When Robert Redford cast Mary Tyler Moore in the pivotal role of Beth for his 1980 directorial debut, he was accused of stunt casting. Redford had purchased the rights to Ordinary People while the novel was still in galleys, having sparked immediately to the story about a seemingly perfect upper-crust family that’s torn apart after the elder son dies in a sailing accident, leaving behind his troubled younger brother. More established film actresses like Lee Remick and Ann-Margret were in contention for the role; meanwhile, Moore, though an undisputed champ of the small screen, hadn’t been in a movie since Elvis’ final appearance, 1969’s Change Of Habit (she played a nun). Casting Moore was a brave choice, and it paid off: It netted Moore her only Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for Best Actress.
Moore had been America’s sweetheart since The Dick Van Dyke Show, and her long-running stint on The Mary Tyler Moore Show had wrapped up just a few years earlier. Before Ordinary People, Moore had never played anything even close to the unsympathetic character that was Beth Jarrett—a perfectly coiffed, never-a-wrong-move suburban mother who’s incapable of giving her remaining child the compassion he so desperately needs. Timothy Hutton, making his Oscar-winning debut performance as her son Conrad, is as floppy and appealing as a Newfoundland puppy, which makes his mother’s distance all the more painfully acute. That Moore’s Beth remains affectionate with her husband, Calvin (Donald Sutherland, also playing against type), makes her inability to communicate with Conrad as fascinating as it is devastating. Moore injects an icy tension into their every scene together.
Moore’s interpretation of Beth is all the more effective because of her sunshiny past. She so emphatically turns her smile off as Beth that we feel as hurt as Conrad and as confused as Calvin. We know that the sunshine exists; here she’s resolutely keeping it from us. And our natural empathy for Moore makes the moments where Beth tries all the sadder, such as when she makes Conrad his favorite breakfast, French toast, only to end up pushing it down the garbage disposal when he admits he’s not hungry. Or the scene in which she sits in her dead son’s bedroom, pining for not only him but also the easy life she once led; she can’t stop herself from snapping at Conrad for catching her there in a moment of vulnerability. Or particularly the heart-wrenching moment when Beth spies Conrad sprawled outside in a lounge chair and goes outside to try to talk to him. Conrad makes the grave error of bringing up his brother, and Beth shuts down completely. The two rattle off dialogue to each other, making it clear that they have nothing in common except for blood. Beth makes the effort, but can’t abide by the messiness of her emotions.
Surprisingly, both Moore and Redford said that Beth is closer to Moore’s actual personality than the viewer might imagine. In a way, that makes perfect sense: How else could someone—especially a woman in the 1960s and 1970s, working within a male-dominated industry—build a TV empire without being a perfectionist or guarding her emotions? Redford told Rolling Stone he even had Moore in mind while he read the book, but “I really had no idea she was as talented as she is... There’s a bravery in Mary that’s extraordinary. Sometimes I couldn’t figure out whether she didn’t know any better or had incredible courage. But she always did it.”
In a TV interview years later, Moore said of Ordinary People, “It was disappointing to me how many people came up to me and said, ‘Boy, that Beth Jarrett is a bitch.’” Her own take was much different: “I saw her as a victim; I saw her as very reminiscent of my own life. And so I had to do that role.” In a perfect storm of horrific circumstances, Moore was dealing with the dissolution of her own marriage to Grant TInker at the time, along with the recent death of her sister from a drug overdose. She was also in the midst of trying to reconnect with her own son, Richie, who would die in October 1980 from what was later ruled an accidental gunshot wound. She channeled much of that into the sense of loss that lurks just beneath Beth’s steely exterior.
In the movie, we eventually find out why Beth is the way she is in a few glimpses of her own parents: Her mother’s all-white kitchen is, if possible, even more spotless than her own, and she’s clearly inherited her parents’ Waspy “we don’t talk about our problems” credo. Ironically, the more Beth tries to tighten her control, the more she loses it. When Calvin tries to get her to go to counseling, she won’t hear of talking about such private matters with a stranger. Beth is never more determined than when she insists, “This is my family.” That we have any sympathy for this closed-off character at all is almost entirely due to our feelings for Moore.
Ordinary People went on to garner six Oscar nominations and win four of them, including Best Picture. But while Hutton was the sole cast member to take home an acting award, the movie really pivots on Moore’s courageous performance and her willingness to portray a character that few viewers were going to warm to—and her willingness to potentially sully the likable image she’d so carefully cultivated for years. It never would have worked had Moore not exposed the part of herself that empathized with Beth.
Moore later expounded on that empathy to Rolling Stone, saying:
Beth’s a product of her upbringing, which is a very self-disciplined way of dealing with life. She’s very orderly, very ordered; she believes very strongly in the strength of the family and in being the matriarch of that family, and that if problems arise, you deal with them with dispatch. There’s a great deal about that to admire. That’s what I hung onto in playing Beth. I like Beth.
Moore would go on to have myriad other roles in movies and TV series that showed different shades to her persona beyond Mary Richards, but she always regarded Ordinary People as her Holy Grail. Rightly so. As buttoned-up as her character is, it was the role that revealed just how much more the actor had inside.