Most pundits have attributed Donald Sutherland’s leading actor snub as not only one of the most egregious snubs, but also one completely without merit: It is speculated his personal politics were off-putting to voters, to which they willfully chose to ignore his performance. While Sutherland had no chance of winning in 1980 against Robert DeNiro’s transformative performance in Raging Bull, he was still worthy of the nomination recognition for a fragile performance that held all the components within the film together. Ordinary People is the 1980 Best Picture winner about a family who are all still in midst of grieving after losing their oldest son in a boating accident. Most affected was the family’s youngest son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton, in a deserving Oscar winning performance), who was with his brother when he died and suffers from such extreme guilt of having survived that he attempted suicide. The film begins soon after Conrad is back home, where his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) has become passive towards him and his father (Donald Sutherland) is heartbreakingly careful around his son. The film explores Conrad’s vulnerable relationship with his family as he strives to move on with his life and face the guilt he continually endures.
Donald Sutherland’s performance is one of the finest performances of a troubled parent ever put on film. Down to his body posture, his awkward communication skills, to his guilt-ridden face, Sutherland captures the essence of a parent who is terrified of what his son could do to himself. He wants to believe his son has the capacity to take care of himself, but the terror of potentially losing him is almost paralyzing. Adding to the complexity of his performance is his relationship with his wife, who is warm towards him, but so cold towards their son, which he sees, but doesn’t know how to respond towards. This places his character at a crossroad that complicates his life dramatically. Sutherland’s performance took all these components and crafted a character so conflicted with life that he walks unable to enjoy the present and is haunted by the past. Unlike his wife, he is willing to discuss and confront these issues, but is told by her that he must let it go. The emptiness and vulnerability Sutherland puts into his performance is one that is so stunningly real that the mere presence of him on screen breaks your heart.
Donald Sutherland’s snub will forever be considered to be one of the worst Oscar snubs in the history of the award ceremony.