Welcome to It Takes Two, a new column which dives into a specific year of filmmaking. One will be a major release from the year, be it a massive awards success or a box-office dynamo. The other will be a hidden gem, something that may have been a critical success but never found its audience, something that never found proper distribution, or a box-office disaster that deserves a second look. We’ll be starting with 1980, and going year-by-year exploring some of the great films of the past few decades.
1980 is a captivating starting point, as both the ‘60s and ‘70s were responsible for such a vast creative output. The rise of counterculture and the Vietnam War, not to mention a vast number of other sociopolitical movements, defined an astonishing array of music, art, and film. In contrast, the eighties were a time of relative quiet, and are often overlooked when discussing great film (with a few notable exceptions). Interestingly, the two films in this week’s column are linked by their perceptions of trauma, perhaps to process all that fell upon the world in the previous decade.
The two films have one key similarity, as both are directorial efforts from major actors – Robert Redford and Dennis Hopper. Barring this exception, Ordinary People and Out of the Blue couldn’t appear to be further apart. Redford’s Ordinary People was a big critical and commercial success, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It focuses on an upper-class family in middle America dealing with the death of their son. Hopper’s Out of the Blue made its debut to considerable praise at the Cannes Film Festival, then struggled to find wide distribution in the US market, and faded into obscurity.
It’s rather easy to see why Out of the Blue struggled to find its footing: in the vein of Hopper’s debut feature Easy Rider, Out of the Blue is a nihilistic journey rife which frequently indulges avant-garde tendencies. Such a formula was timed perfectly for 1969, and as a result Easy Rider became a landmark for the counterculture movement. Eleven years later, the movement subsided considerably, and it’s safe to say that audiences didn’t have the same appetite for rebellion.
Regardless, Out of the Blue, Hopper’s third film (the disastrous The Last Movie being his second) is remarkable. It centres on young CeBe (Linda Manz), who combs her hair with shoe polish, and glorifies Elvis Presley, amongst others. She wears her father Don’s (Dennis Hopper) leather jacket – an alcoholic jailed for driving into a schoolbus, killing the children inside. CeBe cannot believe her father is responsible – after all, how could her hero be capable of such a heinous crime? CeBe lives with her high-strung mother Kathy (Sharon Farrell), who works as a waitress while suffering from a drug addiction. The film’s nihilistic approach is anchored in CeBe’s reckless attitude to life, but there is a sense for both mother and child that when Don gets out of jail, everything can be better.
This is not the case. Hopper does terrific work here as a performer, making Don an utterly detestable man, nuanced with a genuine desire to provide for his family. We see him trying to work a full-time job to help support his family, but there is a pervasive sense that the small town is not over what Don did, and frankly, neither is Don. In many ways, Out of the Blue is about the ways unchecked trauma can destroy a family. Don dives deeper into alcoholism, and CeBe’s rebellion intensifies as she realises the man she idolised is far more troubled than she could have imagined. Don embraces alcohol, Kathy uses drugs as a vice, while CeBe continues to rebel as a cry for help.
The film’s destructive nature is wonderfully illustrated in Don’s reunion party. Hopper’s camera tracks Don and Kathy as they walk through their home, Kathy supporting Don as he appears too drunk to walk on his own. As Kathy introduces him to everyone in the house, it’s clear that Don barely knows anybody at his own party, highlighting a sense of alienation and melancholy for the time lost behind bars.
There is a real despicable feel to the sequence, and Hopper employs tight framing to suggest feelings of discomfort. His camera then hovers over the back door for a few silent moments, before the house is entered by an uninvited guest, who is the father of one of the kids that Don killed. The father demands to know if CeBe knew his son, shouting directly at her and her father. Don miserably retaliates, calling himself an asshole and pouring alcohol all over himself. Most interesting is his refusal to apologise, as Don exclaims “I’m sorry about your son, but I didn’t have nothing to do with it”. It’s a telling moment that reveals Don’s complete refusal to come to terms with the atrocity he committed. His eyes, however, tell a different story; filled with rage and regret, this brief moment eloquently reveals Don’s tortured soul.
