While not as universally despised as The English Patient or Crash, most people consider Ordinary People one of the weakest films ever to win Best Picture. The elephant in the room was Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. From the Godfather to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, politically conservative, yet culturally radical Italian American auteurs dominated the 1970s. But the counterrevolution was on. Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, an attempt at a leftist, revisionist take on the old west, had failed so badly it brought down United Artists. Ronald Reagan was on track to become President. Lisa Birnbach had published the Official Preppy Handbook. The counterculture was out. The WASP was back in. Ordinary People, which is set in Lake Forest Illinois, one of the wealthiest towns in suburban Chicago, was just what the academy needed.
Robert Redford, who directed Ordinary People, is anything but a Reaganite. He’s a good liberal who cares about the environment, founded the Sundance Film Festival, and acted in a film about the Cuban Revolution. His next film as a director, The Milagro Beanfield War, ventured as far away from WASP Lake Forest as you can get, all the way to the Hispanic Southwest. So why did he choose to direct a long, glorified, cinematic version of a John Cheever story?
Let’s do a little thought experiment. What if Redford decided to leverage his own popularity in Hollywood, and the culture of nouveau-WASP, Reaganite, neoliberal chic to make a film that’s far more radical and subversive than it’s sometimes given credit for? Indeed, Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting might, in fact, be considered the conservative sequel to Ordinary People. Good Will Hunting, in spite of its superficially leftist politics, at least holds out at least the promise happiness in the meritocracy. Sure, Matt Damon’s Will has a very famous speech where bashes the NSA, years before it was cool, but, in the end, we know he has no intention of staying in South Boston with his working class friends. He’ll get into the upper-middle-class some way.
Ordinary People shows us that the last place any of should aspire to is a mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois.
On the surface, Redford’s Lake Forest is beautiful. Ordinary People opens to the strains of Pachelbel’s Canon. As we drift through a series of autumnal images of high bourgeois suburbia, we are introduced to Conrad Jarrett, a young Timothy Hutton. Conrad Jarrett is half James Dean in East of Eden, half Wit Stillman preppie. He’s a popular, straight-A student with a wealthy tax attorney for a father, Calvin Jarrett played by Donald Sutherland, and the kind of mother Martha Stewart made a fortune marketing as a fantasy. The Jarrett house is perfect, too perfect. Not a blade of grass, not a piece of furniture, not a knife, a fork or a spoon is out of place.
Soon we learn something is very, very wrong. Conrad’s older brother, Buck, died in a boating accident. Conrad survived. Conrad attempted suicide, and was committed to an insane asylum, where he was given electroshock therapy. Beth Jarrett, Mary Tyler Moore, is high WASP, middle-aged perfection. To quote Frank Rich on former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, “she’s such a good example of the horsey set she almost neighs.” Beth is the kind of passive aggressive, upper-class WASP who thinks she’s making a gesture of infinite kindness simply by talking to you. She’s the kind of woman who makes you feel guilty for making her feel guilty that she can’t be nicer to you than she thinks you really deserve. She hates her younger son. Buck, not Conrad, not even her husband, was the most important man in her life. She’s an ice cold, emotional black hole who blames Conrad for not being the one on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Calvin Jarrett, while he may be an irritating wuss, is far more likeable. We never quite learn what kind of tax law he practices, but, if his gorgeous Lake Forest estate wasn’t inherited, we can be pretty sure it has something to do with helping rich people keep the IRS from taking their money. If the strongest side of Ordinary People is the way it captures the rhythms of the frigid upper-middle class, the way these people keep secrets even when they don’t, the way they deal with people instead of talking to them, their physical discomfort in one another’s presence, then its weakest side is in the way it refuses to engage class as class. Calvin Jarrett is the sensitive 1970s WASP male from central casting. Money is etherealized into style. In real life, a Calvin Jarrett in corporate America would get eaten alive. Here, he never seems to work, and he never seems to worry about money. Beth Jarrett, the angel of the hearth become emotionally withholding devil, bears the entire burden of Redford’s dissection of the neoliberal, Reaganite meritocracy.
But if Ordinary People is a misogynistic film, it’s a great one. TV shows like Mad Men still try to sell us on a fantasy of high WASP chic. Ordinary People rips it to pieces.
After Conrad starts psychoanalysis with Dr. Tyrone C. Berger, Judd Hirsch, we learn that what he needed all along was a dose of earthy Jewish warmth. Judd Hirsch is not only marvelous as a psychoanalyst, the film captures the dynamic of what it’s like for a young man to try heal himself in therapy only to have to go back home to the same upper-class household that made him need therapy in the first place. To watch Ordinary People back to back with Good Will Hunting is to realize what a reactionary film Good Will Hunting is. For Matt Damon’s Will, getting in touch with your feelings is a first step towards abandoning your emotionally stunted blue collar childhood. Once Will heals his soul he’ll be ready to join the Calvin Jarretts of the world in the corporate boardroom. For Timothy Hutton’s Conrad Jarrett, it’s not that easy.
The healthier Conrad gets, the more he comes into conflict with Beth. “Aren’t I supposed to feel better?” Conrad asks Berger. “Not necessarily,” Berger answers. Berger doesn’t want Conrad to fit in. He wants him to get mad. Whether or not Berger intends it, Conrad is the revolutionary agent of change who will bring down the film’s microcosm of the corrupt, bourgeois order. Indeed, we begin to realize that Buck’s death and Conrad’s suicide attempt, as tragic as they were, also made it inevitable that the Jarrett family would finally crack up, and that, in the end, it’s a good thing. Had Buck not been killed, Beth Jarrett would have been able to maintain her emotional tyranny over her husband and her younger son for decades. But once the crisis presents itself, Conrad has to rebel or die, and Calvin either has to support him, or lose the only child he has left. Ordinary People ends on a sad note. We don’t know what will happen to Conrad, but we have seen him grow from an angry teenage boy into a man. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment in a two hour movie. Conrad, the least favored son, the Cain marked out for destruction by a withholding bourgeois female God who dotes on his older brother, survives. After Beth gets into a taxi and drives off into the night, we feel like a cloud has lifted, and it has.