A life more ordinary

Last night Chris and I watched a Netflixed DVD of the 1980 film Ordinary People. I’ve been on something of a mission to find and watch movies that I watched repeatedly on cable during my childhood, movies that imprinted on me for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s a movie like The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, where you feel compelled to simply confirm that yes, there really was a disco sports movie about a basketball team that harnessed the power of astrology to win the championship (also they rode in a sparkly hot air balloon). And sometimes it’s a movie like Ordinary People, which is one of those dysfunctional-families-of-the-80s award-winning things. As a kid it fascinated me because it was set on the North Shore of the Chicago area and portrayed an affluent lifestyle that I both resented and envied. Somehow I couldn’t get enough of the Ordinary People family, with their golf games and Nordic sweaters and their many, many psychodramatic tics.

Donald Sutherland plays the most sensitive and kindhearted tax lawyer ever in the history of the North Shore, and he lives in a big white house with his wife, Mary Tyler Moore, and his son, Timothy Hutton. Mary Tyler Moore puts silver napkin rings on napkins and lines them up just so in the buffet drawer, which is how you know she’s an asshole. Timothy Hutton has a bad haircut that he gave himself in the mental hospital and he spends the first half hour or so looking (and kind of acting) like he’s been punched in the face. They’re all trying get past the boating-accident-death of the oldest son, “Buck,” who appears in flashbacks as the only one in the family who isn’t brittle and awkward. Timothy Hutton is so guilt-wracked as the surviving brother that he attempted suicide, and now he’s trying to get his life back together and date a very young, baby-faced Elizabeth McGovern. Judd Hirsch is his outpatient therapist; he smokes and swears and wears ribbed cardigans and has a dingy shitburger office. I know it sounds like I’m making fun of this movie, but it’s honestly good. You can laugh at the on-the-nose portrayals of classic dysfunction even as you admire the performances.

I am kind of sad Mary Tyler Moore didn’t spin off this role into a TV show called Brittle, Privileged Mother, where every week a guest star tries and fails to emotionally connect with her. It would be a sitcom, because apparently I am at an age where I find that premise hilarious.

But I also find myself remembering my younger self when I watch this movie, and how I gazed at the autumnal landscape of Lake Forest and the preppy outfits and the tidy homes. Much of the setting resembled Oak Park, where I grew up, but with the patrician affluence cranked up an extra few notches. The Ordinary People family didn’t resemble mine at all, but whenever I saw the movie I liked to imagine I was looking into my future, when would wear tartan skirts to choir practice and come home to a beautiful and oppressive household and run upstairs to my room in anguish. I liked to think that by watching I was getting ready for all that.

I am not terribly disappointed that my life turned out differently. Except, I guess, for the part where Judd Hirsch was supposed to be my therapist.


  1. says

    Let me refocus your elevator pitch just slightly. Intead of a sitcom, let’s make “Brittle, Privileged Mother” be more of a contest, like “Make Me Laugh.” You have 60 seconds to make MTM hug you. Warmly. Not that side-arm shit. And…go!

  2. says

    …that moment where you see the typo just as you hit submit, and then the world slows to a slo-mo crawl as you try frantically to undo it, and it’s too late. DAY. You made my DAY.

  3. Nee S says

    Your Fish movie reminds me of my horrible cable favorite, The Last Dragon. My sister-in-law and I bonded over our love of it.

  4. Kate says

    It is my favorite movie. It seems dated now, but it really is good. Compelling performances by all the leads, and a case in which the movie is better than the book.

    It is also the inspiration for my son’s name. It’s not that we named him after a suicidal teenager, but that the book and movie made me appreciate Conrad as an underused, yet familiar, name. I sort of dread the day he watches it, though, and hope he sees the character’s sensitivity and not just his anguish.

  5. StlNell says

    What about the perfect “canon in d” soundtrack!? Oh and don’t forget Carol from Empty Nest. I loved the movie too for all the same reasons you mentioned – even though I discovered it in college in 1994 – when I was busy reinvenitng myself also as a wasp … that semester….. I still claim it as one of my all-time faves mostly for that sublime subtlety you just don’t get I think after the 80’s. BTW – I just finished IANTNM (<–lazy) and really enjoyed it.

  6. mel says

    Robert Redford’s debut as a film director; I remember how blown away people were by this movie. I had read and loved the book, and was just relieved that the movie didn’t trash it.

  7. Gary Foster says

    This movie marked the beginning of my own transformation back in 80. I really felt this movie, having lived near Lake Forest Il and growing up in Northern Il. I also attended a private school for 5-7th grades and further related to this kind of milieu. I still think its a fine movie.