Every year during Oscar season the usual-usuals come out with their usual-usual lists listing their usual-usual complaints about prior Oscar picks. And due to the fact that most of these usual-usuals all think alike or want to belong, so they pretend to think alike, we get the usual-usual complaining about 1980, the year director Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” beat Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” for the Best Picture Oscar. On top of that, Redford beat Scorsese for directing.
But Redford should have won. He made a better movie — a much better movie.
In 1980, Oscar was just.
For decades I have been trying to understand just what it is people like (or pretend to like) so much about “Raging Bull.” I have never liked the movie but want to enough that I purchased the DVD and have screened it at least a half-dozen times. Before writing this column, I even watched it again over the weekend, and this time on the home theatre I built with a 17′ x 7′ high-def screen and 7.1 Surround sound.
What more I can I do?
How much fairer can I get?
I want to love “Raging Bull.” I really do. I love “Taxi Driver” — which has the same director, star and screenwriter. I love Scorsese. I even love existential character dramas from that era: “Five Easy Pieces,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Easy Rider,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore…” My dislike of “Raging Bull” is not politically or culturally motivated, and I actually do see genius in it.
Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing won the Oscar, and deserved it. Bravo.
Michael Chapman’s Oscar-nominated black and white cinematography – genius.
One frequently overlooked piece of “Raging Bull” brilliance is Frank Warner’s Oscar-nominated sound design, which is beyond genius.
Robert DeNiro won the Best Actor Oscar, also very good.
Technically, Scorsese’s “masterpiece” is a masterwork.
But that doesn’t salvage the fact that “Raging Bull” is boring, and therefore not a very good film. It’s impressive in many respects, but fails miserably as a compelling motion picture.
“Raging Bull” has no real story, no appealing characters, nothing and no one to root for; it’s just a series of slice-of-life scenes about an irredeemable, self-destructive bully who destroys himself physically and emotionally. Yes, I get the theme — His Toughest Opponent Is Himself, or whatever — but a theme does not make for a compelling movie.
I don’t care about DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta. I don’t care about his stupid wives. I don’t care about his idiot brother. And watching people you don’t care about is boring.
And after forty or so minutes of interminable, going nowhere scenes of working-class Italian verbal grab-ass (Whatyoo talking about, Joey?” “Whatduyya mean what am I talking about? Whatyoo talking about!?”), I’m ready to take my own dive.
Can we at least be honest enough to admit that after four decades and dozens of imitators these “Italian argument” scenes come off as more than a little cliched and dated? You can argue that’s not Scorsese’s fault, but truly great films survive unscathed by their imitators and that simply isn’t the case here.
What we have with “Raging Bull” is a brilliant short film blown up into 129 butt-numbing minutes.
On the other hand, almost thirty-five years later, Redford’s “Ordinary People” is still a very moving and engrossing family drama that probably deserves more appreciation today than it did in 1980. How refreshing it is to watch a film about a deeply troubled, upper-class, white suburban family where The Suburbs aren’t portrayed as the arch-villian.. Today this kind of take would feel cutting edge and almost iconoclastic.
The three central performances from Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton are absolutely perfect — especially Sutherland, who was robbed of even an Oscar nomination. All of the supporting actors shine, including Judd Hirsch as a no bullshit psychiatrist.
In his directorial debut, Redford expertly handles his actors in a story about a family emotionally blown apart by the death of the favorite son. The only thing is that the family doesn’t know they have been blown apart. The entire movie is about how the family comes to realize this and the hard choices that have to be made for the sake of the surviving teenage son, a guilt-ridden Hutton who is also dealing with the fact that his mother feels nothing for him and probably never has.
Coming off two decades of bubbly, hit sitcoms, Mary Tyler-Moore transforms herself into one of the coldest, brittlest mothers ever seen on film; a monster slicing her own son to death with passive-aggressive paper cuts as she attempts to bury her hideousness in suburban perfection. As the loving and decent husband and father caught in the middle, Sutherland is the heart and soul of the film, and the moment he finally sees his wife for what she really is, is absolutely devastating.
The whole movie comes down to this moment and Redford’s trust in Sutherland to pull it off is the best decision he could have made as a director. The camera doesn’t move, nor does Sutherland — not even his face. You see it all in his eyes, and it cuts you in two.
With a brilliant, Oscar-winning script by Alvin Sargent (based on Judith Guest’s best-seller), “Ordinary People’s” greatest success is avoiding melodrama (something “Raging Bull” fails miserably at), and this is a testament to everyone involved. Every scene, line of dialogue, plot-turn, and emotion is real … and big.
Admittedly, what does hurt “Ordinary People,” a little unfairly I think, is its cinematography. As perfect as the acting is and as perfectly complicated as the characters and their relationships are, “Ordinary People” looks and feels like a television movie — which makes it very easy to dismiss the film overall as something less than what it really is.
Is “Ordinary People” one of the GREAT Best Picture winners up there with “Casablanca” and “Gone with the Wind?”
But it is a great film that has held up remarkably well and is worthy of a Best Picture Oscar.
“Ordinary People” is also a much, much better movie than “Raging Bull.”
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC