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, 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)."
The film was nominated for three 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, while Coco's nomination 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, while 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.
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 released eleven years after its source play "The Gingerbread Lady" by Neil Simon was first performed in December 1970. The play opened on Broadway on December 13, 1970, and played 193 performances until May 29, 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.
Ironically, because the picture was shot in New York City at the height of the New York 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 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."
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. As of March 2017, it is available on DVD.
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 several years.
The name of the play, in which Georgia (Marsha Mason) was performing, 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.
In the case of James Coco's role as struggling actor Jimmy Perino, the conceptual link was even closer than that between Marsha Mason and her Georgia Hines character. Writer Neil Simon said: "I used a facet of Jimmy's personality when I created the character. Not the Jimmy of today who's a respected star but the Jimmy I first met several years ago".
The Georgia Hines character played by Marsha Mason, was an amalgam of many actresses writer Neil Simon had known. "She is terrific at what she does - stepping on stage and becoming someone else", Simon said. "Being herself is another matter because she is not one of her all-time favorite people". Like her wit, Georgia's insecurity seemed consistent with her chosen career. "That's not meant to generalize", Simon added. "I've known many actors whose self-image was glorious. But the theatre is an incredibly demanding profession. The challenge of reaching inside yourself, night after night, and coming up with a performance . . . is staggering".
It was while Neil Simon was writing "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers" that Simon saw James Coco's off-Broadway performance in "Next", and decided Coco would be perfect for his new play "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers". Coco's reaction was ecstatic. "You have no idea how much this means to me", Coco told Simon. "I want to be a star. Not a half-way star, not a little star, a big star!". The two became good friends. And years later, when Simon created the Jimmy Perino character - with Coco in mind - and is played by Coco in this movie - he would have him say virtually the same thing.
It is a characteristic insight by Neil Simon, who once admitted that he could not have written "Only When I Laugh", at least "not in its present form", without the experience of having raised his own two daughters. "You don't get nearly enough time to enjoy your kids and if you blow it, you'll never know what you missed", Simon once observed. "During the past few years, my oldest girl, Ellen, suddenly grew up. She became a wife, a mother, a woman in her own right. And I had to relinquish some of my precious parental rights. It wasn't easy. But I've always had an open relationship with Ellen and my younger daughter, Nancy, the kind I wished I had had, but didn't, with my own parents. And I found that the more I gave up, the more we came together, in a new and different way". His children, Simon adds, have frequently been his toughest critics. "They have said things to me which were so strong and honest that I was taken aback. But beneath it, there's always been affection and humor".
The production notes for this movie state: "Laughing in the face of adversity", says writer Neil Simon, "is a characteristic of many actors and actresses. It's one of the traits that draws them to the theatre in the first place. Like having a steady hand is a big assist in becoming a brain surgeon. The easy familiarity with which Simon refers to his characters - as if they were long-time friends - grows out of his approach to his work. "All writers have their own disciplines", Simon says. "Mine is to push myself into a state of mind that locks out every distraction - until I'm alone with the people I'm writing about. I see them. I see their surroundings. By now, I can do it on a train, a plane, almost anywhere, although it's easier in an office, which is where I generally work". There, Simon would put in about four hours a day. "The number of hours is unimportant", Simon went on to say. "It's the every day' that counts". In developing his characters, Simon envisions their most minute personality characteristics, the way they "walk, dress, speak, hold a glass, hold a cigarette, cock their heads, answer the telephone . . . everything. Sometimes, it's pure imagination. But if I have an actor in mind for a role, it helps".