by Bud Clayman
In a series of recurring essays on films that relate to mental health, I would like to remember as they say, an oldie but goodie. That film is Ordinary People, which won the Best Picture Oscar for 1980. This film actually makes me tear up every time I watch it.
I have seen this movie at least five or six times. Every time I see it, the viewing experience is almost like the first one: mesmerizing and heartfelt.
I first saw Ordinary People at the Eric Twin Chestnut Hill Theater near my home in Philadelphia. They didn’t have multiplexes much back then so this was a two-theater complex that I often frequented and felt comfortable in because there weren’t large crowds to contend with. I was in college and since I had homework most of the time, I could rarely get out to see a movie let alone rent one until my semester break began. This was actually the next to last day Ordinary People was playing. VCR’s were too expensive to own, so I had to see it in the theater or else miss it. And I couldn’t do that. It might not be on broadcast television for at least another five years since cable was in its infancy.
It was a Wednesday afternoon and, as usual, I caught the matinee feature. I didn’t go with anybody, as I didn’t have many friends that I kept in touch with back then. That suited me well because I felt I really wanted to concentrate on the film and not have to be social with the person next to me.
I remember two important things about that viewing. First, as soon as the credits came on I knew I was going to like the film. There was no music and just simple white on black lettering for the performers and crew names. Fade in and fade out of titles. No razzle dazzle. No car chases or high-octane action scenes. No special effects. Just people relating to people. My own history with film taught me that when the credits were simple, I knew I was in for a serious viewing experience.
The second thing I remember about that day was leaving the film and feeling blown away. Wow! I was in the zone. I already had begun to show signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Asperger’s Syndrome, constantly in my head and thinking only about myself. This movie completely took me out of that—for the first time in a long time, I felt emotion and I was focused.
At the time I saw Ordinary People, I was in the midst of major depression and going through a lot of turmoil in my life. I was only nineteen years old. I was beginning to suffer extreme isolation and felt guilty about everything I did in life. I was beginning to feel like I was responsible for every person’s actions—both good and bad. I hated myself and my life.
Basically, I had just left the protective confines of my beloved small suburban Jewish day school where there were three hundred fifty students in the entire student body. Now, I was going to a major and sprawling urban university (to study film!) where there were thirty thousand students! I felt like a nobody there. In high school everybody knew me. They liked me and I liked them. I didn’t make any friends in college.
I felt kind of like Conrad Jarrett, one of the main characters in Ordinary People. Although he does have a lot of friends and he is in high school, he still feels lost and isolated.
The film stars Donald Sutherland (Best Actor Oscar nomination), Mary Tyler Moore (Best Actress Oscar nomination in her most dramatic and—I think—the best role of her career), Timothy Hutton as Conrad (Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner), Judd Hirsch (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination) as the caring and deeply human psychiatrist, and Elizabeth McGovern of Downton Abbey fame in her first major role.
They are all terrific actors playing remarkable characters. But I related most to Hutton’s role.
At the start of the film, Conrad comes home after being in a sanitarium. He has just tried to kill himself because he feels responsible for the death of his older brother, Buck. Buck died in a boating accident, which we ultimately learn was just that—an accident. To make matters worse, Conrad senses blame coming from his mother Beth, played by Mary Tyler Moore. Beth idolized Buck, and Conrad senses that she may have loved his older brother more than him. This only compounds Conrad’s guilt and sense of worthlessness.
At the other end of the caring spectrum is Conrad’s father, Calvin, who is played superbly by Donald Sutherland. He is the one who pushes Conrad to see the psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, played equally well by Judd Hirsch. The film really took on meaning for me here because I had my first real dose of therapeutic treatment at the time I saw the movie. I was very much like Conrad. He didn’t want to go to therapy, originally, and neither did I. I had had two prior experiences in therapy when I was a young child and they didn’t go over very well. I really didn’t want to be there. But this time around I was motivated to get better. Someone had told me that the reason I was a procrastinator was because I subconsciously didn’t want to grow up. It made sense to me and now I was determined to prove this person wrong and act like a man and meet all my responsibilities. I ended up staying with my doctor for eight years and found a needed confidant and friend.
Conrad makes the same type of connection. At first he is nervous. He is hesitant. In one shot he is standing on a street corner looking up at the building that houses Dr Berger’s office. He clearly does not want to go to see him—and yet he has shown up.
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I was nervous about meeting my doctor—again. I had seen him when I was in junior high but I wasn’t ready to work then. I now know that you have to do the work in therapy if you want to get better, and it sure is worth it. It has changed my life. I feel I am on the road to being whole and complete because of therapy.
