Best Picture #53: Ordinary People

Each week this column will highlight one winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, progressing chronologically until all winners have been discussed. There will be a brief discussion of the film itself followed by a mention of what we wish won from the nominees in the given year (though in many cases there were films that were superior in terms of quality and/or impact that were not nominated). This week’s entry is Ordinary People (1980).

With Ordinary People, Robert Redford made his directorial debut and kicked off a trend of actors turned directors who hit the ground running and won the Academy’s top prizes with one of their first pictures behind the camera. The film follows a family in tumult after the death of the favorite son and it succeeds entirely on the strength of its performances. As has often been the case with performers who took a turn as director, Redford draws the very best from his actors, with Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton all delivering career best work and finding all the complexities in their situations that weren’t in the written material. Particularly great is Hutton, who remains the youngest male winner of an Oscar in a competitive category for his turn as the surviving son who drives the best interactions in the film through his survivor’s guilt, the disdain he spurns from his mother, the pity from his father, and the difficult relationship he has with his psychiatrist. Though most every interaction between characters is fraught with real emotion and an intriguing sense that they could eventually reach some modicum of happiness if they weren’t all so difficult, when the film spends moments with just one character or diverges from the four at its center, it often veers into a sort of melodrama that undercuts the deeply felt sorrows of the rest of it with its theatrical sensibilities and gives too much time to realize that the other parts were only so absorbing because the actors could make us believe them.

The Real Best Picture:

In almost any year, The Elephant Man would be the easy winner for me. I recently rewatched it and thought it even better than before and every conversation about it (and especially that scene) has made me quite emotional while it is also an artistically immaculate film. But Raging Bull is the greatest sports film and among Scorsese’s best and has to be my pick.

Best Picture Winners

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