ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
Story length excluding credits: 120 min.
Directed by Robert Redford
Writers: Judith Guest (novel), Alvin Sargent (screenplay), Nancy Dowd (uncredited)
Donald Sutherland (Calvin)
Mary Tyler Moore (Beth)
Judd Hirsch (Berger)
Timothy Hutton (Conrad)
Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannie)
Scott Doebler (Buck)
Dinah Manoff (Karen)
Helpful Link to an analysis of the book: http://www.bookrags.com/notes/op/
MORAL-PHYSICAL PREMISE STATEMENT (MPPS)
For those that don't need to wade thought the long analysis here's my take on the MPPS for ORDINARY PEOPLE.
A shorthand version:
Demanding perfection leads the loss of love and friendship;
Allowing imperfection leads to the gain of love and friendship.
Allowing imperfection leads to the gain of love and friendship.
A longer version, more instructive:
In the presence of stressful situations that are beyond our control:
Embracing idealism and demanding perfection
leads to the repression of feelings,
and the loss of love, friendship, and happiness;
Embracing reality and allowing imperfection
Embracing reality and allowing imperfection
leads to the expression of feelings,
and secures love, friendship, and happiness.
The Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS) tells us what a successful movie is REALLY about. Analyzing such a film requires
that we identify the central conflict of values, the protagonist's physical goal, and the identity of the antagonist who typically epitomizes the vice of the MPPS. Identifying the vice will suggest an opposing virtue toward which the protagonist struggles -- in a redemptive film.
Identifying the physical goal can by done by looking for the turning points in the protagonist's journey and noticing the direction from which, and to which, the story travels. Extrapolating those turns can indicate the goal and often the underlying values. A quick way of identifying the turning points begins with determining the length of the movie in minutes (excluding front and back credits) and then calculating where the ideal turning points, based on a classic story structure, should be. The list below indicates such points for ORDINARY PEOPLE (OP). As I point out in other writing and in my workshop, the turning points will not always be in these ideal places, but most will. One thing Hollywood has learned is that audience response to films is based on a natural law of structure that adheres closely to this 3-Act model.
IDEAL TURNING POINTS based on a 120-minute length movie such as OP:
First Image: 1m (1%)
Inciting Incident: 15m (12.5%)
Act 1 Break: 30m (25%)
Mid-Point Moment of Grace: 60m (50%)
Act 2 Break: 90m (75%)
Final Incident: 105m (87.5%)
Act 3 Climax: 114m (95%)
Dénouement: 118m (98%)
Final Image: 120m (100%)
Let's start looking deeper into the story, beginning with what the producers and distributors indicate with their published log line.
IMBD LOG LINE: The accidental death of the older son of an affluent family deeply strains the relationships among the bitter mother, the good-natured father, and the guilt-ridden younger son.
This isn't clear enough. For me a log line clearly indicates the protagonist, the antagonist, the goal, a clear verb indicating the struggle and stakes, and irony.
MY LOG LINE: A guilt-ridden younger son struggles with his bitter and narcissistic mother for control of his life after his older and better-liked brother dies in an accident.
OP is a remarkable film because it appears outwardly to be very ordinary, but inwardly is extraordinary—it is a psychological drama. The metaphors, symbols and other clues that inform us about this film's inner journey are imbued in a well-crafted script and direction. The consistent and believable acting allows us to easily identify with the characters. Nothing is overplayed in what could have been melodramatic. Nominated for six Academy Awards, OP won four: Best Supporting Actor (Timothy Hutton – the story's protagonist), Best Director (Robert Redford — his directorial debut after dozens of films as an actor), Best Picture (Ronald L. Schwary), Best Adapted Screenplay (Alvin Sargent). Nominated also for Best supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch) and Best Actress (Mary Tyler Moore).
SOAP BOX SIDEBAR
These nominations and awards reveal the political problem the Academy lives with, to its detriment. Timothy Hutton had the leading role as the movie's protagonist, and dominated the screen time, but Mary Tyler Moore, the antagonist did not have Hutton's screen time nor his arc; yet she and Donald Sutherland get billed as the leading actors. That has more to do with marketing than anything, but it's disingenuous for it to carry over to the awards. Hutton is the movie's lead actor, not Moore nor Sutherland.
LOOKING THE MPPS...or suggestons of it.
OP begins with a high school choir rehearsal. Our protagonist (Conrad) stands just behind his love interest (Jeannie). They sing these lyrics.
