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February 8, 2017

You might just make it after all

Following the death of the actress Mary Tyler Moore last month  at the age of 80, many journalists and critics reexamined the second-wave feminist legacy of her eponymous sitcom, “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which, in the 1970s, normalized the lifestyle of the single working woman in an American city, presenting it as a full and lively end unto itself rather than a quest or prelude to an inevitable marriage—and, through its Minneapolis setting, extending such a possibility beyond its usual New York City boundaries, where, even today, nearly all of our plucky TV heroines, descended from Moore’s archetype, carry out their spouseless antics.
Far less remarked upon, in Moore’s obituaries, was her other career high-water mark: her Oscar-nominated role in “Ordinary People,” the Best Picture of 1980 that today is most often invoked as a representative example of the injustices regularly perpetrated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The relative absence of “Ordinary People” in the recent Moore retrospectives may owe to the subsumption of the film’s reputation within the notion of its undeserved Oscar victory over Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” which, in the violence and intensity of both its subject matter and its cinematic presentation, achieved an almost perfect contrast from its award-season competitor, exposing the polite timidity of the Academy’s “good taste.”
Moore’s excellent performance in the drama—in which neophyte director Robert Redford cast her against type as the matriarch of a fractured family in a tony Chicago suburb, where the cherished older son has died in a boating accident, and the comparatively neglected younger son (Timothy Hutton) suffers from survivor’s guilt and accompanying suicidal tendencies—also contradicts the warm and humorous image of the comedienne formed by her long-lasting TV show: her cold, status-oriented Mrs. Jarrett—the country club matron who, when her troubled child slits his wrists in the bathroom of her home, worries primarily about how his blood might stain the grouting—is not how we want to remember Mary Tyler Moore.
Still, “Ordinary People” is worth remembering, in part for how it influenced later works about familial dysfunction, including 2004’s “Garden State,” 2005’s “The Squid and the Whale,” the 2008 Pulitzer-winning stage musical “Next to Normal,” and the Best Picture of 1999, “American Beauty.” Redford’s directorial debut is, itself, a sort of “East of Eden” filtered through the formalism of Ingmar Bergman’s 1970s work.
“Ordinary People” takes place in an upper-middle-class world of handsome furniture, stiltedly polite conversations, and silent mealtimes. Primarily, it concerns the healing process of a wounded teenage boy, operating under the excessive delicacy of his kindly, ineffectual father (Donald Sutherland) and the evasions of his propriety-obsessed mother (Moore). Like 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” it displays an earnest concern for the state of the American family, locating its conceptual center, in this case, in an all-white lakeside town in the Midwest.
On a certain level, Redford, the glamorous longhaired Californian, treats these Illinoisans like alien beings, inhabiting an alien planet: their repressed traumas conspire to create a chilly, decorous version of daily life that, the movie’s title notwithstanding, will surely strike no ordinary person as familiar. The film is well-acted and staidly attractive; its main problem is that it’s somewhat boring, as Redford fails, more or less, to find a working dramatic form for the sublimated drama of his character’s lives. At times, it feels as though the film’s prim narrative universe might slip fully into Luis Bunuel’s realm of the absurd, but Redford instead pays a more respectful form of attention—which, ultimately, is the movie’s saving grace, if it has one: the mostly static time it spends with its half-frozen characters, listening to and caring for them.
As a thawing measure, it also injects the modestly galvanizing presence of a candid and verbose Jewish psychiatrist, the only non-WASP in the story, who helps the boy open up. In this character, the role of the Hollywood scriptwriter is literalized as a presence in the film itself, coaxing out the drama from the bizarre Middle American bourgeoisie that seemingly can’t otherwise engage with its own problems. Dr. Berger is, transparently, an emissary from the world in which the movie was created, not a resident of the town where it takes place. Ultimately, he teaches the boy played by Hutton that it’s OK to have feelings—a lesson learned, again, but in opposite fashion, by the similarly guilt-ridden protagonist of “Garden State,” who finally abandons psychiatry (reflecting, perhaps, a 21st-century downturn in its popular reputation).
From a contemporary perspective, the absence of  social critique in “Ordinary People” is striking. The characters themselves have issues; their suburb, sketched without satirical edge, is not inherently problematic, and Hutton and Sutherland need help only so that they might inhabit its dull splendor more correctly and healthfully. To some degree, the two of them are cured of their ills, but Mary Tyler Moore’s character is not. In the end, Mrs. Jarrett is unreachable and therefore cast aside. The married couple separates, and the wife moves out: with Judd Hirsch on his side, Hutton now has two eminently decent father figures and, apparently, no need of a mother.
What happens to Moore here? It’s never revealed, but the most optimistic interpretation, to my mind, involves imagining “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” created 10 years earlier, as a kind of sequel: Mrs. Jarrett is on her own now, a single gal again, eager to reinvent herself. She might loosen up just enough to toss her beret in the air; she might just make it after all.

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