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« YNMS: "Hostiles" | Main | Exploring the Humanity of Deafness in "Wonderstruck" »
Thursday
Nov092017

Honorary Oscars: Donald Sutherland in "Ordinary People"

Lynn Lee reflects on Honorary Oscar winner Donald Sutherland's work in a former Best Picture...

The first time I saw Ordinary People, I remember thinking it was very good, very sad, and very WASPy, and that the acting was outstanding across the board.  I was most impressed, if also most frustrated, by Mary Tyler Moore for playing so convincingly against type as the chilly, brittle, allergic-to-grief Beth Jarrett; found Timothy Hutton’s guilt-racked Conrad the most relatable; and Judd Hirsch’s warm, no-BS shrink the most appealing.  Yet the character I ended up feeling the most sympathy for was Donald Sutherland’s Calvin, who’s forced to accept the disintegration of the family he fought so hard to preserve.

I still have largely the same reactions today, although I’ve come to feel more compassion for Beth – maybe because I’ve become more aware of just how harshly society judges “cold” mothers (see also Betty Draper from “Mad Men”), maybe because Beth is so emotionally blocked it’s obvious she needs psychiatric help as much as the rest of her family, if not more so.  At the same time, the years have only deepened my appreciation of Sutherland’s work, which in my opinion ranks among the best of his career.  He imbues remarkable nuance and a quiet poignancy into a character that could easily have been overshadowed by the sharper-edged figures around him. 

As it is, Sutherland was famously the only one of Ordinary People’s four principals not to receive an Oscar nomination.  Hutton would go on to win best supporting actor (a classic case of category fraud if I ever saw one) over Hirsch, while Moore would lose Best Actress to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter.  Sutherland’s snub is dispiriting but not that surprising, given the understated nature of his performance in a year when Robert De Niro would take home the Best Actor trophy for Raging Bull.  It also probably didn’t help that more than any of his co-stars, his character seems to fall somewhere in the gray area between lead and supporting.  At first glance the role seems supporting, with Hutton and Moore as the leads.  However, it essentially shifts from supporting to co-lead over the course of the film, as Calvin comes into focus as a character and moves from the sidelines of the conflict to the very center of it.

In a reversal of the usual gender dynamic in unhappy-family dramas, Calvin isn’t so much the family patriarch as its self-appointed peacemaker, trying desperately to bridge the widening chasm between his wife and son until he realizes it’s impossible.  Early on, his primary mode seems to be to watch and wince silently when Beth and Conrad snipe at each other.  Occasionally he interjects a feeble attempt to defuse the situation; more often he approaches one or both of them separately to smooth things over.  As the tensions reach a breaking point, his concerned-but-hopeful demeanor gradually slumps into a tired, perpetually troubled look before giving way to rising anger and heartbreak. 

Sutherland doesn’t hit us over the head with these emotional beats, and rightly so; Cal’s is a naturally low-key, even-keeled, slow-burn temperament.  But you see the shifts in his face, especially his eyes, which have a distinctly if subtly different expression in each of his scenes.  His worry, his puzzlement, his judging and finding wanting, and, finally his sorrow bordering on despair, are all palpable in those crystalline blue peepers.  And so seldom does he raise his voice that when he does lash out at his wife, it comes as an especial shock. 

Tellingly, though, Calvin’s final scene with Beth, while among their quietest, is also the most wrenching, as he accuses her of being incapable of love.  It’s a gobsmacker and perhaps not entirely fair to Beth: just because he can’t see her “messy” emotions doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and we’ve seen hints that she does love him, does feel and hurt horribly from their loss, and that a large part of her coldness towards Connie is part of her overall campaign to avoid anything that reminds her of the pain she’s repressing.  But it’s also clear that Calvin can’t be with someone who refuses to open up or show real tenderness towards their living son.  With that decision, his entire universe collapses, and Sutherland manages to convey the full devastation while hardly so much as lifting his voice or hand.  It’s a quiet bombshell – a fitting metaphor for Sutherland’s performance as a whole.

previously...
Owen Roizman Tootsie
Agnes Varda Cleo from 5 to 7
Donald Sutherland Fellini's Casanova
Charles Burnett Killer of Sheep
Agnes Varda The Gleaners and I

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Reader Comments (25)

Great writeup as always Lynn.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Such a beautiful performance. Should have been nominated. Bet he finished sixth.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

It's still just gobsmacking he's never been nominated. One of the greats.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I agree: a beautiful write-up, Lynn. This is, for me, a great performance. And, the more I think about it, the more he comes close to being my 1980 winner in the leading category.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I know it's about Donald Sutherland
but my favorite part about Ordinary People
is a very young and lovely Elizabeth McGovern.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterUlrich

Donald Sutherland should've taken Jack Lemmon's spot in 1980 but as he said and I quote "I know that community and didn't expect a nomination."