In the silence of our souls
O Lord, we contemplate thy peace
Free from all the world's desires
Free of fear and all anxiety
Alleluia! Sing Alleluia!
Right out of the block Redford and his team tell us that this is a movie about moving psychologically from anxiety to peace, and moving physically from the chaos to control
To inform us visually there's a significant juxtaposition of images. Just as the choir finishes singing its last "Alleluia!" the panning camera settles on a calm and confident Conrad. Suddenly cut to the
FIRST IMAGE of Conrad awakening from a nightmare -- sweat soaked in a panic. The story question thrust at us is: "Can this young man arrive at a state of peace and freedom from the world's desires, from his nightmare of fear and anxiety?" The next 118 minutes will tell.
In their first counseling session (14-19 min) Dr. Berger suggests that Conrad and he go on a journey ("so to speak") so Conrad and meet his goal of being "more in control." The goal is clear, but Conrad doesn't want to go on it... at least with Berger.
Conrad's mother, Beth, is the person that seems most in control, but ironically her solution is to ignore those things in her life that she can't control. Her attitude is: "If I can't control it, it doesn't exist." But the one thing she can't ignore is the death of her oldest and favorite son. And it's her inability to ignore what she can't control (Buck's death), that sends this family into a tailspin. She becomes a passive monster. Repressing most of her feelings, but occasionally lashing out with bitter spite at how her life is changed. It can't be her problem, she reasons, because she's in control of her life. It must be others, like her younger son who was not nearly as popular as Buck.
Conrad, who was with Buck on the sailboat in a storm when the boat capsized and Buck could not hold on to the hull and drowned, is unlike his mother. He perceives that he does not have his mother's control, and so he wants to be like her, and make things appear as if they're okay. So, after getting out of a mental hospital, and finally relents and goes to she a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. So, he can be more in control.
Berger notices quickly, however, that the "control" Conrad wants, is not possible without ignoring reality. Conrad thinks his journey is to become like mom, who for the most part ignores that bad things happen. Berger's job is to get Conrad to face the inevitable bad things in life, and "feel" them in an honest way.
NAMES MEAN SOMETHING
Beth and Bucky both start with "B" and they are both nicknames for their real names. Notice that the movie is comparing "idealism" to "reality". The nicknames reflect a hoped for ideal at the expense of the real. Beth is short for Elizabeth, and Bucky is short for Jordan. But in our story, Calvin and Conrad use their real names, not nicknames, and their names both start the same letter. There's nothing significant in the letters that begin these names, only that they point to the fact that Beth and Bucky have something similar -- living in self-created world that appears to be perfect, but isn't. Their nicknames are stand-ins for reality. On the other hand Calvin and Conrad use their real names because they live more centered in the messiness of reality.
The irony is that Beth appears to be in control, but in reality is not, she only appears to be. When that appearance wears thin and we see through the veneer into her loveless life, she, like Bucky will give up, and go away. We will see that "appearances," "feelings," and "being in control," are all related concepts that fall under the conflict of values that can be described as "idealism" vs "realism."
Throughout the story, however, it is clear that Calvin and Conrad do not want to go on that journey – toward the embrace of idealism. They have an innate sense that life should be lived surrounded by reality, even when it's not comfortable, even when one is not in control of the external events.
One last note before we go on. Beth and Buck tried to live in a world of dreams where they could make everything look good. But such a world does not prepare you for reality, when things become bad and hard. When Dr. Berger says to Conrad: "I don't put much stock in dreams. I want to know what's happening? ... Look, kiddo, I lied. I do believe in dreams. Only sometimes I want to know what's happening when you're awake." That sets up the conflict of values about which OP is about: Idealism (or dreams) vs. reality.
THE ACT 1 BREAK
...for Beth and Calvin occurs at a Christmas party when Calvin tells Annie, the mother of Conrad's friend, that Conrad is seeing a doctor. On the way home, Beth chastises Calvin for telling Annie what Beth claims is a very private matter. Calvin retorts that for most people seeing a psychiatrist is a status symbol, which is in part Beth's problem. And although Calvin is wise (if not tipsy) in trying to sell Beth on something she feels is important – status -- in Beth's eyes, having her circle of friends knowing that her son is seeing a psychiatrist "looks bad." She lives for the appearance that everything is fine and under control. Her status in her social world is of utmost value, and that belief is part of Conrad's problem. We see this in one of the early exchanges between Berger and Conrad. (Parentheses are my comments).
