The Greatest Oscar F**k Up of All Time: How ‘Ordinary’ beat Extraordinary

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Throughout the first half of February, the Sound On Sight staff will take a look at the Academy Awards.



By any reckoning, 1980 was an extraordinary year for film. From the sublime to the ridiculous, this was the year that gave the world both Jean Luc Godard’s Sauve Qui Peut and Alan Parker’s Fame. This was the year that gave us Steve McQueen’s last film, Bob Hoskins’ break out to greatness in The Long Good Friday, Goldie Hawn proving women can be funny in Private Benjamin and an orangutan out-acting Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can.

And it was also the year that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences committed its worst and most heinous error.

This was the year that Ordinary People won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Now Ordinary People is a perfectly good film. It’s a little tedious. A little predictable. The main parts – played by Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton and Judd Hirsch – are adequately if not brilliantly acted. The script is serviceable if not sparkling and you could say the same for the camerawork and editing. In a slow year for film, like 1995, when the main competition was Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction, Ordinary People would have been a justifiable winner. But 1980 was not a slow year for film and Ordinary People was not up against Tom Hanks going ‘full retard’ and John Travolta showing the world that even if he still can’t act, at least he has some moves, man. No, in 1980 Ordinary People was competing with Raging Bull and The Elephant Man. It went head to head with two of the most extraordinary, ground breaking films of all time.

And it won.

Not only did Ordinary People collect Best Picture, Robert Redford walked away with Best Director, beating out both Scorsese and Lynch. Robert De Niro at least collected a statue for Best Actor, but that was all*.

So why? What could have caused the moment of collective stupidity which gripped the AMPAS members as they reached for their voting papers that year? Alien mind rays? Envelopes stuffed full of cash? An outbreak of temporary senility?

Possibly all of these, but also some more pragmatic reasons underlie the choice. Ordinary People is a case of right time, right topic, right actress and right director. It’s also a case of a reaction against excess. As Peter Biskind puts it in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Scorsese’s masterpiece was ‘a beached whale on the shores of the new decade.’ After ten years of cocaine-fuelled excess, in which talent like Coppola, Bogdanovich and Cimino brought both themselves and whole film studios crashing down like felled skyscrapers, the people who make up the movie industry were tired of ugly reality, of slo-mo fists smashing noses like they were overripe grapefruits. Ordinary People, with its tidy houses, civil bickering and adolescents whose idea of a cat call is yell ‘nice knees!’ at Elizabeth McGovern, must have seemed like an island of sanity in the midst of chaos**.



And if Ordinary People stood for a return to solid values, then its director, Robert Redford, represented that vision of decency in sharp focus. Not for him the Roman Emperor posturing of Coppola complete with kaftan and porn actresses; Redford was the blonde haired, clean limbed, All American port in a storm of drugs and violence. The treatment of the film’s subject was safe too. Bookended by the Manson murders and the shooting of Dorothy Stratten by her boyfriend Paul Snider, the 1970s were a dangerous decade. Ordinary People might deal with death and attempted suicide, but ground down the drama until it was so bland, so pre-digested, it could be swallowed from a spoon by a baby. In this film, violence is expressed by shoving a couple of French toast slices down the waste disposal, or changing the subject before feelings can be expressed. The closest Ordinary People gets to giving us something disturbing is when the superb M Emmett Walsh (as swimming coach Salan) gleefully manages to wring perversion from the scene where he lectures the wet and shivering Hutton on the dangers of electroshock therapy. Otherwise, the film is all talk and no symbolism. Talk is safe. Talk is distancing. Images have the power to worm their way into your subconscious and fester there like hideous mental parasites. In Ordinary People the images are carefully chosen to be stripped of all such danger. Gravestones are widely spaced and light grey. The ground is strewn with autumn leaves. Even the upturned hull of the boat on which the film’s climax plays out is as white and clean as a set of freshly scrubbed teeth.

All that said it’s perhaps unfair to judge Ordinary People from this end of history’s telescope. For all that seems clichéd in it now, that’s because of what followed it, not what preceded it. This film was probably one of the first to probe below the surface of Middle America and discover that what lay beneath was not altogether healthy. Ordinary People continued the work The Graduate began and if its message (Conrad is unhappy because his mother hates him!) might now appear unremarkable, at the time this was a bold statement, made bolder by the canny casting of Mary Tyler Moore as the wrong-doing parent. Welded into the public consciousness as an icon of chirpy respectability by her long running sitcom, Tyler Moore as an emotionally frigid, passive aggressive bully caused the same stir as would happen today should Kaley Cuoco take on a role as a serial killer. This adroit choice of actor hammered the point home: even nice people do evil to their kids! And thus a genre was born, of tortured adolescents getting to the root of their pain. Before Ordinary People kids drove cars and got in fights. Afterwards, they poured out their souls to kindly therapists a la Good Will Hunting.

Does that justify its win? On a rewatch, there is much to like about Ordinary People. It has the same heft and solid craftsmanship of the furniture which adorns the fictional houses in which it takes place. It’s quality and built to last. But setting this film against the baroque magnificence of Raging Bull, against the peculiar bleak vision of The Elephant Man, one thing becomes very clear.

