It is sort of bewildering the career turn that Robert Redford made from A-list star/sex symbol to one of the best directors of his generation. Plus, it is also bewildering that he would manage to hit it out of the park on his very first time at bat. The film would win that year’s Oscar for Best Picture, Redford would pick up the award for Best Director and Alvin Sargent would win for his screenplay, but it was not without
I admire Redford for getting his directing career off the ground not with some bloated vehicle for himself, but with a moving adaptation of Judith Guest’s 1976 debut novel “Ordinary People” about the deterioration of an Upper-Middle Class family still reeling from the death of their eldest son.
What is so great about the movie is that it doesn’t deal with the inner-family struggles in broad strokes – this is not a TV movie or a soap opera – but deals with the situation in tiny details, in the struggles of trying to deal with grief and conflict on a day-to-day basis. Like Interiors, which I talked about a few weeks ago, this is a movie about a wealthy family that never really learned how to tie the bonds on their familial relationships so that they could weather the storm. In the wake of this death, they turn on each other and it pulls them apart.
The movie, most famously, would make a star out of 19 year-old Timothy Hutton who plays the younger son and would earn him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Plus it helped to prove that Mary Tyler Moore, as his cold-around-the-heart mother could be more than just a two-time sitcom star, yet it would not yield great success as her subsequent film roles left a lot to be desired.
Watching the film again, I am still impressed by Redford’s skill as a director. In most cases with a first-time directorial effort you can see where the work would improve, but I don’t see that here. Redford had such a keen eye for detail even then that you knew his work would maintain the same level of quality, and in the years to come, with A River Runs Through It, Quiz Show and The Legend of Bagger Vance he would prove time and again that he was one of the best directors of his generation.