Of the three leads in “Ordinary People,” Sutherland was the only one who was not nominated for an Academy Award. I don’t see that as being a reflection on his work, but rather recognition that the role he plays – steadfast, strong father Calvin Jarrett – is the least “showy” of the three. But of the three, it is the one on which my own view has changed the most.
The first time I saw the movie, I was a junior in college, just a couple of months short of my 21st birthday. The part in the movie that resonated the most for me, the one I most identified with, was Conrad, as portrayed by Timothy Hutton. I’d imagine that most people who saw the film at that age had a similar reaction, because even if you hadn’t had to deal with the tragedy that Conrad faced, what kid that age didn’t have to deal with some of the things which Conrad deals with – a mother who doesn’t understand him, the mystery presented by the opposite sex, the clueless teachers, the sometimes idiotic friends and companions. You could watch the movie, and hope that you’d never have to go through that kind of pain, but at the same time think “yeah, if I ever had to face that situation, I hope I’d do some of the same things Conrad did.” As I’ve already written, Mary Tyler Moore’s Beth Jarrett was also an attention-grabber, because the image of Mary Richards – the girl who could “turn the world on with her smile” – was still so fresh in everyone’s minds.
But Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett? I didn’t really think much about it at the time. But now, 30 years later, with 2 sons close to the same age as Buck and Conrad Jarrett, I probably identify more with Calvin than I do with any other character. Even in the last scene of the movie, after he knows in no uncertain terms that sometimes, things are out of his control, he says to Conrad, “no, I should have known…I should have done something.” The difference between how Beth and Calvin deal with the tragedy is subtle, but huge: Beth wants everything to go back to the way things were, while Calvin just wants to hold everything that is left together. And Donald Sutherland plays him perfectly – the pain is not out there shouting itself hoarse for the entire world to hear, but is there, just under the surface. A man who, as Conrad confides to Dr. Berger, is wound so tight that he just might crack.
Though I may not have appreciated Sutherland’s performance then, I certainly do now.