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

They loved ORDINARY PEOPLE so much, still they denied the co-lead a nomination, even avoiding the split votes (Hutton was fraudly campaigned as supporting and he won in that category, anticipating Vikander and Davis moves). I'm glad Sutherland will receive his Oscar but it's true that lesser Actors have been nominated without so many problems through the years...

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMirko

Ulrich, you and I are part of 37% of the world population with the same opinion.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGiovanni

Sutherland was the middle-man in this family drama. He was at the center of this family still trying to deal with loss of a cherished son. He could see his surviving son in desperate need of maternal support. He was also the bridge trying to connect his wife to their PSTD son. The son was moving forward, the wife was not. He was the space trying to connect to these magnets that would'nt connect.
Sutherland should've been nominated for Supporting and Hutton moved up. It's also like George Clooney seeing that PSHoffman/Capote was the 'performance' of the year' and sneaking down to Supporting so that he'd have a better shot. It would've been no shame if Hutton was nominated for Lead and ended up losing to DeNiro - his performance was still recognized!

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

Sutherland in ORDINARY PEOPLE > De Niro in RAGING BULL

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

A masterful performance. The best in Sutherland's career.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

Lynn, wonderful essay. This is one of the worst Oscar snubs ever. His last scene is killer.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

The fact that the Academy made room for almost all of his co-stars and still overlooked him will remain one of Oscar's most peculiar mysteries to me. His Ordinary People performance is such a well-calibrated piece of work.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Maybe it's a Sigourney Weaver situation.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Troy H.: They also could have made it up for him for his performance in JFK, as a joint acknowledgement that they should have nominated Donald Sutherland before AND that they should have nominated Hal Holbrook and not Jason Robards for All the President's Men. (Seriously, how do you watch a great conspiracy thriller, fact based or not, and NOT walk out of the movie gushing about The Shadowy Informant?)

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Was his performance in Backdraft nom-worthy? I remember he was chilling in that.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People is one of my favorite performances ever (I identified with it so much as a teen) - and I'm glad he got an oscar for it, even though I know it really is a lead performance. I've seen OP many, many times, and over the years I've come to see just how good Donald Sutherland is in it. His situation - trying so hard to hold to something that no longer exists - is deeply poignant. One of the most devastating lines in the whole thing is when he tells his wife near the end" "I don't know who you are anymore, and I don't know what we've been playing at." Who hasn't faced up to that sort of elaborate self-deception in their own lives at some point? That really gets to me.

Anyway, so glad he's going to get some long overdue Academy love soon. Richly deserved. He's good in everything.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Nice write-up. Is a head scratcher that Donald Sutherland was not nominated for his performance in Ordinary People. I just love the film and every performance in it. I still think MTM should have won.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

He's great, yes, but it seems crazy to think this beautifully understated performance belongs to the same league of De Niro's.

De Niro in Raging Bull is a Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia/Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire situation.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

He wasn't nominated? FUCK YOU OSCARS!!!!!

He was the best thing in that film for me personally. Someone that is trying to hold on to the family and make sure there is a sense of peace but is starting to realize not everything is going well. The scene where he meets Judd Hirsch for a session shows someone that is struggling to comprehend everything but also come to the realization over the little things in his life.

I love the ending with him and Timothy Hutton where it's clear that they're going to be OK because at least they can talk to each other and deal with the bullshit around them. I would've like to think that the two spent the rest of the year eating take out for a while and get Hutton's girlfriend to come in with some home cooking from her parents while Sutherland's character takes a break from work.

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I saw this recently and it has aged very well- everyone in that move is good

November 10, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

cal roth: Honestly, De Niro's not bad in Raging Bull (definitely nomination worthy, but not even a medallist in my book, in spite of the film being my best of the year). My Lead Actor field that year, before seeing Ordinary People:

Dan Akroyd, The Blues Brothers - Silver
John Belushi, The Blues Brothers - Bronze
Robert DeNiro, Raging Bull - 4th
John Hurt, The Elephant Man - 5th
Jack Nicholson, The Shining (It features Jack going full bug-nuts, so...yeah, special. Mostly, though, I think he's an exceptional but limited instrument who should probably be at 8-12 noms, but only 1 win.) - Winner

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Thank you for this. Few critics noticed on the film's release that Sutherland's Calvin character becomes the real focus by the second half of the film. At the time, I believe Roger Ebert spoke up re. how pivotal this character--and performance--becomes. And of course, Calvin is the one who is most devastated by the collapse of the family--he had the most illusions to dispel. The Academy must have heard your lone cry--they did give him that achievement award at the annual Oscar luncheon in 2018. My one sadness was that it was by then too late to recognise Mary Tyler Moore as well.

June 3, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTim Irish

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June 28, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDavidwarnerus08

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