Friday, February 10, 2006

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Stephen Schiff

“Redford may not yet know what he wants out of visual and narrative style, but he understands actors. And what gives Ordinary People the poignancy it has isn't Pachelbel or autumn leaves or truisms about showing your emotions -- it's the performances of Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore….

“Most remarkable of all, however, is Mary Tyler Moore, whose portrayal of a Lake Forest ice princess is so cool, brittle, and nasty that it borders on the perverse. By all rights, Beth should not seem a villain. Her inability to express emotion is a reflection of her son's, and because she's a hopeless case, the filmmakers would like us to pity her. But the ear-to-ear smile of Mary Tyler Moore is too familiar, too comfortable and practiced to seem the panoply of an Illinois housewife. It's a star's smile, intense and ferocious, and when we detect hatred or duplicity beneath it, it's so powerful that it comes to seem evil: the deceptive grin of a monster. [I don't see Beth as calculating.] This is a distortion, of course. Neither Guest nor Sargent and Redford ever meant Beth to be so remote and unsympathetic. But Moore's been telling interviewers recently that she wants to break out of the Mary Richards mold, wants to stop being America's sunshine girl. And that yearning has given her acting here a wicked vitality that you welcome, especially in so limp a film. The ironclad smile of a housewife--of an ordinary person--would surely crumble, or at best strain, under the pressure the Jarretts experience. But Mary Tyler Moore may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Stephen Schiff
Boston Phoenix, Sept. 23, 1980

[I would have to give a concurring opinion; that is, I agree with the praise if not his judgment of the character.]

Andrew Sarris

“The sequence everyone talks about in Ordinary People involves mary Tyler moore’s disposal of her son’s French toast down the garbage disposal. There is more genuine horror in that one gesture than in all the bloodletting in Dressed to Kill. But most audiences wait for a reconciliation between mother and son. It never comes. This alone makes Ordinary People one of the most audacious movies in recent years. The tragic headlines about Mary Tyler Moore’s real-life son add a Perandellian overcast to the proceedings, but there is no need for this morbid overkill. Every parent I encounter has been wiped out by Ordinary People, and almost every such parent has a similar horror story in his or her family. Much of Ordinary People is glib and simplistic, but the implacability of the Mary Tyler Moore’s mother character from Timothy Hutton’s suicidal-son character is as commendably anti-cliché as anything on the screen in years….”

Andrew Sarris
Village Voice, November 5-11, 1980

Sarris placed Moore at the top of his year’s-end list of the best actresses of 1980. (Village Voice, date?)

Jack Kroll

“If this sounds like soap opera, it is--but the higher soap opera that has hit a nerve in audiences with movies like "Kramer" and "The Seduction of Joe Tynan." "Ordinary People" shimmers with virtues: Redford has worked very effectively with his screenwriter, his cinematographer John Bailey and his cast to achieve an admirable balance of literary, visual and acting values. His handling of actors is especially good; he saw something in TV's Mary Tyler Moore that nobody else saw--the tension behind that all-American smile. [Some saw it, Kauffmann for one.] In Beth that smile, stretching Moore's mouth and neck tendons in a flying buttress of rigid control, becomes scary. It's a fine performance by an actress extending her range, and it's matched by the best acting Donald Sutherland has done in a long time….

“If the film has a problem, it's a kind of excess of goodness at the expense of imaginative excitement. [Not a bad point, but the goodness doesn't really extend to the treatment of Beth.]

Jack Kroll
Newsweek, September 22, 1980

David Denby

“…. Beth… is the ultimate Wasp movie bitch--the mother as snow queen and destroyer. Inhumanly cheerful, yet tight as a drum, she seems to have been raised at a suburban golf club. Having adored the son who drowned, Beth has no love left for the son who lives; she fences him off with smiles while raging silently against him.

“…. We are supposed to look on the Jarretts and think, What a boring, awful life these people lead! . . . . And poor Calvin and Beth--so polite and distant with each other, so melancholy and repressed! They are Poor Little Rich Grownups--heartbreaking.

“Thus the Jarretts and their life. And the movie will work for you if you believe [the Jarretts] really exist. But I cannot. I cannot believe that anybody could be as limited or as restrained or as ignorant of themselves as they are (compare them, for instance, with the quirky Wasp sububanites in John Cheever's stories). Sargent and Redford have drained most of the life out of the Jarretts and then said to us, "See how lifeless they are." The Jarretts are a pop-culture myth that people envious of Wasps, or guilty about being Wasps, want to believe in.

