Tag Archives: Judd Hirsch

Ordinary People (1980)

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.

Running On Empty (1988)

Looking back on Sydney Lumet’s forgotten masterpiece of the late 1980s, Running on Empty, the first thing I notice is that I’m now closer in age to the parents played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti than I am to the two high school seniors played by River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton. I also realize that while I don’t feel middle-aged, it’s not a good thing, that those of us who were born in the 1960s and the 1970s have been sentenced to a perpetual cultural adolescence. We never developed our own style. Grunge was just the marriage of punk and heavy metal, which, in turn, was part of the tail end of the hippie culture of the 1960s. We debate the same political issues people did around Watergate. We live in a stagnant, paralyzed culture. Even though the new left and the anti-Vietnam-War movements were partly successful, they never realized their more radical potential. The “silent majority,” the extended backlash against the Civil Rights movement is now the darling of the media and the politicians, so much so that even liberals sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street — the millennial generation’s new new left — will often say “oh why can’t you be more like the Tea Party.”

Running on Empty is set precisely at the moment, in the milieu, when all of that was set in stone. Arthur and Annie Pope, two middle-aged 1960s radicals, are still living underground. Back during the Vietnam War they bombed a napalm laboratory and maimed a janitor who, unexpectedly, had been working late. Their elder son, Danny Pope, Phoenix, is a talented musician and a sensitive poetic soul who has become even more introverted because his parents have cut him off from the rest of the world. One step ahead of the FBI, they move every few months That means a new alias, a new high-school, and a new set of friends. Even though he has a rich inner-life, brilliantly expressed by the way he can sit down at a piano and play the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata out of nowhere, Danny comes off as hostile, distant, even, perhaps, as someone suffering from some form of high-functioning autism.

When the Popes settle down in the fictional New Jersey town of Waterford, however, Danny’s musical talent attracts the attention of his music teacher, Mr. Phillips. His good looks, in turn, attract the attention of Mr. Phillip’s daughter, Lorna, played by a luminous young Martha Plimpton. They draw him out of his shell. They invite him to concerts. They encourage him to apply to Juilliard. Arthur and Annie Pope, who are genuinely good people, the kind of parents who would normally be thrilled to see their introverted son make friends — and they both get along with Lorna — also recognize the danger. The more Danny stands out, the more people begin to like him, the greater the danger of their being exposed. If Danny applies to Juilliard, he will need transcripts from his old high-school that don’t exist. If he gets accepted, that means he’ll have to cut himself off from his parents. In other words, it’s in the entirely selfish interests of Arthur and Annie Pope to keep their son socially stunted and isolated. “Classical music is bourgeois white privilege,” Arthur scoffs at his son’s plans to apply to Juilliard. “It’s not rock and roll.”

In the end, Arthur and Annie Pope make the right decision. They let their son go. After they arrange a meeting with Annie’s parents, who agree to board Danny until he comes of age, Danny gets to attend Juilliard and stay with Lorna, to whom he had finally risked confessing the truth about himself. Arthur and Annie go on to continue their life underground. Sydney Lumet shows us what the Baby Boomers should have done, but refused, admitted that their youth was gone, and let their kids grow up and establish their own identity. They never did. What’s more, some of the most talented cultural icons born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Phoenix himself and Kurt Cobain, would be dead within a few years anyway. By contrast, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn, the two real life 60s radicals on whom Annie and Arthur Pope are based, still weigh heavily on the American political imagination, the big time corporate media even giving serious airplay to conspiracy theorists who believe they’re Barack Obama’s puppet masters.

But Sydney Lumet —and the screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal — still have their limitations.

Now that I’m older and more radical, I notice a conservatism and snobbery in Running on Empty that I missed the first time around. Sydney Lumet, the son of Jewish immigrants, and Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, a Jewish baby boomer, can’t quite get past the idea of a happy ending as “acceptance by upper-middle-class WASP America.” I see a class and ethnic resentment in Arthur Pope, a Jew, against his wife Annie Pope, a WASP, that’s never quite resolved. Letting Danny go means letting him live with Annie’s conservative Republican parents, go to Juilliard, play classical piano, and cut himself off from the unfinished revolution of the 1960s. I was struck by how Annie tells her father that the revolution is over, that radicalism became obsolete when they ended the war in Vietnam and the draft.

What really saves Running on Empty from becoming just another Big Chill with a better soundtrack and more likeable characters are Phoenix and Plimpton. Christine Lahti gives a good performance as a women holding her family together in spite of all the obstacles. Judd Hirsch is competent, if sometimes a bit irritating. You realize that his verbal and physical ticks remind you of Alan Alda’s insufferably smug Hawkeye Pierce from the old TV show MASH. But Phoenix and Plimpton are a revelation, especially after all the 30-year-old teenagers that marched through the endless parade of slasher and frat boy films cluttering up the cultural landscape the 1980s. They radiate youth and vulnerability, of the possibilities that my generation had but never quite realized. Indeed, it’s heartbreaking to realize how much talent River Phoenix had, how much more of a natural actor he was than the vaguely phony Leonardo DiCaprio or the needlessly quirky Johnny Depp. Phoenix’s overdose, of course, had nothing to do with the cultural paralysis that we find ourselves in these days, but, watching his performance in Running on Empty, it’s almost possible to believe that it did.