Timothy Hutton's father, actor Jim Hutton, passed away prior to filming. Hutton has said that he did not use his mourning as a basis for Conrad's depression. Also, actress Mary Tyler Moore's son Richie Meeker was killed accidentally during the year of the film's production, and Moore herself separated from her husband, producer Grant Tinker, during filming.
The final scene in the dining room between Calvin and Beth was originally shot with both Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore on location. However, during editing, Sutherland thought that he had Calvin crying too much, ruining the scene. So, he and director Robert Redford reshot his scenes on a partial set recreated to look like the dining room. Since Moore, who was doing theater work in New York, was unable to return for the reshoot, Redford read her lines off camera for Sutherland to respond to.
Elizabeth McGovern was a student at Juilliard during filming. The school permitted her to do the film on the condition that she leave for Chicago each Friday night and return on Sunday, filming only on Saturdays. It was the first time Juilliard had ever permitted a student to make a film during a school term.
First film as a director for Robert Redford. Reportedly, Redford's salary for this film was scale, receiving only around $53,066, the Director's Guild minimum wage. For many years, Redford had been intending to one day become a film director. Prior to this movie, Redford had been starring in Brubaker (1980), a film whose shooting schedule went over-time and consequently Redford had to start work on this picture with very little time at all between projects.
Donald Sutherland stutters slightly in a scene where he describes his son's death. That stutter was an accident, but while watching the dailies, director Robert Redford felt that it was perfect, and decided to use it.
Gene Hackman was originally cast as Dr. Berger, but had to bow out due to re-shoots on Superman II (1980). Judd Hirsch stepped into the role on condition that he could complete the filming of his scenes in nine days, so as not to interfere with his schedule on the TV show Taxi (1978). He earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination as a result.
The restaurant scene between Conrad and Karen was filmed in Wilmette, Illinois at the Original House of Pancakes. A photograph of Robert Redford, taken during production for the film, hangs above the cash register at the front entrance.
The first draft of the screenplay took a year and a half to write, and the second took another year. It was very difficult to adapt this novel, since it featured very heavy dialogue with almost no descriptions of characters or settings. During this writing process, actor Robert Redford decided to direct the picture.
Dinah Manoff's costume for her only day of filming was acquired when costume designer Bernie Pollack spotted a girl shopping who he believed had the perfect look for the character. He offered her $20 to buy whatever outfit she wanted, on the condition that she give him what she was wearing.
There is a line from the novel that was dropped from the movie, where Beth explicitly blames Conrad for Buck's death. It occurs during the Christmas tree confrontation scene, when Beth questions Conrad about quitting the swim team. Conrad says, "I bet you would have come if Buck were in the hospital." Beth says, "Buck would have never been in the hospital." In the book, but not in the screenplay, she follows up with, "If you had done your job and protected your brother you wouldn't have been there." As a result, in the movie it's uncertain whether Beth blames Conrad for Buck's death, whereas in the book it's clear. This omission alters the meaning and the direction of the whole story.
Richard Dreyfuss was originally considered for the role of the psychiatrist, but when Redford called him Dreyfuss said, "I can't talk to you right now, I'm having a nervous breakdown," and he hung up the phone.
Ordinary People is on the list of the most banned books in school libraries. With its graphic sex scenes, graphic discussion of suicide, and graphic language, it remains very controversial in schools. In fact, this book was the 52nd most challenged book in schools and libraries from 1990 to 1999, narrowly beating out #53, American Psycho.
In a recent Entertainment Weekly article Timothy Hutton said Redford deliberately told everyone not to help him during the production so that he would feel isolated and unsupported, like his character.
In a recent article in Esquire Magazine (March 31st, 2013), Robert Redford claims that the reason film critic Pauline Kael criticized "Ordinary People" was because she had previously asked to meet with him to give him tips on improving his movies/acting, and he had refused. "And then she really got pissed", he said. "Everything I did from then on, she just tore into me."
The film and source novel's "Ordinary People" title comes from Judith Guest's book: "They are ordinary people, after all. For a time they had entered the world of the newspaper statistic; a world where any measure you took to feel better was temporary, at best, but that is over. This is permanent. It must be." The novel is a school text on the English curricula at many American high schools.
The play that Calvin and Beth attend at the beginning of the film is a community theater production of Bernard Slade's "Same Time, Next Year". Tellingly, in the scene that we see from the play, the characters admit that there are many things that they don't know about each other, despite having been in a long relationship.
There are subplots in the novel about Mrs. Pratt's divorce and dating life, and Jeannine's troubled sexual and shoplifting history. These were dropped from the movie, except for one quick throwaway line in the bowling alley scene, when Jeannine asks Conrad if he thinks that people are punished for what they do.
