Dear Drama Observers,
I was recently called “boomer” by a “millennial.” In the context of our conversation, the label ascribed to me had less to do with my age cohort and more to do with my old man ways. While it was delivered good-naturedly, the tag was roughly equivalent to being called “geezer.” But hey, I’m really not that sensitive about it, like I would bring it up it one of my weekly letters or something.
So as to remove any doubt about my geezerdom, I’m going to reference a 40-year-old movie this week. For a millennial, I might as well be referencing a movie starring Errol Flynn or one of those silent films with Gloria Swanson or Charlie Chaplain. (Helpful hint for millennials: Pick up your devise and Google “silent movies, stars.”)
So, where was I? Oh, yeah. The movie is the 1980 Oscar-winning classic, Ordinary People. I had two different reactions to the movie’s ending—one at the time I saw it and the second after I thought about it more carefully. I’ll explain both. (Spoiler alert: I’ll be giving away the movie’s ending.)
Mary Tyler Moore, who’d only ever been in sitcoms, played the role of Beth, the control-obsessed mother in this “ordinary” family. Her older, favored son had died in a boating accident which was survived by her less-favored son, Conrad. Conrad had been traumatized by the accident and was likely experiencing a fair amount of survivor guilt. But even more traumatizing was the ongoing contempt from his mom who seemed genuinely grieved that the wrong son had died. It wasn’t just that Beth had lost her golden boy, Buck. She was left with the runt of the litter, the second-best Conrad.
Conrad sought the help of a therapist who was able to turn on some of Conrad’s mental lights and help him see Mom as she really was. Enough was never enough for Beth, and Conrad had to come to terms with the excruciating likelihood that he would never find his way into his mom’s good graces. She could only love that which was perfect, which meant that the less-than-perfect Conrad would never receive her love. A hard reality indeed.
Toward the movie’s end, Conrad’s dad, Calvin, finally comes to see what Conrad had been seeing all along—his wife’s relational deficiency. He confronts her with his newfound realization and, for a few seconds, the viewer is led to believe Beth might actually drop her defenses and acknowledge truth. Instead, she strengthens those defenses, packs a bag, calls a cab, and leaves the family. The credits roll as Conrad and Calvin comfort each other in their now-smaller family.
My first reaction sitting in that theater in 1980 was, “Gross, what a bummer of a movie.” I like films with happy or heroic endings, where the good guys win, the bad guys lose, and justice is served. But this movie just… ended. The bad guy (Beth) drove away with no awareness of or willingness to acknowledge her evil ways. It seemed that her life would proceed as usual while Dad and Conrad were left behind cleaning up the relational debris left in her destructive wake. So, I was frustrated.
That was my first reaction.
But I changed my assessment of the movie’s ending after giving it more consideration. Beth was a Drama Person of the control-freak variety. She couldn’t tolerate mess of any sort, particularly the kind occurring in up close relationships. The truth was that she had a mess-tolerance deficiency but facing that truth was so painful that she drove away to avoid looking at it. Out of sight, out of mind, she thought.
Conrad and Calvin lost another family member, but they still had each other and were comforted by a newly-arrived occupant… truth. Truth and Beth, it turns out, couldn’t inhabit the same space. When truth knocked on the door, Beth decided to leave.
Beth left to resume her “ordinary” life. But by embracing the truth that Beth had spurned, the lives of Conrad and Calvin took an extraordinary turn. They now had opportunities to grow and flourish in ways previously unavailable in the presence of Beth’s truth-suppressing ways. Beth opted for the artificial happiness of reality-avoidance. Conrad and Calvin faced reality and were now poised to grow and be truly happy because as William Butler Yeats once noted, “We’re happy when we’re growing.”
The ending of this movie which seemed so hopeless at first was very hopeful indeed. The message was that Conrad and Calvin were going to be okay despite the fact that Beth never would. Their emotional well-being was no longer contingent upon Beth seeing what she was unwilling to see.
For that reason, I think it was one of the best movie endings ever.
There were no pyrotechnics in Ordinary People. But the impact of truth was explosive.
Till next week.