I’m no actor, but I took two drama classes in my life, in junior high and high school, and I did an “Ordinary People” scene in each: the restaurant meeting between Conrad and Karen, his friend from the psych ward; and one of several scenes with Conrad and Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). I, of course, was Conrad. Always. There was something heroic about Hutton’s performance, the way he embodied Conrad’s ability to shoulder everything even as he was falling apart. By playing him in drama classes—my mother hammered out the scripts for me on an old typewriter—I was creating a sort of mutually re-enforcing feedback loop. Perhaps I needed some of Conrad’s strength for myself and this was how I thought I could acquire it.
Those therapy scenes between Conrad and Berger are still enough to make one pine for the perfect therapist—caring, a little caustic, patient, willing to tear down Conrad’s walls a bit at a time. The big therapy breakthrough in “Good Will Hunting” (“It’s Not Your Fault”) probably doesn’t happen without the denouement between Conrad and Berger (“I’m your friend”). Neither is terribly realistic, but both manage to jerk tears without excessive manipulation. “Ordinary People,” based on Judith Guest’s novel, does big emotions with exquisite touch.
As I watch now, I find my eye drifting away from Conrad (sorry dude) and toward his parents, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) and Beth (a revelatory Mary Tyler Moore). This is partially because I’m close to their age now. But there’s something else, something to do with grief, which I have now lived long enough to endure.
Married couples are hard pressed to stay together when they lose a child. Everyone grieves differently but usually the collective strain, the rage and pure anguish, hover in the air like a disease and drive an immovable wedge like an anvil. Moore in particular embodies this nightmare to chilling effect. As written, Beth is a terrible human being, unwilling to set Conrad free from his guilt (hell, she won’t even pose in a photograph with him). As acted by Moore, however, cast against type from her ebullient TV persona, Beth becomes a tragic figure. She does it all with a twitch of the mouth, or sagging shoulders, or a flicker of the eyes. She wordlessly reminds us that the apple of her eye is gone forever. Hutton and Redford won the big Oscars (Best Supporting Actor, Best Director), but in hindsight it’s Moore who gives the movie’s most vital contribution. The film is worth re-watching just for her performance.