Conrad: I feel so... I don't know.
(Notice the declaration of the goal: "I don't know what I FEEL... I need to FEEL, but I don't.")
Conrad explains to Berger why he doesn't like swimming.
Berger: Have you thought about quitting?
Conrad: Are you telling me to?
Conrad: It wouldn't look good.
Berger: Forget about how it looks. How does it feel?
Conrad: How does it feel? How does it feel?
Berger: Yes. How does it feel?
Conrad: I'm suppose to feel better, right?
Berger: Not necessarily.
Conrad ponders that.
The exchange underscores that it's important to face your feelings, understand them, but not be misled thinking you can change them.
This is a reference to the difference between trying to live an idealistic life, a dream life, where nothing is real, and refusing to live in the real world where not everything is idealistic.
Conrad explains that in the hospital he felt better because there was someone he could talk to and there (in the hospital) people didn't hide things. He's referring to Karen. So, he sets up a time to talk to Karen whom he feels comfortable talking to, even about his attempted suicide.
What we don't see in the conversation with Karen, but we come to understand later, is that Karen has the same problem that Beth has. Karen wants to give the appearance of everything being okay, fine. "Let's this be the best Christmas ever," she tells Conrad. She is encouraging. Which Beth is not. But Karen has something to hide. She does not know how to cope, or hide, or ignore. And later we are brought back to that hidden reality with tragic force.
Approaching the Moment of Grace. In another counseling session, Berger is insistent on getting Conrad to "feel" or to be consciously aware of his feelings. Berger knows that unless Conrad is aware of his feelings he can't control them. And it's control that Conrad needs.
Thus, at 53:37 (on the DVD clock) this dialogue occurs:
Berger (suggests): Maybe there's some connection between control and the lack of feelings.
Conrad (defends): I said I feel things
Berger (challenges): When?
Conrad (ridicules): Com'on
Berger (demands): When?
(And they argue about whether Conrad has feelings or not -- Berger trying to get Conrad to let his feelings out. But Conrad refuses...
Conrad (excuse): It takes too much energy to hold it (feelings) back.
Berger (refuses): Do you know how much energy it takes to hold it back?
Conrad (begging): When I let myself feel, I feel lousy.
Berger (ridicules): Oh, I beg your pardon. I never promised you a rose garden.
And finally, at 54:56, Conrad loses his temper... which is what Berger wanted.
After a moment, Conrad lies down, exhausted on an unused counseling couch.
Berger (friendly): A little advice about feelings, kiddo. Don't expect it to always tickle. (55:02)
In the next scene the Jared's pose for pictures for Beth's visiting parents, until Conrad loses his temper over his mother's fussing. It shocks everyone. To side step the stress Beth escapes to the kitchen where, moments later, she drops a china plate, breaking it in half. Later she thinks can be saved because the break is nice and clean. (Metaphor for the MPPS)
And then we come to the...
MID-POINT MOMENT OF GRACE (59m-63m)
The MOG sequence begins with the end of Jeannie and Conrad's high school choir rehearsal. The lyric "AMEN!" is repeated over and over, which means "let it be," or "Ah-ha!" It's something said to reinforce what was just discovered, such as an important truth, or experiencing an epiphany – in this case what Conrad just discovered with Berger in the counseling session and his parents in the photography session – being able to feel the pain and expressing it. Now, having discovered the painful side of his feelings, he is about to discover the joyous side of his feelings. The juxtaposition of these scenes is a good example of how a writer can build an emotional roller coaster into the script.
After choir lets out, Conrad walks Jeannie to her bus stop during which she offers him words of love and encouragement, which he has never heard from his mother; for Beth is only interested in what the world has to offer through her society "friends" and she avoids the raw feelings that reality brings. As Jeannie gets on the bus she turns to Conrad and again tells him how terrific he is. She literally references his singing, but we (and he) take it to mean him as a person. He smiles as big as the bus is wide and he joyfully walks across the park with a Church in the background singing "Alleluia" -- literally, praise to God. The grace that Jeannie has just offered him ultimately comes from the grace of God. But what we see is Conrad's outward expression of joyous feelings.
