I watched Ordinary People, one of my favorite movies, last night on Retroplex. This extraordinary film marked the director’s debut of Robert Redford and resulted in a well-deserved Oscar for Timothy Hutton, who was scarcely 20 at the time. The music score was excellent, the plot brilliant in its simplicity, and the actors – Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsh and Timothy Hutton – perfectly cast.
Yes, in many respects, it deals with monumentally depressing themes: the fatal accident of a beloved son; the attempted suicide of the younger son, who survived the accident; and, ultimately, the disintegration of an upper-middle-class family who, in terms of looks, education, and sophistication seemed, by all outward appearances, to be blessed beyond measure. But it also deals with uplifting themes: self-discovery, personal growth, courage, and forgiveness.
Mental illness was still something of a taboo subject way back in 1980 when the movie debuted, especially among Protestant middle-class Americans, such as the Jarrett family depicted in the film, and psychiatry was regarded by millions of Americans as a dubious, if not black, art.
That is why Ordinary People is such an extraordinary film. It drove home several essential truths about mental illness and recovery: first, that mental illness and human tragedy touch everyone, even those who appear to be the most attractive affluent and well-integrated among us; second, that people who seek counseling tend to be the sanest and most decent among us – a fact poignantly depicted by Hutton (Conrad Jarrett) in the film; third, that recovery typically calls for multiple acts of forgiveness and a willingness to accept realities that are entirely beyond one’s control; and, fourth, and most important of all, that subjecting oneself to counseling requires a supreme act of personal courage and a willingness to question patterns of thinking and behaviors that were previously regarded as acceptable, if not sacrosanct.