Though one of the biggest box office winners of his day, Redford never came close to winning an Oscar for acting. His lone nomination for The Sting (1973) lost out to Jack Lemmon's win for Best Actor in Save the Tiger (1973). Redford decided to turn to directing because of an overall feeling of becoming "a glamour figure of cartoon proportions" in his acting career. Paramount wanted to cast Redford himself as Calvin Jarrett, the role eventually played by Donald Sutherland, who was originally slated for Judd Hirsch's shrink role. Redford became only the third man (and the first actor) to win Best Director on his debut. The others were Delbert Mann (Marty, 1955) and Jerome Robbins (co-director on West Side Story, 1961). Redford would soon be joined by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, 1983) and Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, 1990).
This film marks the start of what would be a continuing theme in director Redford's oeuvre - family bonds. Redford would explore this same theme in A River Runs Through It (1992), Quiz Show (1994), and The Horse Whisperer (1998). Ordinary People won its Oscars over Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980), the masterpiece often voted the best film of the 1980s. As a result, Ordinary People has often been critically ignored despite its many outstanding qualities.
"The liberal notion seems to be that you're not making anything worthwhile unless it's about the poor," Redford said, explaining why he was adapting a story about upper class WASPs in Chicago. "It's about the status quo and whether it's worth the trouble it takes to maintain it." One remarkable quality of the film is its excellent cast. Redford purposely cast against type, choosing Donald Sutherland, "about as off-center as you can get," to play the straitlaced father. For the emotionally volatile mother, Redford said he sought to bring out "the dark side of Mary Tyler Moore" and that he wouldn't let her use the familiar affectations of her characters from The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). Moore's dramatic performance was indeed startling, coming from a well-known fixture of television situation comedy. After the highly successful run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ended in 1977, Moore tried a different form of television, that of a comedy/variety hour format, as exemplified by The Carol Burnett Show (1967-1979). But both of these shows, Mary (1978) and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), bombed with the era's couch potatoes. Moore promised to step up to the sitcom plate again in 1980 with another try at CBS. But instead, she tried her hand at Broadway, starring in the play Whose Life Is It, Anyway?, for which she won a special Tony Award in 1980. This led to leading roles in feature films and plenty of accolades for her blistering dramatic turn in Ordinary People. With the role of the neurotic Beth Jarrett, a role once earmarked for Lee Remick, Moore effectively subverted her lovable image for good, proving her mettle with dramatic material. Unfortunately, Moore had several real-life crises that undoubtedly added to her performance. Moore permanently separated from noted producer Grant Tinker, her husband of seventeen years, during the filming of Ordinary People. And in a cruel irony, Moore's only child, 24-year-old Ritchie Moore, committed suicide that same year prior to the production of Ordinary People.
Producer: Ronald L. Schwary
Director: Robert Redford
Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, Nancy Dowd (uncredited), Judith Guest (novel)
Cinematography: John Bailey
Costume Design: Rita Salazar
Film Editing: Jeff Kanew
Original Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Principal Cast: Donald Sutherland ("Cal" Jarrett), Mary Tyler Moore (Beth Jarrett), Judd Hirsch (Dr. Berger), Timothy Hutton ("Con" Jarrett), M. Emmet Walsh (Coach Salan), Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannine), Dinah Manoff (Karen), James Sikking (Ray Hanley), Adam Baldwin (Stillman), Mariclare Costello (Audrey).
by Scott McGee