The 1980 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, "Ordinary People," has consistently been a highly acclaimed and respected piece of American cinema. Many professors, some of mine included, still study this film, not just for its technical achievements, but also for the strong character arcs (and lack thereof) that are represented in this film, proving that a great movie can come from much more than just a good plot, but also amazing characters. While I agree that this movie has been a huge influence who where movies have gone today, I also had a hard time enjoying the movie because one of the characters, Beth (played by Mary Tyler Moore), is very frustrating to watch. Moore's portrayal of her was incredible, but I could not get past her cold nature towards her son.
Perhaps the biggest and most obvious negative force throughout the film, and one of the main sources of conflict, is Beth. She is clearly resentful of her son, Conrad, for being emotionally unstable after the death of his brother, Buck, the son that Beth seems to prefer although perhaps just because he fit the picture perfect family scenario. Throughout the entire movie, it is evident that Beth has been trying to get her picture perfect life back to normal after her son’s death. However, Conrad is still clearly affected by this due to the fact that he experienced the death and partially blames himself for it, which leads to his suicide attempt. This prevents Beth from going back to her normal life, and she is clearly bitter over it.
On the other hand, her husband Calvin, feels that the best way to move on from this is to talk about it rather than ignore it, seeing as to how it still affects their son greatly. Throughout the movie, Calvin seems to be putting in his best effort to connect with his son and appease his wife, who insists that Calvin is “indulging” their son too much by focusing on his problems. Calvin wants to understand Conrad without upsetting his wife, although it is also seen in the movie that he still has some unsettled feelings about the death of their son Buck, which he may have put aside for his wife. Calvin seems to be stuck in the middle wanting to please both his son and wife, but is struggling since he cannot do both simultaneously. Calvin, has generally been one of the positive forces in the movie.
In one scene, Beth and Calvin are away from their son during a holiday for a vacation, which Beth suggested to get some time for just the two of them. By this point in the movie, Calvin has tried getting closer to his son by attending a therapy session with his psychologist and expressing some open wounds about Buck’s death. He has also attempted to get his wife to join him in the therapy sessions, but was denied when she said that she didn’t need any.
The scene starts off showing Beth getting a hole-in-one during a golf game with their friends, and then suggesting to Calvin that they take more vacations involving golf. Once Calvin mentions that their son Conrad might enjoy that, Beth is immediately annoyed saying “do you do that on purpose” referring to Calvin bringing up their son during conversations. She says that he is still being controlled by their son even when they are 2,000 miles away, after trying to ignore the conversation entirely, but Calvin insists. During this scene, Beth is evidently upset because she feels that she cannot see things beyond her point of view and that she shouldn’t be blamed for that, or for anything else that has happened. While Calvin is just trying to explain to her what Conrad needs from her, but she seems to refuse to see it. When Calvin tries to explain that perhaps their son feels that Beth hates him, Beth automatically turns the tables and blames the son for trying to manipulate Calvin against her. This scene is one of the only time that Calvin confronts Beth about her disconnect from the family, from reality, and from all emotions.
These two opposing charges play a huge role in manipulating the audience to see that conflict that Beth has when it comes to accepting Conrad’s problems and Buck’s death. As Calvin points out in a later scene, Beth “can’t handle mess.” It is perhaps best showed in this scene where Beth practically breaks down at the sign of confrontation about her life and how she has handled things since the death. This scene has also been placed there to manipulate the audience into seeing that Beth has been the main source of negativity throughout the movie and to get the audience to see that she is unable to see anyone else’s needs but her own.
This scene also sets up the ending very nicely as one of the final scenes of climax in the movie. While Conrad has his scene of climax after finding out about his friend’s suicide and working out through a lot of emotion in a cathartic therapy session, Beth doesn’t seem to have worked out her emotions during her scene of climax and remains stuck on the one idea that has been haunting her mind the entire movie which is that of the perfect life. She is stuck wanting to blame anyone but herself and she has a problem connecting to her son and husband still. The next scene, however, is the climax scene for Calvin, where he realizes that he can no longer deal with Beth and her detached nature and lack of love.
The golfing scene allows for the two main opposing charges in the movie, the husband and wife, to show the biggest problems in the situation are to the audience and sets it up as a way for the story to have a climax where these two charges final confront and lead us to the ending scenes.
If you have not seen Ordinary People, I would highly recommend just on the merit that it is a classic and important piece of cinema and one of the best character pieces in Hollywood.