Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett in "Ordinary People"

When you examine Donald Sutherland’s page on the Internet Movie Database, you see that he’s had 156 acting credits since 1962, which averages out to a little more than three projects a year. A long time ago, I remember reading an interview with Sutherland where someone asked him what kind of projects interested him, and his response was along the lines of “the ones that pay money.” Obviously, this is a man who likes to keep working. What it also means is that when you consider the course of his career, you can’t help but notice that while he’s been in a lot of famous and/or great movies, he’s also been in a lot of stuff that you’ve never heard of.

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.


S.O.L. said...
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S.O.L. said...

Glad you came around to loving this performance. It's one of my all-time favorites by any actor. Very few could have pulled off that last, powerful scene. Not to mention directed it. Wonderful direction by Robert Redford who really understood the material.