For people under a certain age, it will be impossible to understand how much of a shock it was to see Mary Tyler Moore playing Beth Jarrett in “Ordinary People.” Today, Moore is remembered primarily for her roles in two iconic television comedies – “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” in which she played Laura Petrie, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” one of the most famous TV shows in the history of the medium (one of the few that can be rightly said to have made television history). Moore’s Mary Richards was single. She had never been married. She worked in a newsroom filled with stodgy old men, and more than held her own in her interactions with all of them. At the same time, she was funny, vivacious, and as the theme song said, could “turn the world on with her smile.”
It’s hard to imagine a character less like Mary Richards than Beth Jarrett. We know very little about Beth throughout “Ordinary People” – we don’t know much about her interests, outside of maintaining a fine home; we don’t know what she was like in college; we don’t know what her interests were when she was younger. We get a brief glimpse of what she was like when she and her husband were courting (or perhaps newly married), but that’s about it. All we really know is that for Beth, the world revolves around two things – her family, and appearances.
The movie’s three central characters – Conrad, Calvin and Beth – are all damaged. Calvin and Beth’s oldest son, Buck, has died in a boating accident. For reasons which are unclear when the movie begins, the younger son, Conrad, has attempted suicide and is only now, a year later, trying to fit back into the pieces of his life. As the story proceeds, Calvin and especially Conrad begin to come to grips with what happened, and begin to prepare themselves for the life that is continuing, as life does, after a tragedy. Beth cannot do that. She wants to have things back the way that they were. She is broken, but does not have the self-realization to begin the slow, painful process of putting herself back together again.
The intensity of Moore’s performance – so unlike her work on television – is almost frightening. As Moore portrays her, it is as if Beth’s psyche is enclosed in ice, through which she cannot break through. She feels the trappings of emotions – anger, laughter – without ever getting to the core of those emotions. The act of taking a plate full of uneaten French Toast and shoving it into the garbage disposal, as if it were covered in blood, is enough to send shivers down the spine. Moore transforms herself into a woman who remains respected by all and loved by some, but one who can no longer love – no longer recognize, as Calvin puts it at one point, that the world does not revolve around her.
It’s a great performance, one that richly deserved the Academy Award nomination it received. It’s also sad to watch it today, because when it comes to Moore’s film career, “Ordinary People” was pretty much it. Who knows – maybe Moore scared even herself with this role, and couldn’t bring herself to erase the image of Mary Richards that so many people still held in their minds at that moment.