In the next scene Conrad, still happy, goes to pass on the grace and joy he's received to Karen, the girl that was in the hospital with him. He finds her phone number and calls her. At this moment Conrad represents hope and grace to Karen. She's not at home but he leaves a message: "I wanted to tell her I'm felling great." In this scene we see another side of Conrad's role and bringing truth and grace to others. It is no coincidence that the book (partially out of focus) lying next to the phone is J.R.R. Tolkien's THE RETURN OF THE KING — the story of how grace returned to middle earth in the form of a king who was led to rediscover his true identity and lead the kingdom to peace. That is partly the story of ORDINARY PEOPLE, as Conrad rediscovers his true identity and leads his little kingdom to peace. This starts Act 2 and our Protagonist's effort to get in control by using the positive side of the moral premise's truth.
APPROACH TO THE ACT 2 CLIMAX
Battling to control his reaction to emotional situations that are out of his control, Conrad exposes himself to challenging situations. There are two situations that illustrate his effort and his progress, and then the third situation that changes everything for him.
The first (at 88m) finds Conrad sitting at McDonalds with Jeannie when rowdy friends accost and embarrasses them both. In the process, Jeannie reacts by laughing uncontrollably. It appears that she's laughing at Conrad, but she later apologizes, explaining that when she gets embarrassed or nervous she laughs.
The second, (at 91m), is after a swim meet, at which Conrad watches but doesn't compete. Outside, he's taunted by a teammate into a fight. Conrad gets the better of him, but it's clear that he's lost control, an even the compassion of his best friends doesn't help.
ACT 2 BREAK & CLIMAX (ideally 90m)
Then the third event, (96m) again out of Conrad's control is the climax to Act 2. Conrad is staying at his grandparent's home while Beth and Calvin are on vacation. He calls Karen to see how she's doing. But, Karen's father tells Conrad: "She's dead. She killed herself." This sends Conrad into shock and as he recalls his last conversation with Karen ("Let's have the best Christmas ever, of our whole lives.") he runs to the bathroom and it appears as if he's going to slash his wrists again. But with flashbacks of the boating accident and Bucky yelling at him to "don't let go" and "hang on" Conrad does. Instead of slashing his wrists, he splashes his face and then runs off to find Berger. Slashing one's wrists is a form of escape, and splashing one's face is a form of waking up to reality. Indeed, Conrad seems to be making progress, but it's rough going.
Ironically, the situations that are ultimately out of his control are the very ones that he must learn to control. The Act 2 Climax of a story represents the "near death" experience. And this particular story lead us toward death step-by-step: (1) Emotional romantic near-death with Jeannie. (2) Physical near death by beating-up his swim teammate. (3) Karen's death, and (4) Conrad's near suicide.
DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
In Berger's office, where the heat's off (something out of their control), Conrad struggles to be in control of the great guilt that comes upon him because of Bucky's death, the remembrance of which is triggered by Karen's death. He blames himself, and begins to yell at Berger as if Berger is Bucky. (Actually both names begin with "B" and have two syllables. Coincidence? Not likely.
A key moment in this scene is Conrad's frantic question: "Why did he (Buck) go?", and Berger's answer: "Maybe you were stronger. Did it ever occur to you that maybe you were stronger?" And THAT causes Conrad to think. (101m)
101m When Berger asks him what started this remembrance Conrad tells him that Karen killed herself. Conrad starts to take on that responsibility (for her death as well) but Berger stops him. Suddenly, Conrad says those major words that Berger needs to hear: "I feel bad about this. I feel really bad about this. Just, just, let me feel bad about this."
Berger: "Okay. Listen, I feel bad this, too."
Conrad: "If you do just one wrong thing..."
Berger: "And what was the one wrong thing you did?"
Berger: "You know." --- "You know."
Finally, Conrad says: "I hung on. I stayed with the boat." (103m)
Berger (in a fit of on-the-nose dialogue): "Now, you can live with that can't you? (beat) Feelings are scary. And sometimes they're painful. But if you can't feel pain, then you're not going to feel anything else, either."
105m Conrad: "You really my friend?"
Berger: "I am. Count on it."
Clearly, here, this MPPS appears, a nice nested version of what's stated earlier:
Accepting and recognizing your feelings, either good or bad, leads to (allows) friendship. Rejecting your feelings and pretending you are in control by not showing your feelings, leads to removal of love and friendship.
Berger expressing his sincere and deep friendship to Conrad is a big deal for Conrad; and this scene essentially closes the story thread of Conrad's illness. Next he must try to resolve the thread of his romantic story line.