Ordinary should always come second.

*As further illustration of how weird the 1980s Oscars were, Best Actress went to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner’s Daughter. Don’t remember that film? You are not alone.

**And for Firefly fans – this scene includes a very young Adam Baldwin.

Cath Murphy


  1. anonymous says

    And in that dawning era of go-go capitalism, voodoo economics, “Lifestyles of The Rich and Famous”, AIDS, and yuppie consumerist chic, a young and gifted artist reciting dialogue in the “Fame” screenplay such as “we can’t have happy people walking on this planet.. everybody’s gotta suffer so we can stay in business…..the witch doctors, the plastic surgeons, the underground deodorant spray people can all stay in business..and then we can all go pray to the a**hole God up there who f*ucked it up in the first place”….

    well, certainly no Oscar was going to be given then, and maybe even no Oscar would be given now.

    Which, essentially, is an even higher honor.

  2. anonymous says

    Hutton’s Oscar win, at age 20, for Best Supporting Actor (the youngest Supporting
    Actor win in history to date) was equally suspect… an unknown young actor coming out of late 70’s uber-sentimental pro-“family values” TV movies, his performance was perfectly in sync with the emotionally muted new conservatism of the dawning Reagan era.
    As far as tortured adolescents pouring out their soul and getting to the root of their pain, it could be convincingly argued that it was Alan Parker’s Fame, which you mention at the very top of your article in reference to that “extraordinary year” that equally contained the very bleakness and danger that was so suddenly threatening, dangerous and out-of-fashion. Witness the much more tortured
    adolescent main character of that film, an aspiring
    Hispanic teenager who dreams of escaping his brutal
    home life of poverty and physical and emotional abuse, pouring out his soul in an extended monologue about the actual tragic and real life
    suicide of his comic hero Freddie Prinze. In that monologue, which was nominated for the Oscar in the screenplay category that year, there is a volcanic and no holds barred condemnation of church, God, state, family, and Hollywood itself…uttered with an unprecedented amount of f-bombs and visible tears, and about as raw, naked, and exposed as Mr. Redford’s demure shadows across the face of Mr. Hutton during his big breakdown scene would have never allowed.

    Is this not evidence of another great unacknowledged Oscar travesty of all time, as well?

    Hutton’s big breakdown scene could never have been.
    and dry eyes of his

  3. porkchop says

    This is a nice thumbnail of what the Academy’s mood might have been in 1980–especially re: Coppola’s “Roman Emperor posturing” etc. But maybe Raging Bull and The Elephant Man just split the vote?

    Also, Coal Miner’s Daughter was the first movie I ever saw, and I still love it. Sissy Spacek was great in it, as was Tommy Lee Jones!

  4. Myles says

    Adding to my comment – Sound on Sight should once and for all give their take on this long standing rift. Which is better: Ordinary or Bull?

  5. Myles says

    I second Yo Mama. Ordinary People is the superior film.

  6. Staindslaved says

    Good article, though I’m not sure I’d agree that this was the biggest Oscar Best Picture flub ever. For my money it was 2002’s Chicago winning because all four other films were FAR more deserving: The Pianist, The Two Towers, Gangs of New York & The Hours. Considering this was a great year for Foreign films (which never get nominated) as well, City of God, Spirited Away and Hable con Ella; Chicago looks ever worse as the Academy’s choice. The following are also some fairly black eyes for the Oscars.

    1941 – How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane and the Maltese Falcon

    1956 – Around the World in 80 Days over Giant, The Ten Commandments & The King and I

    1976 – Rocky over Taxi Driver, Network, Nashville and All the President’s Men

    In simple “how did that film win over this one” I’d also go with:
    1944 – Going My Way over Double Indemnity
    1951 – An American in Paris over A Streetcar Named Desire
    1952 – The Greatest Show on Earth over High Noon
    1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now
    1981 – Chariots of Fire over Raiders of the Lost Ark

  7. Bill Mesce says

    As much as I think ORDINARY PEOPLE gets something of a bad rap, it didn’t deserve the win, and this is a smart,incisive, well put together analysis of why.

    PEOPLE also came out in an era when the Academy still had trouble digesting the more extreme works of someone like Scorsese, and it didn’t help his case (not that this should ever be a factor, but it almost always is) that the film had been a box office disappointment.

    Really nice piece both in smarts and in the writing.

  8. Yo Mama says

    First of all, this is simply one person’s opinion. Frankly, you sound like an idiot who is just pissed off because her favorite movie didn’t win.

    Secondly, these movies like Ordinary People and Forrest Gump were great. To write Forrest Gump off as simply “Tom Hanks going ‘full retard,’” is not only offensive but also lacking in depth.

    Maybe next time, before publishing something, you could actually put some thought into it. That way, you won’t come off as a five year old pouting and throwing a tantrum because you didn’t get your way. Oh, and a little tip — proofreading is always a good idea, too.

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