There’s a scene towards the end of Ordinary People when Calvin is coming home from the psychiatrist and confronts his wife Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) about a forgotten aspect from their son’s funeral. Why did she care what shoes he wore that day? Their son had just died, but she still cared about matching shoes… To me, it’s the strongest moment of the film and it says so much about Beth. I understand Beth; and, very often, I act just like she does. Her incapacity of displaying any (love) emotion is defining for the character.
But did you check her time on-screen (it’s mentioned under the main photo)? At 30 minutes, she’s 3rd to last from all the years I’ve counted so far. We can see her for just 25% of the film, which makes it a 2nd leading performance, how I’d call it. Mary plays Beth, a cold intelligent woman, subtly dealing with her favorite son’s death and her dislike for the surviving one. We discover Beth as a mother, a wife and most of all: a strong opinioned woman who cares a great deal for appearances.
What is mostly required of the actress is to make Beth look like she’s always on the edge of her sit. Beth is kind to her husband, loving and slightly manipulative, but she feels terribly uncomfortable in the presence of her son. I do believe she doesn’t hate him; it’s just that hard to explain lack of human connection. They just don’t click. And Mary Tyler Moore is perfect for the part, because she can inspire both intelligence and class, and also the stiffness much needed for this role.
But Beth is no cold monster and Mary understands that. Instead of creating a frigid bitch, she underlines her incapacity of displaying emotion and her preference for image, and not substance. There are one or two scenes in which she tries to get close to her son or is plainly forced by the situation. Mary allows us to see the good nature of the character and relate to her. It’s emotional and tragic and she’s much aware of this, but it’s hard for her to change when there is so much regret and anger and untold words behind her relationship with her son.
When accused for her coldness and cornered for being the way she really is, Beth shows her vulnerability. I don’t know what anyone wants with me anymore. It’s her wish to continue living behind a wall of silence and not deal with all the problems. And who could blame her? Her final scene, after her husband’s confession is heartbreaking and, while she’s being forced into the truth of everything around her, we soon realize that in the end Beth is the real victim of the story, not her son. It’s Beth who lost everything. [Does all this sound confusing for someone who hasn’t seen the film?]