the film doesn't have the same immediacy in recognition as Kramer vs. Kramer, it does remain a compelling drama that is full of excellent examples of playing against type. The film's exploration of a deteriorating family was a great blend of drama and comedy, capturing what it truly mean to be, as the title suggests, ordinary people. Its study of loss and acceptance are equally important, showing that with the right actors and writing, the subject matter can come to life. Much like how The Lost Weekend changed how society talked about alcoholism, Ordinary People contributed in making it more acceptable to talk about what bothered us, whether it be within ourselves or in others. Even if Redford went on to do more acclaimed movies, there are few debuts as impressive as this one.

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