I watched Ordinary People on the weekend, the film directed by Robert Redford and released in 1980, based on Judith Guest’s wonderful novel. The film tells a story about two different ways of approaching the pain life brings to all of us.
There’s Conrad, a teenage boy played by Timothy Hutton, whose brother Bucky died in a sailing accident a year before. Conrad has come home from a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt and is trying to re-establish his life before, school, the friends he shared with Bucky, swimming, a choir.
Conrad’s father Calvin (Donald Sutherland) is trying his best to help. Conrad’s mother Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) is shutting out any possible closeness with her remaining son, especially around Bucky’s death. She is held tightly together.
Conrad goes to see a doctor recommended by the hospital, with support from Calvin but not Beth who is deeply ashamed that a private matter is now in the public domain. Dr Berger, played by Judd Hirsch, is the rare well sketched fictional psychotherapist.
If this were a review, I'd be sure to mention Redford's wonderful eye and absolutely outstanding performances from all these actors.
I remember seeing Ordinary People at a time I was in the first of what have become three long bouts of psychotherapy (different story, different grief, but just as much anguish). I remember that mixture of shame and wonder. I knew Conrad’s experience of telling someone painful things, of being truly supported for the first time to feel difficult feelings. I also knew the worry that if people found out, they would know I was broken.
As a young person, I thought Conrad and his father were on the right path, trying to hang on to life and one another by facing their experiences, I now see that Beth too is doing her best to hang on. Maybe she boxed up her experience and moved on. Who’s to say that’s not a way of surviving too?
A friend of mine watched Ordinary People as part of a management course in the nineties where the very nineties trainer told the group that Beth is the survivor among the three of them and the best adjusted - maybe this was the early days of that set of ideas that says changing behaviour changes experience. I think Beth’s way of going through life might give easier days. Having said that, I wouldn’t trade my tears for easier days. I would pick the life I’ve lived all over again even though it means I still cry almost every day.
Late in the movie, Conrad is up early in the morning visiting a girl who might become close. He is deep within the experience of wonder of someone who has escaped a life sentence, who has discovered that allowing deep feelings to pass through us gives great pain and also brings the beauty of the world sharply into focus.
What I love most about Ordinary People is that it turns out we’re all broken. It’s such a wonderful film and a novel I'll now read again. Today though, I'm just glad these offerings have been in the world in my lifetime and we have art like this to help us understand.