Interesting bit of trivia. Two supporting roles, one in each of these films, were played by actors who went on to create relatively high-profile characters in the science fiction television world. Alice Krige, who plays Sybil Gordon in CHARIOTS OF FIRE, created the role of the Borg Queen on STAR TREK: VOYAGER. ORDINARY PEOPLE has a small supporting role played by none other than Adam Baldwin, who was Jayne Cobb on FIREFLY. Anyways…
Ordinary People (Best Picture, 1980)
I’ve been dreading watching ORDINARY PEOPLE. The prospect of a tightly-wound emotional drama about a family dealing with the death of a child… well, it didn’t appeal. But I’m not sorry to have seen it.
Like many of the movies that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture, ORDINARY PEOPLE is not the kind of film that leaves you with warm fuzzy feelings of having spent a couple hours in pleasant entertainment. There’s something about it that grips, though, and it catches you up and draws you in. I suspect this is especially true of anyone in the audience who has dealt with the major thematic elements, either in themselves or in another person.
ORDINARY PEOPLE is, at heart, a story about dealing with emotion. The main character, Conrad, begins the film a month after leaving a psychiatric hospital he’d lived in for four months as a result of slitting his wrists. Before that, and only seen in flashback, is the boating accident involving both Conrad and his elder brother, Bucky. Conrad survived. Bucky didn’t, and Conrad blames himself. The parents have different approaches, too. The father, played by Donald Sutherland, devolves into a spiral of worrying about everything. He is the more sympathetic of the parents, for he is genuinely concerned about Conrad, almost to the point of hovering and being too encouraging about every small victory. The mother (Beth), played by Mary Tyler Moore in a departure from her best-known TV roles, retreats into a brittle cheer, chattering about inane nothings and refusing to either deal with emotions or make any special effort to help Conrad readjust to normal life. The more sensitive natures of the men in her family are an embarrassment to Beth.
Dealing with strong emotion is a challenge for the best of us, especially when it’s a negative emotion. Grief, guilt, and anger can be overwhelming and frightening. They have a way of becoming larger than ourselves and devouring us from within. In a piece of rather angsty teenage poetry, I once described grief as a “ravening monster.” I can chuckle at the memory of that thankfully-destroyed poem now, but I still think the description is apt. These emotions, if strong enough, have the power to destroy anything they touch. One of the most honest moments in ORDINARY PEOPLE is towards the end of the film, when Conrad is leaving a school swim meet, and gets in a brief fistfight with a former friend. Another friend follows Conrad to his car, gets into it, and tells Conrad that he misses Bucky too. He asks why Conrad is so determined to go through this alone. These strong negative emotions make us feel isolated, but also make us perversely insist on further isolation. We push people away, even when they’re offering to help us bear the load.
There’s a song that was featured on GREY’S ANATOMY’s musical episode called “How to Save a Life.” A recurring line, in that episode sung by a character going through the grieving process and finally realizing the damage she’s done to her surviving relationships, is “Where did I go wrong? I lost a friend somewhere along in the bitterness…”
ORDINARY PEOPLE doesn’t show that part of the story for Conrad, but there’s a taste of it in the disintegration of the parents’ marriage as expressed by Calvin, the father. Beth finds him weeping in the dark dining room, late at night, and is stunned when he explains that he was crying because he doesn’t know if he loves her anymore. He doesn’t know if she’s capable of love.
Conrad does seem to get better, but those of us who’ve gone through therapy know that one cathartic session does not a stable person make. He’s got a fight ahead of him, and so does Calvin, now seemingly separated from Beth. I can’t help but wonder if Conrad is able to repair some of those friendships lost in the bitterness of guilt, grief, and isolation. Even if he does, it’s never quite the same. Scars will remain.
Chariots of Fire (Best Picture, 1981)
CHARIOTS OF FIRE is one of those movies that has become so famous, so popular and well known that it is one of the most mockable in the world. The challenge, therefore (as with the GODFATHER films), is to try to shut out the way the film’s images, music, and themes have entered the vernacular.
CHARIOTS is massively inspirational, showing how faith and determination and conviction can help a person achieve his or her goals. It perfectly captures the spirit of sportsmanship that is what the Olympics are supposed to be about: athletes, the cream of the world’s crop, trying their hardest to outdo each other and outdo themselves, and rejoicing in each others’ successes.
One of my favorite characters is the fictional Lord Lindsay, created to replace a member of that Olympic team who declined to be included in the film. Lindsay is based loosely on Lord Burghley, but more than that he provides a Peter Wimsey-like note of goodnatured (if entitled) sunlight in the story. Indeed, the contrast of personalities is fascinating. Lindsay is all golden hair and loose-limbed readiness for fun. Montague is in the background, quietly observing and admiring, star-struck. Eric Liddell has a slightly dreamy quality to him, an otherworldly element that highlights his religious fervor. And Harold Abrahams is all dark intensity, driven to be the best to prove to all, including himself, that he can be both led to water and allowed to drink.
What else is there to say about this film? It’s been studied and admired and parodied endlessly. Critics remark on that famous musical theme, exclaiming over how the composer opted for a contemporary sound in his use of synthesizers and pianos, rather than a sweeping, period-appropriate orchestral score. They compare the events of the film to the real historical record of this British running team, pointing out what the film used and what it didn’t. I have nothing new to add except that this is a beautiful film with a relatively simple story, and it leaves me feeling uplifted and hopeful.
Perhaps to be iconic is to be mockable. It’s just nice when the mocking is good-natured.
Next Up: Gandhi (Best Picture, 1982) and Terms of Endearment (Best Picture, 1983)