The character name of Georgia Haines (played by Marsha Mason) was changed by writer Neil Simon from his original source play "The Gingerbread Lady" where she was known as Evy Meara. On Broadway, Evy was played by Maureen Stapleton, after her successful performance on stage in Simon's "Plaza Suite". Stapleton won a Best Actress Tony Award for her part in "The Gingerbread Lady". The Evy Meara character was inspired by Judy Garland.
At the time of production, actress Marsha Mason was married to Neil Simon, the film's producer, screenwriter, and source playwright. Of the movies they made together, Max Dugan Returns (1983) and this film were the only ones where Simon was a producer.
Some movie posters for this film ran with a long preamble which read: "Kristy McNichol's a daughter who never had a childhood...Marsha Mason is a mother who never grew up. For 16 years, they've been practically strangers...And when they get together, they're the most mismatched roommates since The Goodbye Girl (1977)."
Film composer David Shire had lyrics written to his lively main theme by Richard Maltby Jr. and the song "Only When I Laugh" was recorded by Brenda Lee. For reasons unknown, the song was not included in the film. However, MCA Records released it as a 7-inch single with the label credit "From the Columbia Motion Picture". The song was also nominated for a for a Worst Original Song Razzie Award.
The film was made and released about a decade after its source play "The Gingerbread Lady" by Neil Simon was first performed in December 1970. The play opened on Broadway on 13th December 1970 and played 193 performances until 29th May 1971 when it closed. Thomas S. Hischak in his book "American Theatre: a Chronicle of Comedy and Drama 1969-2000 (2001)" said the play ran "a disappointing five months, the shortest run yet for a Simon play." "The Gingerbread Lady" is considered one of Simon's few flops, Simon extensively re-wrote it for this feature film adaptation. Susan Fehrenbacher Koprince, Associate Professor of English at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, has said that the movie "is radically changed" from "The Gingerbread Lady" and used "less than half" of the play for the film.
The film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, all for acting, but failed to win any. They were for Best Actor in a Supporting Role - James Coco; Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Joan Hackett and Best Actress in a Leading Role - Marsha Mason. Kristy McNichol was the only member of the principal cast not to be Oscar nominated whilst Coco's nom was the only one he ever received. Morevoer, this film represents Mason's final Oscar nomination [to date, December 2012] for acting, her fourth, and all without a win, whilst Hackett won the Golden Globe equivalent for her performance. McNichol however was nominated for an acting award for this film and won it too, it being the Young Artist Award for Best Young Motion Picture Actress.
Ironically, because the picture was shot in New York at the height of the NY stage season where all the theaters were being used for productions, stage interiors had to be shot elsewhere, which was in a theater in Los Angeles, one on Wilshire Boulevard.
First film as a producer for writer Neil Simon. Simon once said of this, "...to avoid any of the confrontations I've had with producers in the past over casting, I've decided to do this one myself. I didn't want anyone telling me we had to have superstar names."
Actress Marsha Mason plays an actress in this movie, as she had done in the then recent Neil Simon adaptation, Chapter Two (1979) made and released a couple of year's earlier. Mason's character was originally a singer in the original source Neil Simon Broadway play "The Gingerbread Lady".
The film has never been released on DVD (to date, December 2012). The movie was released on VHS during the 1980s and was available on a laser-disc by the 1990s. The movie rarely turns up on free-to-air television but has played in a letterbox transfer on TCM. The film though is available for download through Amazon Instant Video and Apple's iTunes Store.
In its premiere engagement in America, this movie was released just six months before another filmed adaptation of a Neil Simon play, I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982). That movie was directed by Herbert Ross who had been the first choice to direct Only When I Laugh (1981). Both works predominantly dealt with the conflict between a daughter and a parent, the parent being a mother in Only When I Laugh (1981) and a father in I Ought to Be in Pictures (1982). Both parent characters also abuse alcohol. Both films are reconciliation movies; in each film, the parent and daughter have not seen each other for sixteen years.
The name of the play that Georgia (Marsha Mason) was performing in was "Only When I Laugh". As such, this film represents an instance where the title of a play-within-a-movie is also the title of the movie.