“…. Mary Tyler Moore, holding herself taut with the effort of acting, tries her damnedest to turn her TV character, Mary Richards, inside out, so we can see the panic and desperation under the cheerfulness.

“Moore is effectively piteous, but I think the screenplay treats her character unfairly. Conrad and Calvin Jarrett learn to confront their pain, while Beth continues to deny hers--she won't see Dr. Berger. Yet the two men and the woman are perceived in fundamentally different ways. The men's behavior--denial, then acceptance--is pictured as psychologically plausible, the woman's as a grievous moral failing. Since most people react to pain by denying it, one wonders why Beth was not treated with greater sympathy. She is a villainess out of a morality play, right up there with such unloving mothers as Joanne Woodward in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and Geraldine Page in Interiors. Of course, if your ideology insists that everyone must confront his demons, a woman who refuses to do so isn't merely a person in deep trouble--she's a monster. In the end, the moviemaker's attitudes aren't nearly as charitable as they seem at first.”

David Denby
New York, September 29, 1980

Pauline Kael

“…. There's a nasty, almost conscious incestuousness lurking in Beth and never brought to the surface, and even at his most neurotic Conrad is still a "nice boy."…. The movie is just as sanitized as the fantasy of upper-middle-class life it sets out to expose. And it's just as empty and orderly: Calvin has the possibility of becoming a decent, whole person, because he is willing to open himself to Dr. Berger, but Beth, who rejects Calvin'g plea that she also go, is too proud to admit to any weakness or need; shaking uncontrollably at the thought of her life collapsing, she still rejects help, and she is doomed to freeze-dry.

“As this Wasp witch, whose face is so tense you expect it to crack, Mary Tyler Moore also seems to be doing penance for having given audiences a good time. Her idea of serious acting seems to be playing a woman who has a mastectomy (First You Cry, on TV), a suicidal, bedridden quadriplegic (Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, on Broadway), and this self-deceiving woman who cares more for appearances than for her husband and son. Are fine comediennes still to be call courageous for giving performances al locked in dreariness as Carol Burnett's were when she went through her overage-bachelor-woman pregnancy in The Tenth Month and lost her son in Friendly Fire? As Beth, Mary Tyler Moore holds her pinched seriousness aloft like a torch. The fault isn't just in her acting: it's also in the writing and the directing. She has been made into a voodoo doll stuck full of pins. This movie is Craig's Wife all over again: Beth is the compulsively neat, dedicated-to-appearances, unloving Harriet Craig, the perfect wife. But this time as a mother. She is so completely Harriet Craig that I didn't believe it for an instant when she left the house at the end. Even within its own terms, the film goes wrong here. The impersonal, ice-palace house is what Beth is married to--the house is Beth. [What about her golf? as Kael herself earlier pointed out.] It's not for living, it's for show, and it's her proof that everything is just as it should be. Beth would have stayed in her house, like Harriet Craig, and the men would have left. What are they going to do with it, anyway? Invite Dr. Berger in to mess it up and make it homey?

“…. The movie is not above shamelessness: surely we could have been spared the symbolic broken dish and the information that this monstrous woman wouldn't even let her sons have a pet? And when Conrad tries to hug his mother, she sits as straight as a plank of wood, with her eyes wide opin in the timeworn manner of actress demonstrating frigidity. In general, the more emotional the scenes are, the worse they play.

“…. [T]he movie is essentially a simpleminded, old-fashioned tearjerker, in a conventional style. People weep for Beth, who can't change--who can't let herself change. We are given to understand that she would like to come out of her shell but she can't. She's trapped in the pride and discipline and privacy that she was trained to believe in. She was bred not to say what's on her mind. And the movie, which treats her, finally, with sympathy yet holds out no hope for her, makes her seem rather gallant. She seems the last standard bearer for the Wasp culture that the film indicts. With its do-gooders' religion, Ordinary People says that the willingness to accept psychiatry divides people into the savable and the doomed. Yet maybe because the film's banal style speaks to the audience in aesthetically conservative terms, this movie about the hell that uptight people live in somehow turns into a nosegay for WAsp repression. Beth will go down with the ship: she will never "communicate."”

Pauline Kael
New Yorker, October 13, 1980
Taking It All In, pp 80-82


Mary Tyler Moore
Ordinary People 1980