In addition to ushering in the unchecked era of narcissistic self-regard, mushy, feminized therapeutic healing, and an undying cynicism about the Academy Awards, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People remains one of cinema’s undisputed heavyweights of dubious character loyalties and directorial sympathies. From its opening chill to the final, despicably affluent sweater-filled frame of father/son reconciliation, this achingly respectable bourgeois paean to working through life’s woes by the well-paid hour is, above all, an unforgivably libelous screed against the now quaint notion that parents have the right to be human. Forget Donald Sutherland’s washed-out relic of WASPy emasculation, or Timothy Hutton’s self-slaughtering tear factory; this story, a frightening attack on no less an icon than Mary Tyler Moore, would make virtue of frailty, and ask that the firmness of right by necessity yield to the quivering bottom lip, or the open wound of apology and regret. And so it all ends here, with an embrace, on a Jewish doctor’s natty couch. And an iron lady’s flight via taxicab.
We all know the score: Beth Jarrett (Moore) is an evil, unconscionable woman because she can’t throw her arms around her surviving son, Conrad (Hutton). Damning her further, she just might have loved her dead son Buck that much more. Flashbacks all but prove her case: he’s a golden boy of athleticism and chiseled masculinity, and Beth only comes alive in his presence. Hell, maybe she had a thing for the boy, what with that soggy gent sharing her actual marital bed. At bottom, Buck was a glorious future; a gorgeous daughter-in-law to come, striking grandchildren, and a perpetuation of a noble family legacy. He’d be a lawyer, or a doctor, or perhaps even a Congressman. His jaw line alone promised greatness. But he died, at sea, and to remind her of his atypical failure to beat the odds, stands lonesome Conrad, a frightful wisp of a lad who at best could be expected to fumble his way to an internship through father’s connections. He is frail, and sheepish, and far too boyish to ever be carved in granite. All of Beth’s hopes were in the corpse that washed away in a summer’s mad dream, and Conrad won’t ever let her forget. And so he attempts suicide. With that act, he is forever banished from his mother’s heart.
At the time, Beth was viewed as a venomous monster who believed in maintaining a visage of calm and serenity, rather than giving in to her emotional pain. Even today, she’s cited as world’s worst mother, if only for her failure to remove the crusts from her baby boy’s cucumber sandwiches. But she’s no witch. Nor is she even remotely in error. Instead, she’s that line in the sand that declared blood need not be thicker than water. Just as often, it’s a cruel moat denying us our true feelings in matters of life and love. She’s the call in the darkness that believes we can hate our parents, grow weary of our siblings, and even dispatch our children into the bin of nevermore. Any family, as an accident of birth, is a glorious crapshoot, and what musty text or antiquated law requires our obedience? Beth checked out the moment her favorite son died, much in the same way we might quietly breathe out at the long overdue funeral of that flesh-covered Gordian knot who never tired of turning each and every gathering into a personal showcase of pain. While heavy-handed Bob is busy substituting broken plates for symbols of Beth’s cool detachment, she’s standing tall in defense of authenticity. After her husband Calvin squeaks, “Can’t you see anything except in terms of how it affects you?”, she releases her withering retort: “No! Neither can you! Neither does anybody else! Only, maybe I’m more honest about it.” She’s right, of course, but that’s only the beginning.
“Don’t try and change me,” she says again and again, both in word and deed, and it’s less a defense of the status quo than a refusal to become the sort of New Age zombie so righteously crucified by Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Far from unfeeling, she is instead a selective sort, befriending some, alienating others, and always insisting on her own methods of disposal. The Jarrett men believe in an open-ended heart, where all are welcome by virtue of their shared humanity. They were Clintonian before there ever was such a thing. Beth, Dick Nixon down to her crisply folded slacks, believes in a zone of privacy that vanished with the rotary dial, and is unfairly punished for it. Must I cry at funerals? Must I wallow in grief, and wail to the heavens for forgiveness? And must I do so on my front lawn, inviting the glares and judgments of others? Damn a world, she snaps, that takes away hope and promise and leaves stuttering weakness in its wake. She’s the final curtain before we abdicated responsibility altogether and went to so-called professionals for answers. She’s the rugged individualist before the collectivist tide. The eyes on the prize before cheap surrender. The upturned face against a bitter wind before self-help tomes, group therapy, and confessional talk shows swallowed us alive in the quicksand of cultural rot.
As the final scene plays, Calvin weeps like a grandmother as he considers the wreckage of his marriage. “I don’t know if I love you anymore,” he sniffs, rejecting his partner for holding it together in the face of his spineless defeat. He continues: “But you can’t handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. I don’t know. Maybe you can’t love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was like you buried all your love with him, and I don’t understand that….Maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried.” The arrogance is unparalleled, as is the smug superiority. Maybe you can’t love anybody? Is he serious? All too serious, I’m afraid, and an insight into a movement that insisted on slobbering displays of overt expression, casting aside anything less as perverted and authoritarian. While Beth is the kind of hard-ass who keeps the home fires burning and bills decidedly paid, swishy Cal is in the woods finding himself; chanting from books that heal and redeem so long as we don’t have to rely on reality to get us from A to Z. Beth is a relic, yes, but she could have saved us from madness. She was thrown from her home, hissed in theaters from coast and coast, and forever doomed as the symbol of what needed to be vanquished in order to save civilization from itself. In the end, Cal had the words right, but the wrong target: it was with Beth that the best of us was buried. We are all Calvins now.