Mary Tyler Moore, who died Wednesday at age 80, was best known an icon of comedic television, but one of her career highlights is the 1980 movie “Ordinary People.” Playing against type, Moore earned an Oscar nomination for portraying a steely suburban housewife and community socialite contending with her teenage son’s death.
The Robert Redford–directed role is remarkable not only as an unlikely turn for Moore, who’d become an Emmy-winning sitcom star thanks to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Rhoda” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It captures something the actress had become known for: refreshing the cultural image of womanhood.
Mary Richards, her “Mary Tyler Moore Show” character, is an unmarried career dynamo at a time when women on television were predominately housewives. Beth Jarrett, her “Ordinary People” character, grieves her son’s death with a cold remove, attempting to barrel forward as though nothing has happened. She rails against what many would consider stereotypically feminine portraits of grief. Beth masks pain with a detached facade, reminding us there is no one way to process loss.
Beth is also determined to bury the fact that her older son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), attempted suicide a few months earlier. She’d rather don a cheerful aura in public, again hoping to push on without any fuss. This is suburbia, after all. Wouldn’t want the neighbors to find out. That WASP-y remove ― as though nothing in life had gone wrong, so why start now? ― distances Beth from Conrad and her husband (Donald Sutherland). She no longer knows how to talk to her son. Moore captures that internal struggle by giving Beth a blend of bitterness and vulnerability, even if the character would never cop to either.
Because Moore was defined by a sunny small-screen disposition, seeing her take on such a heavy, layered part in “Ordinary People” wowed critics. Roger Ebert called it “extraordinary casting.” New York Times critic Vincent Canby said she is “simultaneously delicate and tough and desperate” in the movie. Variety’s Todd McCarthy said Beth was “undoubtedly the most brilliantly written and observed” part in the film.
“I think, like all actors, I was open to taking on new challenges, including those outside my comfort zone,” Moore told Entertainment Weekly in an oral history. “But this was not why I took the role. The appeal was the powerful story with its vivid characterizations ― including a family dynamic I could relate to.”
Moore won a Golden Globe, though she lost the Oscar to Sissy Spacek (”Coal Miner’s Daughter”). The performance endures, in part thanks to “Ordinary People” having won Best Picture. The comedian-goes-dark trope is commonplace in today’s film market, and Moore pulls it off like a class act. Her humor background ensures Moore understands the fluidity of sadness, that not all suffering is drenched in tears. We never dislike Beth ― in fact, we sympathize with her. We might even admire her. That’s because Moore treated her like an ordinary person.