In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1980 winner Ordinary People. Is it better than Crash?
Ordinary People takes a lot of flack for beating Raging Bull for Best Picture. There are really two kinds of “surprise” winners: winners that no one seems to like and winners that beat supposed “classics.” The debate between which movie history remembers better is a short one, but Ordinary People is a surprising movie, and certainly one you have to see.
It’s the story of Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth Jarrett (Mary Tyler Moore) trying to recover from the grief of losing the oldest of their two sons in a boating accident. As they try to process and move on, their youngest son Conrad (Timothy Hutton, who earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in his first film role for the performance) experiences survivor’s guilt and reluctantly goes into therapy with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch) after a suicide attempt.
If that all sounds heavy, then good. The list of Best Picture winners includes 12 Years a Slave and Schindler’s List, so referring to Ordinary People in absolutes like “saddest” or “heaviest” is a little unreasonable, but it cut me down more than I expected. Conrad rebels against therapy even while he understands that it’s something he needs to experience, which is so deeply human. He constantly presents himself to the world very meekly, demonstrating that he knows how people see him but also how he must present himself to break through that. He’s the one who lived and he’s always going to be seen that way, but that has to not be his entire identity.
While Conrad’s role offers the most glaring issues (a suicide attempt on top of the grief of losing a brother), both parents portray different sides of another problem. Calvin wants to understand his son and urges him to enter therapy, regardless of cost or loss of social status as “a normal family.” Sutherland plays the part with a real pain, you can see in his face that he’s trying and that he’s internalizing everything he feels about the situation. He knows that grief is for the living, but also that he can be there for Beth and Conrad without demanding that they overexert themselves being there for him. He’s selfless while still being human, which is a thin line for a “morally good” character in a movie like this. It would be very easy to play him as a saint and be done with it, but Sutherland is awkward and imperfect, just as we all are when we talk to people who are at their most fragile.
Beth is different. Mary Tyler Moore not winning a Best Actress Oscar for her part here is a baffling mystery, because Beth Jarrett is an impossible role to nail and she nails it. Beth loved her oldest son more and has trouble hiding that from Conrad. You get the sense that Conrad always suspected, but it’s when his suspicions are confirmed that it gets really hard. Beth can’t hide her disgust for therapy or for Conrad’s “weak” response to grief. She wants to move on, and she can’t do that until everyone else in her life moves on. But that’s just it: sometimes you can’t move on. Ordinary People explores one of the real issues about loss that no one ever thinks about when it asks us to consider how we’d respond to someone that we felt was grieving “wrong.”
The Best Part: Is Beth a villain, or is her response just one of the possible responses to grief? Is Calvin purely good, or do his choices with Beth show that he took a simple path through loss rather than ask some hard questions early? Does Conrad do the right thing, or does he just appear to do the right thing? There isn’t one correct viewing of Ordinary People, and though you’re likely to just say that Beth is terrible and be done with it, it’s definitely more complicated than that when you extrapolate this to your own life.
The Worst Part: At just over two hours, Ordinary People is pretty tight. It’s difficult to pick anything for this space, but I’ll go with the school bully played by Adam Baldwin. Conrad gets in a fight with him at school and it’s supposed to display how he doesn’t fit in like he used to and how he can’t manage his emotions properly, but those issues come out much better through a relationship that he’s trying to start and a friendship with a girl he met while he was in the psychiatric hospital.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Ordinary People looks at difficult issues and how people respond to them when they will not go away. Crash does the same thing, but Ordinary People manages a much more consistent tone and never dips into the extreme. I obviously hate to compare the two because one has surprisingly become one of my favorites movies of all time and the other I have compared unfavorably to a silent movie from the 20s, but that’s what this space demands. Crash is worse because it talks about a serious subject in an unhelpful, often insulting way. Ordinary People doesn’t talk down to you, and it will make you think about your own response to grief. That’s an accomplishment that deserves a gold statue far more than Crash.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.