Mary Tyler Moore for Ordinary People (1980)

1980 was a highly competitive Oscar year in all categories. Ordinary People was competing against Raging Bull. Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull) was in competition with John Hurt (The Elephant Man) for Best Lead Actor. Acting-great Robert Redford (Ordinary People) was in a highly competitive Best Director category against relative-newcomer Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull). In the Lead Actress category, it was Mary Tyler Moore versus Sissy Spacek, whose portrayal as Loretta Lynn in The Coal Miner’s Daughter attracted much attention towards her. In the end, Ordinary People defeated Raging Bill, Robert DeNiro won Best Actor, Robert Redford would win Best Director, and Mary Tyler Moore went home empty handed.

Ordinary People can be argued as the precursor to 1999’s American Beauty. it is a film about a seemingly perfect family based upon how they present themselves. However, this particular family is getting past of the death of their oldest son, who died in a boating accident when a storm caused the boat to capsize, causing his drowning. Their younger son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton in his Oscar-Winning performance), was with him at the time of the accident, but managed to survive. Not long after the incident, Conrad, out of extreme guilt for surviving, attempted to commit suicide. The film begins shortly after Conrad has come home from the hospital and feels like a stranger to the world around him. His father (Donald Sutherland in a performance that SHOULD have gotten him a Oscar nomination) is exceedingly careful around him and his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) is emotionally detached from him. Feeling like he is on the verge of a mental breakdown, he begins going to therapy with Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), who begins to challenge him and get him to accept what he truly is feeling internally. The film ultimately is about the family, as a whole, who are still grieving, yet are struggling with moving onwards with their lives. Sutherland and Moore are particularly effective in their performances as a couple, who want their marriage to work, yet can’t seem to communicate any longer.

Mary Tyler Moore achieved the seemingly impossible with her performance for a variety of different reasons. Most notably, she was known strictly as a comedy actress with her show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The concept of her doing a icy role as a loveless mother was almost inconceivable with the actress known to make everyone laugh. Secondly, Moore was filming this movie almost immediately after her own son had committed suicide. She later accredited her role in this movie as her method of getting over the shock and trauma of losing a son. Moreover, some initially questioned whether Moore would be up to the task of doing the performance after such a tremendous loss. Not only did Moore deliver, but she gave the best performance of her career with Ordinary People. 

Her performance is the epitome of portraying the denial stage of the grieving process. Her denial is not in that her older son has died, but rather that she is incapable of acknowledging that it has affected her life. Whether she realizes it or not, her anger towards the situation goes towards her younger son, thus she is emotionally detached from giving him the affection he needs. Moore is highly effective in this performance because while the character is cold in her demeanor, Moore gives her subtle moments of motherliness. Moore’s performance creates the emphasis that her character wants to move on, she wants to love her son, but her fear of getting close to anyone is overbearing enough to control her actions. For that, Moore gives one of the best film performances; a performance that should have won the Oscar.

Lost to: Sissy Spacek for The Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)



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