Thus, the next scene finds Conrad pacing, early in the morning, in front of Jeannie's house. She comes out (he didn't want to wake anyone). He apologizes for not being in control of himself at the restaurant. But she apologizes too for laughing, something she does automatically (when she's not in control). It's actually a control reflex, something she does to stay in control. She reveals that she is truly his friend, and she invites him in for breakfast, taking his arm as they go into her house.
The only thing left is Conrad's relationship with his mother.
FINAL INCIDENT (ideally 105m)
The final incident is that moment where the antagonist attacks one last time. In O.P. it happens at 107m, later that morning, when Beth attacks Conrad through her husband, Calvin. On the golf links in Texas, where Calvin and Beth are finishing up a game with their friends, Beth is thrilled with her game -- she just sunk a long putt, putting her in control. She tells Calvin that she wants to go on a golfing vacation every year. Calvin mentions that Conrad might like that as well. But such a remark ticks off Beth. She chastises Calvin for bringing Connie up, essentially putting her out of control, because Connie is not something she can control, and someone who has done this great evil in her life and not died in the place of Bucky. She tries to push aside her irritation with Calvin (and Conrad) for bringing up the son she hates. But Calvin forces her to deal with her issues, there in front of everyone. In a great line that actors must love we hear this:
Beth (hating Conrad with all her might): "Hate him? Mothers don't hate their sons. God, how could I hate him? Mothers don't hate their sons."
Beth's friends tell her they just want her to be happy. It's then that Beth let's us know her bitter feelings: "Ward, you tell me the definition of happy, huh? But first you have to make sure your kids are good and safe. That nobody's fallen off a horse, or hit by a car, or drowned in that swimming pool you're so proud of. Then you come to me and tell me how to be happy."
And as is typical of her personality, Beth runs off. And Calvin, true to his nature, pursues her unafraid.
This is the moment when the protagonist (Conrad) makes his final attack on the antagonist (Beth) and wins. It occurs at 110m. Back home, Conrad appearing totally normal comes to his parents in the living room and tells them that dinner was good, that he's glad their back, and then unconditionally hugs his mother (111m) -- much to the surprise of his parents. Beth reacts stiffly -- as if the devil himself was hugging her. She appears lost, afraid, in shock. She can never love Conrad. And Calvin sees that.
Later, in the middle of the night, Calvin leaves their bed. She wakes and goes looking for him. She finds him in the dinning room sobbing in the dark. Can she get him anything? Why is he crying? She demands, softly -- answers.
113m Calvin: "You are beautiful. And you are unpredictable. But you're so cautious. You're determined Beth. But you know something? You're not strong. And I don't know if you're really giving. Tell me something. Do you love me? Do you really love me?"
Beth: I feel the way I've always felt about you.
Calvin almost bursts into tears one of the great monologues in modern cinema: "We would have been all right. If there hadn't been any mess. 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 as if you buried all your love with him, and I don’t understand that. I don't know. I just don't... Maybe it wasn't Buck. Maybe it was just you. Maybe it was the best of you that you buried. But whatever it was – I don't know who you are. I don't know what we've been playing at. So, I was crying. Because, I don't know if I love you anymore. And I don't know what I'll do without that.
True to her nature Beth puts on a stiff upper lip, almost smiles as if she knows what she must do, turns and leaves. In her bedroom, she opens her closet, takes down her suitcases and places them on the bed to pack. But we never see her put clothes in her luggage. Instead we get up close and see, for the first time, the baggage in her soul creep slowly into her face. She might begin to cry. For the first time she gets in touch with her emotions. It's a hopeful sign. If Beth can learn to live with out-of-control situations, and see the benefit of expressing her feelings outwardly, then that too is the first step toward healing... toward being in control of ones self, when all hell is breaking loose around you. The next thing we know a taxi lives the house. (117)
DÉNOUEMENT (The antagonist defeated and gone, ideally 118)
117-120m Conrad awakens, sees the taxi leave, and finds his father in the backyard. There, they express their true feelings for each other; and we know things will be all right, although never easy.
In the backyard of their house, amidst scattered clumps of ground snow, and the vapor trails of their breath, Conrad and his dad hug, deeply -- much the way Conrad hugged Berger. As the camera pulls back we notice that the door to the warmer interior of their home is wide open. It's a reminder that this marriage and family -- now broken and out in the cold -- can be mended. In the words of Beth when she broke the plate, "I think this can be fixed. It's a clean break."