Many critics have pointed out how the therapy scenes in Ordinary People between Berger/Judd Hirsch and Conrad/Timothy Hutton heavily influenced the therapy scenes between Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting (1997), as well as a variety of other movies Involving troubled characters in therapy sessions.
Novelist Judith Guest has said that she embarked on the whole Ordinary People project because depression fascinates her. As someone who has suffered from it herself, she is fascinated by people who can function when depressed, versus people who cannot, people who are so stricken by it that they feel they have to kill themselves. That became the basis and inspiration for the book.
At the ends of both the novel and the screenplay, Conrad and Calvin have a fight, but the nature of those arguments is very different. In the book, Conrad criticizes Beth for leaving them, and Calvin chides him, saying that he gives out a lot of criticism to everyone else, but can't take it himself. In the movie, Conrad blames himself for Beth's leaving, and Calvin yells at him to stop. In both, the fight ends with Conrad thanking Calvin for the constructive criticism, and he invites Calvin to do that more often.
In the movie, Calvin tells Beth that he has begun to question whether he loves her anymore. In the book this doesn't happen. There are simply a series of arguments, and then Beth ends up leaving. At the end of the book, Calvin thinks Beth doesn't love him anymore, but he never says he doesn't love her.
This film was made and released about four years after Judith Guest's source novel was published in 1976. Director Robert Redford read the novel when it was still in galley proof form, met with Guest, and purchased the film rights prior to publication. The book has also been adapted into a stage play.
In a recent Entertainment Weekly article about the making of Ordinary People, Redford said that he wanted Dr. Berger to seem kind of crazy. When he saw Hirsch's frenetic, rapid fire delivery of his lines on Taxi, he knew he'd found his Berger.
Mary Tyler Moore admitted that, while acting in this movie, occasionally her voice would start quavering in a quintessential Mary Richards/"Oh Mr. Grant!" type way. Redford would shout "Cut!" and they would have to reshoot it.
Originally the studio wanted Redford himself to play Calvin, but he declined. He said that role was too "predictable" for him, saying the casting would be more interesting if he stayed behind the camera. And originally Redford had chosen Sutherland to play Berger, the psychiatrist. But Sutherland said that his playing that kind of oddball eccentric would have been predictable, since he normally plays that type of role. He was more interested in the WASP Dad Calvin.
The high school used for filming was Lake Forest High School, East Campus. The East Campus pool was not large enough to move the filming equipment into the balcony and bleachers. The pool used was from Lake Forest College. The East Campus has been remodeled and no longer looks as it did when the movie was made.
Berger says to Conrad: "Feelings are scary. And sometimes they're painful. And if you can't feel pain, then you're not going to feel anything else, either. You know what I'm saying?" This can be seen as the message of the whole movie; about the disastrous impact you have on your mental health and your life when you suppress emotions. The character of Beth can be seen as a powerful metaphor for that, since she spends so much effort suppressing all emotions, and she ends up losing her family and everything of value in her life as a result.
Mary Tyler Moore's sister, Elizabeth, and her son, Richie, born just three months apart, both died during production of this film. Both thought to be suicide, her sister's case was the only one to be officially ruled an intentional drug overdose.
Lee Remick and Anne Margaret were both considered for the role of Beth, but Redford said in interviews that he had seen Mary Tyler Moore looking depressed on the beach one morning, (this was shortly after the death of her son, ironically enough). He said Mary Tyler Moore, in this sad depressed state, was who he envisioned when he read the book. And even though he screen tested both Anne Margaret and Lee Remick, and came close to offering them both the part, he never really shook that image, and eventually offered Mary Tyler Moore the role.
In the book and in the early drafts of the screenplay, Calvin has a drinking problem. The movie glosses over this, except during the party scene where you see him getting drunk, followed by the scene in the car where Beth yells at him for drinking too much. Other than that, it's never mentioned.
Mary Tyler Moore admitted that she became annoyed with the would-be compliment, "Boy, you were a bitch in that movie!". She said that she didn't see it that way. She thought of Beth as a victim, that she was brought up being taught to do things a certain way. She also admitted that Beth's experience mirrors her own experience.
Calvin erroneously blames himself for Conrad's suicide attempt, just as Conrad erroneously blames himself for Buck's drowning. And Beth erroneously thinks that Calvin blames her for both Conrad's suicide attempt and Buck's drowning.
The majority of the movie was filmed on location in and around the northern suburbs of Chicago. The scene set in Texas was actually filmed in Apple Valley, California, at the Apple Valley Country Club, just down the street from Roy Rogers' house. Note the Joshua trees in the background.
