Tag Archives: Judd Hirsch

Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford)

Two really big things to talk about with Ordinary People. The technical filmmaking–John Bailey’s beautiful, muted photography, Jeff Kanew’s actually peerless editing, Redford’s direction in general–and then Timothy Hutton’s performance, his place in the film, Redford’s direction of Hutton in particular. I just as easily could’ve included the treatment of Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as Hutton’s parents in that list, but Ordinary People is a lot to talk about, a lot to think about and my ambitions are realistic here.

To start–Bailey’s photography, because it has the least to do with how the film needles the viewer. It’s gentle, but always realistic. Bailey’s very careful about the depth, the reality of the locations and how the characters interact with them. When Bailey does break–for a flashback, for instance–the reality has to break a little too. In some ways, the stylized flashbacks are more realistic because they’re from a character’s perspective. The rest of the film is objectively presented, with Bailey’s gently lush photography a comfort.

Redford needs the viewer comfortable, because he wants the viewer to pay attention. To think. There are no explosive scenes in Ordinary People. There are noisy scenes, but it’s not about the noise, it’s not even about how things get noisy. The noisy scenes are about what that noise does to people. But there are maybe three or four noisy scenes in the film. The rest of the time–most of the run time–Redford and editor Kanew are priming the viewer to pay attention.

Ordinary People changes gears in the third act, widening its ambitions. What starts as Hutton’s story becomes much bigger as Hutton is able to emerge from his shell. Hutton gives an exceptional performance, but Redford directs one too. Hutton is both the subject–how characters look at him instructs the viewer how to consider him–and the viewer’s entry into the film, always simultaneously. At the same time, the film isn’t reductive. It’s not a seventeen year-old’s look at his troubled family. It’s often about a seventeen year-old looking at his troubled family, but it’s about a lot more. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent deftly moves between plot lines. The film has this simple narrative structure; Sargent and Redford set it up, trust the viewer to remember it, move on with the film. Redford wants the viewer to get it. They make it brilliantly simple.

Great performances from all the main actors (Hutton, Sutherland, Moore, Judd Hirsch as Hutton’s therapist). Hirsch has the smallest part, but his contributions are essential. Much like Bailey’s photography, Hirsch–tied entirely to one setting–provides a comfort to the viewer, a familiar. Moore has the film’s most difficult role. Sutherland has some amazing moments. Very strong supporting turn from Elizabeth McGovern as Hutton’s love interest. M. Emmet Walsh is a complete asshole as Hutton’s coach, which is a compliment.

Anyway, Ordinary People is a masterpiece.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Redford; screenplay by Alvin Sargent, based on the novel by Judith Guest; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Jeff Kanew; produced by Ronald L. Schwary; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Timothy Hutton (Conrad), Donald Sutherland (Calvin), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth), Judd Hirsch (Berger), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine), Dinah Manoff (Karen), James Sikking (Ray), Fredric Lehne (Lazenby) and M. Emmet Walsh (Salan).


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Teachers (1984, Arthur Hiller)

It must have been Bette Midler’s former manager, Aaron Russo (Teachers‘s producer), who somehow confused Arthur Hiller as the creative force behind The Hospital. Teachers is very much like The Hospital, but in its stoic protagonist, the stoic protagonist’s ultimate choice in the end, and the strange hijinks. However, as is clearly evidenced by JoBeth Williams’s strange, too flat to be absurdist nudist jaunt, Hiller is not a social commentator. He’s the guy who’d go on to direct Carpool and National Lampoon’s Pucked.

Hiller isn’t the biggest problem with Teachers. The film could survive his competent and unimaginative direction–Hiller seems to have influenced not just every modern sitcom director, but also Jon Favreau, who’s a similarly torpid director. The problem is the script. I don’t know if W.R. McKinney used to be a teacher (it seems likely for press purposes, regardless of uncredited script doctors), but he’s a terrible writer. He’s got severe problems with dialogue and his plotting is awkward. Some of his details are good–he’s got some funny stuff. But mostly he’s awful.

What makes Teachers work is the acting. Nick Nolte runs the whole thing. He’s got a big monologue–poorly written–and Nolte, even with Hiller’s lame direction and Don Zimmerman’s incapable editing, makes it work. He makes it superior.

Much of the supporting cast is good–Judd Hirsch is good as the sellout (rebel teacher turned assistant principal), Allen Garfield as the befuddled but well-meaning teacher, Richard Mulligan (in one of McKinney’s stupidest moves), Morgan Freeman, William Schallert. Williams is okay in her inessential and unlikely role. Ralph Macchio–idiotic costume aside–runs hot and cold. Lee Grant and Laura Dern are terrible, particularly Grant, who has no excuse (Teachers was one of Dern’s first films and her character is, to be fair, atrociously written).

But the Aaron Russo-produced white guy soundtrack–Bob Seger, Joe Cocker, ZZ Top–takes center stage, big shock (the advertisement for the soundtrack is the second end credits card, right after Russo’s credit for producing it too). The soundtrack’s poorly handled, like no one told Hiller it’d be there; not to mention the sound levels being confusing (is the music playing for the characters during Nolte and Williams’s date, or just for the moviegoer).

Teachers has–until the very end–a certain optimism going for it. It loses it then, when the script–shock of shocks–crumbles under its own ridiculousness. A better director could have helped, but not without an artistically-minded (versus soundtrack album sales minded) producer and a great rewrite. Still, seeing Hirsch in a film makes it worthwhile to some degree. And Nolte does have some fantastic moments.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Hiller; screenplay by W.R. McKinney; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by Don Zimmerman; production designer, Richard Macdonald; produced by Aaron Russo; released by United Artists.

Starring Nick Nolte (Alex Jurel), JoBeth Williams (Lisa Hammond), Judd Hirsch (Roger Rubell), Ralph Macchio (Eddie Pilikian), Allen Garfield (Carl Rosenberg), Lee Grant (Dr. Donna Burke), Richard Mulligan (Herbert Gower), Royal Dano (Ditto Stiles), William Schallert (Horn), Art Metrano (Troy), Laura Dern (Diane), Crispin Glover (Danny), Morgan Freeman (Lewis), Madeleine Sherwood (Grace) and Steven Hill (Sloan).


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