“Ordinary People” winning the Best Picture Oscar over “Raging Bull” in 1980 is considered one of the biggest cinematic crimes of all time by many. I’m not one of those people. “Raging Bull” is, indeed, the better film, but “Ordinary People” is a really good movie and much better than its reputation would have you believe. (Funny, but no one complains that “Coal Miner’s Daughter” got robbed that year … which is one of THE best biopics of all time … but I digress).
“Ordinary People” is often dismissed as the type of middlebrow melodrama that philistines give points to because it displays such “good taste.” That’s not entirely unfair, but “Ordinary People” has a lot of virtues. It contains a great script by Alvin Sargent, admirable (albeit non-flashy) directing by Redford, and best of all, solid acting performances by Donald Sutherland (arguably his best performance … and one that is severely underrated), Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, Elizabeth McGovern (who is receiving a well-deserved career resurgence on “Downton Abbey,”) … and Timothy Hutton.
Timothy Hutton won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year for this film, but he’s actually the lead. He should have been a contender for Best Actor, but considering his competition that year included Robert DeNiro for “Raging Bull,” Peter O’Toole for “The Stuntman,” John Hurt for “The Elephant Man,” and Robert Duvall for “The Great Santini,” putting Hutton in the Supporting Actor category was probably a shrewder move. His character is the center of the film and Hutton’s extremely rich performance is the emotional core.
Hutton’s performance is so raw, so wounded, so ferocious, it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen by any actor. It is the equivalent of James Dean’s performance in “Rebel Without a Cause,” only without the method actor baggage that Dean brings to “Rebel.” It’s an incredibly intense performance that’s neither mannered or pretentious. As much as I love Sean Penn, many of his performances ultimately seem like acting. Hutton’s portrayal of a teenager trying to come to grips with his brother’s death, his own suicide attempt (due to guilt over his brother’s death), and the fact that his mother may not love him seems heartbreakingly real.
Hutton seemed poised to become one of the best and most successful actors of his generation. But fate had a different idea in mind. What’s sad is that Hutton didn’t piss away his talent with bad choices or bad movies … at least not in the beginning. With the exception of “Taps” (which was a hit), none of his follow-up performances achieved the popular or critical success of “Ordinary People.” And all of these follow-up performances were perfectly admirable choices: “Taps,” Sidney Lumet’s “Daniel,” John Schlesinger’s “The Falcon and the Snowman,” and Fred Schepisi’s “Iceman.” All of these films were among the best, if not underrated films, of the first half of the 1980s. This was an era before young actors were seeking out their “franchise” to bank $100 million before they got relegated to character roles. Hutton has stayed employed over the years and it’s always a joy to see him on screen. But Hutton should have had the career Sean Penn had (though please note, I am in no way saying Penn doesn’t richly deserve the great success he’s obtained). If anyone deserves a Robert Downey Jr.-style comeback, it’s Hutton. He’s the real deal.