Ordinary People

Ordinary People
Ordinary People

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Redford
Produced by Ronald L. Schwary
Written by Alvin Sargent
Nancy Dowd
Based on Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Starring Donald Sutherland
Mary Tyler Moore
Timothy Hutton
Judd Hirsch
Elizabeth McGovern
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Cinematography John Bailey
Editing by Jeff Kanew
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s) September 19, 1980 (1980-09-19)
Running time 124 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $6 million
Box office $54,766,923

Ordinary People is a 1980 American drama film that marked the directorial debut of Robert Redford. It stars Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton.

The story concerns the disintegration of an upper-middle class family in Lake Forest, Illinois, following the death of the older son in a boating accident. The screenplay by Alvin Sargent was based upon the 1976 novel of the same name by Judith Guest.

The film was a critical and commercial success, winning that year's Academy Award for Best Picture as well as three other Oscars, including one for Hutton.



The Jarretts are an upper-middle class family trying to return to normal life after the death of one teenage son and the attempted suicide of their surviving son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton). Conrad has recently returned home from a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. He feels alienated from his friends and family, and begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch). Berger learns that Conrad was involved in a sailing accident in which his older brother, Buck (whom everyone idolized), died. Conrad now deals with post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt.

Conrad's father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), awkwardly struggles to connect with his surviving son and understand his wife. Conrad's mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore) struggles to deny her loss, maintain her composure, and remains fixated on what her family once was, and cannot be again. She appears to have loved her elder son more (though perhaps more what he represented), and as a result, and because of the suicide attempt, has now grown cold toward Conrad. She is determined to maintain the appearance of perfection and normalcy. Conrad works with Dr. Berger, and learns to try to deal with, rather than control his emotions. He starts dating a fellow student, Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), that helps him to regain a sense of optimism. But he suffers a setback when he learns that Karen, a friend of his from the psychiatric hospital (Dinah Manoff) committed suicide. Conrad struggles to communicate and re-establish a normal relationship with his parents and schoolmates including Stillman (Adam Baldwin) whom he gets into a fist fight with. He cannot seem to allow anyone, especially Beth, to get close. Beth makes several constrained attempts to appeal to Conrad for some sort of normalcy, and to express concern and love for her son whom she struggles understand yet tries force to comply. Conrad again rebuffs her.

Mother and son often argue while Calvin tries to referee, generally taking Conrad's side for fear of pushing him over the edge again. Things come to a climax near Christmas, after Beth discovers Conrad has been lying about his after school whereabouts. Beth and Calvin don't realize that Conrad isn't doing the same things that lead to the suicide attempt, although his actions appear similar. Beth and Calvin take a trip to see Beth’s brother in Houston where, Calvin confronts Beth, calling her out on her attitude. In a moment of utter rage, Beth shouts at Calvin, "Why can't you see my side"? and "what kind of mother doesn’t love her son?" It is a public outburst underlining the depth of which a normally overtly repressed Beth is suffering.

Eventually Conrad is able to stop blaming himself for Buck's death and begins to get a grasp of his mother's frailties as Dr. Berger advises him to accept her as she is. Calvin, however, emotionally confronts Beth one last time. He questions their love, and asks whether she is capable of truly loving anyone. Stunned, Beth decides to flee her family rather than deal with her own, or their emotions. Calvin and Conrad are left to come to terms with their new family situation.




Robert Redford was looking for his first job as a director. He read the novel, was immediately stunned by its plot and knew this was the film to start his directing career. After meeting with the author, Judith Guest, he bought the rights to the novel to adapt it into a film. After that, he looked for a distributor. He met with Paramount Pictures, which offered to distribute the film and bankroll production on a very short budget ($6 million). He also acquired Academy Award-nominated producer Ronald L. Schwary.


Redford hired Alvin Sargent to adapt the novel into a screenplay. Sargent won an Oscar in 1978 for the screen adaptation of Julia and had been nominated previously for the screen adaptation of Paper Moon. Sargent kept the Ordinary People script faithful to the book, though he did somewhat augment the rather minimal character development found in the novel.[citation needed]


The film was shot in Lake Forest, Illinois, where the story took place, and nearby Highland Park, Illinois. The golf scene was shot in Apple Valley, California, and interior shots were filmed in Fort Sheridan, Illinois. The high school scenes were shot at Lake Forest High School (with the swimming pool scenes done at Lake Forest College). The shopping mall was Northbrook Court in Northbrook, Illinois. The storm sequence where Conrad's brother is killed was filmed on a soundstage at Paramount Studios. The film was shot in 1.85:1 surround with the screen inch of 35mm.


Robert Redford and Timothy Hutton both won Academy Awards for their respective debuts: Redford as Best Director and Hutton as Best Supporting Actor. The film marked Mary Tyler Moore's career breakout from the personality of her other two famous roles as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Richards on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore's role was well-received and obtained a nomination for Best Actress. The film also won Best Picture for 1980.

Judd Hirsch's portrayal of Dr. Berger has also drawn praise from many in the psychiatric community as one of the rare times their profession is shown in a positive light in film,[1] although some consider his portrayal to be too positive, thus lending an air of one-dimensionality.[2] Hirsch was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to co-star Hutton. Donald Sutherland's performance in the film was also well received and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He was not nominated for an Academy Award along with his co-stars, however, which today is considered one of the worst acting snubs in the history of the Academy Awards.[3] Ordinary People launched the career of Elizabeth McGovern, who received special permission to film while attending Juilliard. 1980 was also a break-out year for Adam Baldwin, who had a small role in Ordinary People while starring in My Bodyguard the same year.

This was also the first of two times director Martin Scorsese (who directed that year's Raging Bull) lost the Academy Award to actors making their directorial debut (the other was ten years later with Kevin Costner on Dances with Wolves).

Ordinary People received very positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it four stars,[4] calling it "one of the year's best films, probably of the decade" and later named it the fifth best film of the year 1980.[citation needed]

Pachelbel's Canon, used as thematic and background music, enjoyed a surge in popularity as a result. It has remained popular since then.

The film was a box office success, which grossed $54 million at theaters and $23 million in rentals.[citation needed]




External links

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