Ordinary People

ordinary people

Poster for “Ordinary People”

One of the subjects I taught as a Social Studies teacher at Redeemer High in New Orleans in the early 1980s was Psychology. It was an elective, primarily for kids not taking World History as seniors, and some juniors who wanted to take four years of Social Studies. While I didn’t want the course to be a “blow off class”, I didn’t want it to be a hassle for the kids in Armbruster’s classes, which were honors/college prep. I also didn’t want the workload to be a burden for kids busting their asses just to graduate.

So, we watched a few movies. VCRs were a thing by then, so I wasn’t limited to 16mm school films. I could show theatrical releases.  A couple of the kids suggested we should watch a film that had just come out on tape, “Ordinary People“. The film was based on the novel by Judith Guest, and was directed by Robert Redford. It was about a high school-aged young man, Conrad, (played by Timothy Hutton), who attempted suicide. The story explored Conrad’s relationship with his parents, played by Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland.

I was hesitant about showing the film in class, because of its R-rating, but it did win Best Picture. The R was for language and not nudity/sex, so I was on safe ground. Teens swear, after all. I booked the TV/VCR cart and I had a week where I felt like the football coach from the “Funky Winkerbean” comic strip. The film worked out nicely, because the boy, Conrad, saw a therapist regularly.

Psychology and Psychiatry

The therapy sessions were the hook/justification I needed to show the film in class. Though there are a lot of movies out there where characters see a shrink, this one was new and involved a teen. It really was a good fit. Conrad was a likeable character, and his parents were, well, parents. His mother, Beth was cold and always favored Conrad’s older brother, Buck. When Buck died in a boating accident and Conrad attempted suicide, Beth turned cold and mean. The character brought out a side of Mary Tyler Moore that was so different from Laura Petrie or Mary Richards. Here was the woman we all loved from comedy, playing a role where she was a really awful person. She played the character so well she won a Golden Globe and received an Oscar nomination. (Hutton won the Oscar for Supporting Actor, Redford for Director, and Hirsch was nominated.)

I never saw Mary Tyler Moore as just a comedienne ever again. When she passed earlier today, I immediately thought of “Ordinary People”.

Gonna miss MTM.


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