There are some films that no matter how much you may have loved them, you don't necessarily wish to revisit. In some ways its a form of punishment watching a film that evoked great emotion in you which weren't always pleasant emotions. Ordinary People affected me in a profound way when I first saw it some 8 years ago. I was in high school and the same grade as Conrad (Timothy Hutton) so much about it seemed so real. In the years since the film has seemed like a picture I needed to see again, but was scared to. I needed to see it because I needed to confirm something. I thought it was the best film of the 1980's, one of the all time greats, and since I was so alone in this assumption I needed reinforcement. Was this film really that great, or did it hit me at a very impressionable time? The reason I was scared was because I spent most of the film on the verge of tears, and revisiting a film like that is akin to thinking of your dead dog, it's painful. In preparation for a forthcoming top 100 list, I thought I needed to revisit it, most of the films in my top 10 to 20 I've seen several times, and it just seemed odd to include a film that I had only seen one time some 8 years ago. I wondered if it would affect me the same way. I'm no longer in high school I'm not particularly suicidal and I've grown a lot since then. Well as often happens with rewatching a movie, your first reaction is usually the correct one.
Ordinary People had a lot to prove to me back in 2000. I had wrapped up the AFI's top 100 and decided to go after best picture Oscar winners. I needed to see Ordinary People just to prove to myself that it was far inferior to Raging Bull like every single critic walking the earth seemed to think. I was stunned with the film, it wasn't just better than Raging Bull, but it was damn near better than any film I had seen. In my travels I've gotten to know northern Illinois extremely well. Most of Ordinary People was shot on location in Lake Forest where a girlfriend of mine attended high school. I worked along the lakeshore there and new what the neighborhoods looked like. I had driven past Lake Forest High School. A great movie theater is located in downtown Highland Park where Dr. Berger's (Judd Hirsch) office is. If anything the film hit home even more. These were real locations, not some set, and these real locations I knew. It wasn't a collage of famous city landmarks. The one scene shot in Chicago doesn't show the L, the skyscrapers, just two people walking along the Chicago River. Anyone who traveled the same road would know it, but it didn't need to be explained. That scene is followed with Calvin (Donald Sutherland) taking the Metra home, a stop I had been to many times. Since seeing the film the first time I spent time in a hospital, and got to know people like Karen and Conrad.
Robert Redford was intent on making a sincere film. Now some may gripe that these affluent white people are "ordinary" but that might be missing the point. Sure anyone from here knows to live in Lake Forest you need a substantial income but it is in their presentation. The Oscar winning screenplay by Alvin Sargent is supremely perfect. People fumble for words, they make insignificant small talk, they have a problem expressing themselves, they have awkward moments that real people have in conversations. People don't have the answers, even when someone is expressing their real feelings and that a breakthrough seems imminent it is filled with stops and pauses and not finding quite the right way to put it as anyone would find. Hearing Hutton and Elizabeth McGovern talk over McDonald's (the real McDonald's in Lake Forest has a #*+%++% fireplace) it seems like two kids out on a date. They seem to ad lib off of each other. Starting a conversation with "anyways" and trying to connect in their own way. The awkward ride home where you want them to say the right thing, but think of how many times you were in that situation where you could only find the right words several days later.
This is a sincere film on nearly all fronts, and doesn't cop out with an easy answer. The family seems no closer at the end than at the beginning but everyone has done some reflecting, grown, and we feel that at least Conrad might be on the right path. It's a complete and utter mystery why Timothy Hutton was nominated for a supporting actor Oscar (which he won) despite the fact that he's on screen for nearly 75% of the film and the focus of the story is very much on him. I suppose it doesn't matter much because no one could have beaten DeNiro that year. The editing makes a great use of flashbacks which can seem to oversimplify things. Again though these flashbacks come to us as they would the character, all of them are subjective. They are in bursts. A shot of something, back to the present, a shot of something else, they are quick, not full. Calvin remembers a scene of his two boys as kids arguing over a sweater that Buck stole from Conrad. A simple insignificant scene in the essential plot but says so much about what a father remembers and what funny things stick with you. For a first time director Redford was impeccable. He is free to frame tight shots, yet occasionally let his actors roam free allowing for several minute long scenes to play out in one master shot. He knows just how much of the scenery to get and not a shot seems wasted. I'm glad I took a chance to revisit this film. Emotionally it shook me just as hard (which is even more astonishing considering I knew what was going to happen) and firmly established itself as one of if not the best film of the 80's.