The rare movie where the psychiatrist is the hero; and where psychiatry is portrayed as helpful, not harmful. Most movies portray psychiatrists as villainous; witness another major release from 1980, Dressed to Kill, where the psychiatrist is a villainous perverted psychopath. Psychiatrists across the country have praised Ordinary People over the years for presenting a positive and for once flattering portrait of their profession.
In "Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted", Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's book about "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", Mary Tyler Moore herself spoke about her guardedness with other people: "'I'm cautious in my dealings. I'm a hang back person when things get uncomfortable. I'm reserved, I guess,'" she said. If you compare this to the way Calvin describes Beth at the end of Ordinary People, you can see the similarities between Mary Tyler Moore and the character Beth: "You're so cautious. And I don't know if you're really giving. You can't handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. Maybe you can't love anybody," Calvin says to Beth.
It's ironic (maybe intentionally so) that Buck dies by drowning when he is a champion swimmer. Buck has won so many awards for his performance on the swim team over the years, and yet Lake Michigan ends up killing him in spite of this. It is also ironic that Conrad, the lesser swimmer, less awarded and lower on the totem pole with the swim team, survives the storm and makes it safely to shore with boat in tow.
Adam Baldwin plays (Stillman) a bully and a villain in this movie, who antogonizes Conrad to violence. "Ordinary People" was filmed in Chicago and released on September 19, 1980. Days later, on September 26th,"My Bodyguard" is released, another Chicago film about a tormented high school boy. Baldwin would play the hero Ricky Linderman in this movie who saves Chris Makepiece from the bullies that are pursuing him.
This was part of a wave of serious and intense family dramas in the late 70s and early 80s, a trilogy of sorts, all involving some intense standoff and showdown between family members, ending in a death, or a separation or divorce; starting with Kramer vs Kramer, following with Ordinary People, culminating with Terms of Endearment.
Pauline Kael said "There's a nasty almost conscious incestuousness to Beth that's always lurking and never brought to the surface... The movie is as sanitized as the upper middle class life it sets out to expose. And it's as empty and as orderly".
In the book Berger's office is in Chicago. In the movie it's Highland Park. (Chicago makes more sense if you are trying to establish Berger as a non-WASP outsider with a seedy office. Highland Park is very upscale).
Both My Bodyguard and Ordinary People take place in Chicago, and they were released within days of eachother in September of 1980. Both involve a high school boy (Ricky Linderman and Conrad Jarrett) who attempt suicide by slashing their wrists because they feel despondent about and responsible for the death of a brother who dies in a tragic accident. (It's an accident with a gun in My Bodyguard and a boating accident in Ordinary People). The hero in each is a rich boy with a name that begins with 'C' (Clifford and Conrad). And Adam Baldwin co-stars in both movies, but in My Bodyguard he's Linderman, one of the heroes, and in Ordinary People he's Stillman, a villain.
All three of the leads have several moments when they "space out", have some sort of a flashback, and then are brought back to reality by other characters in the scene. Beth spaces out twice; once when she goes into Buck's room and looks around wistfully in a sort of trance; only to be brought back to reality by Conrad walking in the room. She has another scene like this when she's shopping for clothes and stares at one item for several minutes; only to be brought back by the sales woman who asks if she wants it in her size. Conrad spaces out and has flashbacks to the funeral when he is riding to school in the car with his friends to school; he also spaces out when he is in English class and his teacher has to ask him about the Jude the Obscure reading assignment, twice. Calvin spaces out when he is talking to Ray his business partner about their secretary. He also has flashbacks when he is jogging in the middle of the movie. And he has flashbacks when he and Beth are flying home from Houston; dreaming of younger, happier times in his marriage to Beth.
There are some plot similarities between this film and "On Golden Pond". In both, you have a troubled child confronting a cold parent who has alienated them, and the other, more supportive, parent who helps from the sidelines. Although in the Ernest Thompson play it's a cold father, Norman, played by Henry Fonda, not a cold mother as with Mary Tyler Moore's Beth. The troubled child is female, Chelsea, played by Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond, as opposed to the troubled male child, Conrad, played by Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People. And the warm supportive parent is a woman in On Golden Pond, Katherine Hepburn, and a man in Ordinary People, Donald Sutherland. In both movies the "bad" parent is shown to have mental health issues; Norman is facing senility, and Beth is pathologically grief-stricken. The outcomes are dramatically different; in On Golden Pond, Chelsea's reconciliation attempt works; in Ordinary People, Conrad's doesn't, and Beth ends up abandoning the family.