The final act is filled with ever-increasing rage, as tempers flare to Out of the Blue’s explosive, and somewhat unexpected, conclusion. CeBe’s connection with her father is treated by Hopper as taboo throughout the film, with the two sharing an often uncomfortably close proximity, but the final moments suggest a rather incestuous relationship. Kathy is seen in the bathroom crying and shooting up, evidently unable to face what her husband is capable of. This reveal suggests far more trauma that has gone unchecked than the incident that imprisoned Don. Because of the meticulous work Hopper has done throughout, the film’s utterly devastating finale manages to feel authentic and completely convincing.
While the tragedy in Out of the Blue is never directly acknowledged by its perpetrator, the devastating events in Ordinary People bring everything out into the open. The family in Redford’s film have lost their son Buck in a tragic boating accident. The other son, who always lived in his older brother’s shadow, attempts suicide after the incident. After a while in a psychiatric ward, the film begins soon after he returns to his parents.
Conrad (Timothy Hutton) is riddled with anxiety and self-doubt as the death of his brother continues to haunt him. Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), an exquisitely-maintained homemaker who absolutely adored her son and appears at a loss without him, is understandably hardened by his death. Calvin is a successful attorney, who pursues life with great optimism, but has clearly been emotionally wounded by the loss of his son. Redford balances the film well, and we spend a good amount of time with Conrad, Beth, and Calvin as we get to try and understand their thoughts and feelings. Most of the time is spent with Conrad who undergoes therapy, with his psychiatrist (Judd Hirsch) trying to help him with his anguish.
Ordinary People has a remarkable approach to emotional honesty. Frank conversations about the character’s feelings happen frequently, despite initial resistance, there is no doubt that while all three of these people are deeply struggling they all want to be a happy family again. As Conrad begins to open up thanks to frequent meetings with his psychiatrist, and Calvin seems the most keen to get his family back together, Beth remains the most distant, unable to open up about the tragedy. Still, the loss of their eldest son has irrevocably thrown everything into the open, and as the film continues it becomes evident that this family may not have been as idyllic as it seemed.
Redford as a first-time director is largely uninterested in distraction, and comprises his film primarily of medium shots and close-ups, with an emphasis on performer’s faces. As a distinguished performer in his own right, Redford clearly understands how to elicit strong performances, as Sutherland, Hutton, and Moore all deliver their finest work here. This allows so much of the raw emotion to come through, and Mary Tyler Moore, who lost her own child before filming, is especially heartbreaking in the role of the withdrawn mother.
In one particularly devastating scene, Calvin is sitting at the dining room table, heartbroken. While trying to repair the relationship between his son and wife, it becomes clear to him that the issue is far more extensive and involves himself as well. With tears in his eyes, he says to Beth, “When Buck died, it was as if you buried all your love with him.” The moment is so sincerely felt, both in Sutherland’s delivery and Moore’s silent response, it’s a powerful summation of everything that makes Ordinary People such a success. Nowadays, the film is criticised largely for the fact that it beat Raging Bull for the Best Picture Oscar, but it’s moments like these that show exactly why the film deserves the recognition it earned.
Ordinary People is hugely successful in mining for drama and pathos, and this is due in equal part to Redford’s restrained approach and the raw, fully-realised performances from the principal cast. While the film’s ending is nowhere near the devastation found in Out of the Blue, it is tragic in its own right. However, unlike Hopper’s film, whose characters refuse to acknowledge the trauma and let it take over their psyches, Ordinary People faces the trauma head-on, and there is a slight tinge of optimism as the film ends. Whatever struggle they may endure, they will ultimately persevere together, no matter how challenging the journey ahead may be.
Other great films from 1980: Raging Bull, The Elephant Man, Airplane!, The Shining, and The Empire Strikes Back.