Conrad learns this as well. He finally meets Dr. Berger and the sessions begin. He is of course very paranoid about Berger, at first. Conrad doesn’t trust anyone, really. But after a number of sessions, Berger wins his trust. He becomes a very important person in his life. This was the way it was with my psychiatrist and me at the time. He became my sole lifeline to the world. I told him everything. Most importantly, I felt safe in his office—which I did not feel in the outside world. My psychiatrist was one of my best advocates.
Berger did the same for Conrad. He pushed for Conrad to give himself a break in life. Conrad had been holding himself responsible for his brother’s death, which Berger wouldn’t allow him to do. My own psychiatrist was like that with me and I really liked him for that. He imparted to me that I was responsible for myself in life and my actions towards others. I didn’t have to take care of everybody else and be responsible for their actions, which is how I felt before I saw him. This relieved a lot of tension in me at the time. It was also the beginning of the development of a sense of self in me, which I hadn’t properly developed up to that point. Now I was on the road to becoming not only an adult but also an individual.
Conrad grows as well. He doesn’t take things as personally as he did before meeting Berger. He comes to realize his guilt is unwarranted and that his mother also has problems. At the end of the movie, it is she who does not have the courage to face her issues and ends up leaving the family.
From a filmic point-of-view Ordinary People is great because of its acting, directing and writing. Acting and directing are extremely important to me. It’s no less important to the success of Ordinary People. This was Robert Redford’s first directorial outing and he rightly deserved the Oscar for it. The performances he gets from everybody are incredible.
You’d never believe that Mary Tyler Moore could be so icy cold. There was no hint of that in her Mary Richards or Laura Petrie characters from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show and Dick Van Dyke Show respectively. In this movie, her character conveys the typical and prevalent view of so many wealthy people towards the mentally ill. They can’t deal with it. They don’t want their pristine world shattered or disturbed by such nonsense. Beth wants Conrad to just snap out of it and he can’t. He needs therapy. It’s the only way to go.
Fortunately, Calvin is sensitive enough to know that Conrad can’t just “snap out of it” and this causes a rift between the husband and wife. it” and this causes a rift between the husband and wife. One scene has Beth telling Calvin that he is always taking sides with Conrad. It’s situations like these that make the movie really resonate with me because I’ve had therapists, friends, and of course, my own mother come to my defense when I got emotionally sick. It’s difficult to watch when Beth puts her own well being over Conrad’s best interests. She should have encouraged his growth and not tried to stifle it.
Ordinary People has one emotionally charged situation after another. You can’t have these without a great writer and we get that in Alvin Sargent (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner from Judith Guest’s novel). Sargent—who won an Oscar for another favorite film of mine, Julia (1977)—creates so much subtext in his script that almost every situation is brimming over with conflict.
In another scene of great emotional intensity, Calvin is trying to take a picture of Beth and Conrad. He asks them to stand closer together. But Beth is so uncomfortable around her own son that she asks Calvin for the camera. He persists in trying to take the picture. Beth and Conrad start to get agitated. And, it’s what Beth and Conrad aren’t saying but rather their barely visible smiles to each other that reveals how they really feel. There is so much tension going on below the surface of the actual dialogue (that’s subtext) that you know every character is about to burst open at any moment. That, in fact, happens when Conrad finally asserts himself by saying to his father, “Give her the God-damned camera!” Conrad has problems showing anger. He has trouble relinquishing control to others and himself with regards to his feelings. This scene owes itself to the coming together of great acting, directing, and writing that is all working in unison.
The entire reason why I want to shine light on this film is that it takes a benevolent view of the therapeutic process. Therapy changed my life. It empowered me. OC87: The Obsessive Compulsive, Major Depression, Bipolar, Asperger’s Movie grew out of my great experiences in therapy. I even wrote an essay called “Therapy” that I shared with a writers’ group. A person in there said to me, “Yeah, therapy empowered me too.” That was the original premise of the film, OC87. It was to be called Therapy and I was going to interview a lot of people about their experiences in individual treatment. (For those of you who’ve had the chance to see the film, it obviously turned out differently). However, it’s still that original confidence that my first therapist gave me that continues with me to this day.
And it’s that same confidence that Dr. Berger gives to Conrad that I really love. Before Conrad walked into Dr. Berger’s office he had great difficulty negotiating life and meeting it on its own terms. When the movie ends, it is Beth who is the one who must run and flee from the family and her problems.
But, as everyone knows who has been in therapy the problems are “portable.” Despite the fact that the problems are portable and inescapable, the good news is that you have control over them. You can master them and cope with life successfully. I think Conrad learns this. I would love to see where Conrad’s character is today. Perhaps only the writers of Ordinary People, Judith Guest the novelist and Alvin Sargent the screenwriter, would know. Wherever he is I hope he is happy and finding what he wants out of life.
You can find Ordinary People on Netflix and Amazon. All images and footage from Ordinary People are the property of Paramount Pictures.