As a devotee of the groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore Show, I was grieved to hear of Moore’s recent death. But at news of her passing, what came to my mind most persistently about her was not her enduring comically lovable role as Mary Richards (and before that Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show), but her performance as the narcissistic mother in the award-winning 1980 film Ordinary People.
Robert Redford’s directorial debut, the movie earned several Oscars, including for Best Picture, and it showcased a stellar cast that included America’s iconic sweetheart in a breakout performance. The woman who had turned the world on with her smile showed a memorably dark side of motherhood rarely seen before on screen let alone acknowledged in society.
Mary Tyler Moore must have recognized the risk she took on in the role but also in a very real sense that she was made for the part. There is always another side of the captivating smile, and Moore proved willing to subvert her adored celebrity status to show that truth, however ugly.
Moore’s Brave Break
Attractive, capable, controlled, and status-driven, Moore’s character, Beth Jarrett, is comfortably ensconced in an upper crusty community on Chicago’s suburban North Shore. Beth keeps a perfectly appointed home, charms at parties, and travels extensively with her well-earning tax attorney husband, Calvin, a loving father but deluded and enabling husband played poignantly by Donald Sutherland.
Moore was perfectly cast as the perfect-on-the-outside/monster-on-the-inside malignant narcissist wife and mother: competent, pretty, slim, clever, well-dressed, friendly, and fun-loving to the world; while callous, manipulative, angry, withholding, and unforgiving at home.
Tragedy Strains the Family System (Spoiler Alert)
Had it not been for a devastating family tragedy, Beth’s pathology might have gone unconfronted by Calvin and their teenage son Conrad, Timothy Hutton, who won Best Supporting Actor for the role.
Where the film’s storytelling begins, Conrad has just returned home from a four-month hospitalization after a suicide attempt, and he and his parents are trying to get back on track with a gaping loss in their midst. We learn through flashbacks that while sailing on Lake Michigan Conrad and his older brother Buck, an outgoing star athlete, ran afoul of a storm, and their boat capsized, in part because of Buck’s carelessness. Clinging to the boat in roiling waters, Buck succumbed to exhaustion and drowned, while Conrad survived.
Redford paces the film expertly, steadily unburying the family’s grief, brokenness, and harrowing interpersonal dynamics like shoveled-off layers of Midwestern snow.
In a role that no doubt inspired Robin Williams’ performance in Good Will Hunting, Judd Hirsch plays a rumpled, compassionate, straight-talking psychiatrist to the troubled Conrad, who gradually wakes up to his survivor’s guilt and his mother’s narcissistic incapacity to love him.
Moore’s Beth Jarrett: The Quintessential Narcissist
Through tellingly enacted family scenes, Moore’s Beth is revealed as a classic malignant narcissist, scaffolding gaping emptiness with a persona of perfection, supported by denial, blame, rejection, and rage.
Beth never visited Conrad in the hospital and makes it known to him and her husband that she regards his depression and attempted suicide as a shameful family blemish. She is threatened that he is in therapy, angrily telling Calvin that the family’s affairs should be kept private. In flashbacks, she swoons over Buck’s attentions, basking in the glow of her favored golden child like an enamored school girl, a striking contrast to her aloof disregard for Conrad’s anguish and her brittle unresponsiveness when he repeatedly tries to reach out to her.
Conrad shows obvious symptoms of PostTraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—hypervigilance, depression, insomnia, nightmares, loss of appetite. His PTSD is emotional fallout from the boating tragedy but also common among scapegoated children of abusive narcissists and likely a condition that was developing before his brother’s death.
Moore portrays her character’s narcissism to a tee in turn after turn, from her subtle recoil at Conrad’s physical presence, to her coolly clipped speech and thinly masked punishing manner, to her disturbingly inappropriate infatuation with Buck, to her sexual and psychological manipulations of Calvin, to her trapped paralysis when Conrad gives her a conciliatory hug after she and his father return home from their New Year’s holiday vacation.
“Mothers Don’t Hate Their Sons”
When Conrad finally confronts his mother about not visiting him in the hospital, he shouts, “You would have visited Buck if he had been in the hospital,” to which she spits back, “Buck would have never been in the hospital!”
Beth’s and Calvin’s picture perfect marriage unravels as he increasingly questions her treatment of their son and her refusal to discuss difficult family truths, typical narcissistic stonewalling. Near the end of the film during a golf trip that Beth persuades Calvin to take without Conrad along, Beth picks a fight and bitterly expresses the narcissist’s defining inner emptiness and lack of empathy, qualities she projects onto others:
Calvin: “Can’t you see anything except in terms of how it affects you?!”
Beth: “No! I can’t! And neither can you and neither can anybody else, only maybe I’m just a little more honest about it.”
As Calvin recognizes his wife’s tragic inability to love, Moore’s character stands her ground on footing that will soon betray her, or, more to the point, collapse under her betrayal.
About Conrad, Calvin tells her, “All he wants is to know that you don’t hate him.”
“God!” Beth says, “How could I hate him? Mothers don’t hate their sons!”
Julia L. Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir, Carry You, about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissist family. Read excerpts. Her articles on narcissism regularly appear in The Huffington Post. Her articles, essays, and poems have won awards and appeared in The Nation, Reuters, The Chicago Sun Times, and The Seattle Times.
Related Articles by Julia L. Hall
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