Ordinary People
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Redford
Screenplay byAlvin Sargent
Based onOrdinary People
by Judith Guest
Produced byRonald L. Schwary
StarringDonald Sutherland
Mary Tyler Moore
Judd Hirsch
Timothy Hutton
CinematographyJohn Bailey
Edited byJeff Kanew
Music byMarvin Hamlisch
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • September 19, 1980 (1980-09-19)
Running time
124 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$6.2 million[1]
Box office$90 million

Ordinary People is a 1980 American drama film directed by Robert Redford in his directorial debut. The screenplay by Alvin Sargent is based on the 1976 novel of the same name by Judith Guest. The film follows the disintegration of an upper-middle class family in Lake Forest, Illinois, following the accidental death of one of their two sons and the attempted suicide of the other. It stars Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton.

Ordinary People was released theatrically on September 19, 1980 by Paramount Pictures to critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised Redford's direction, Sargent's screenplay, and the performances of the cast. The film, which grossed $90 million on a $6.2 million budget, was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 1980, and garnered six nominations at the 53rd Academy Awards, winning four: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Hutton (the youngest recipient at age 20).[2] In addition, the film won five awards at the 38th Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director, Best Actress (Moore), Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Hutton).[3]


The Jarretts are an upper-middle-class family in suburban Chicago trying to return to normal life after the accidental death of their older teenage son, Buck, and the attempted suicide of their younger and surviving son, Conrad. Conrad, who has recently returned home from a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital, feels alienated from his friends and family and begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger. Berger learns that Conrad was involved in the sailing accident that took the life of Buck, whom everyone idolized. Conrad now deals with post-traumatic stress disorder and seeks help from his psychiatrist.

Conrad's father, Calvin, tries to connect with his surviving son and understand his wife. Conrad's mother, Beth, denies her loss, hoping to maintain her composure and restore her family to what it once was. She appears to have loved her older son more, and because of the suicide attempt, has grown cold toward Conrad. She is determined to maintain the appearance of perfection and normality. Conrad works with Dr. Berger and learns to try to deal with, rather than control, his emotions. He starts dating a fellow student, Jeannine, who helps him to begin to regain a sense of optimism. Conrad, however, still struggles to communicate and re-establish a normal relationship with his parents and schoolmates. He cannot seem to allow anyone, especially Beth, to get close. Beth makes several guarded attempts to appeal to Conrad for some semblance of normality, but she ends up being cold toward him.

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 when Conrad becomes furious at Beth for not wanting to take a photo with him, swearing at her in front of his grandparents. Afterwards, Beth discovers Conrad has been lying about his after-school whereabouts. This leads to a heated argument between Conrad and Beth in which Conrad points out that Beth never visited him in the hospital, saying that she "would have come if Buck was in the hospital." Beth replies, "Buck never would have been in the hospital!" Beth and Calvin take a trip to see Beth's brother in Houston, where Calvin confronts Beth about her attitude.

Conrad suffers a setback when he learns that Karen, a friend of his from the psychiatric hospital, has died by suicide. A cathartic breakthrough session with Dr. Berger allows Conrad to stop blaming himself for Buck's death and accept his mother's frailties. However, when Conrad tries to show affection, Beth is unresponsive, leading Calvin to emotionally confront her one last time. He questions their love and asks whether she is capable of truly loving anyone. Stunned, Beth packs her bags and goes back to Houston. Calvin and Conrad are left to come to terms with their new family situation, affirming their father-son love for each other.



Gene Hackman was originally cast as Calvin Jarrett but then later dropped out when he and the studio could not come to a financial agreement.[4]


Ordinary People received critical acclaim. Roger Ebert gave it a full four stars and praised how the film's setting "is seen with an understated matter-of-factness. There are no cheap shots against suburban lifestyles or affluence or mannerisms: The problems of the people in this movie aren't caused by their milieu, but grow out of themselves. ... That's what sets the film apart from the sophisticated suburban soap opera it could easily have become."[5] He later named it the fifth best film of the year 1980; while colleague Gene Siskel ranked it the second best film of 1980.[6] Writing for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called it "a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them."[7]

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 complex performance as the mother to Hutton's character was well-received and obtained a nomination for Best Actress.[8] Donald Sutherland's performance as the father was also well received, and he was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. He was not nominated for an Academy Award along with his co-stars, however, which Entertainment Weekly has described as one of the worst acting snubs in the history of the Academy Awards.[9]

Judd Hirsch's portrayal of Dr. Berger was a departure from his work on the sitcom Taxi, and drew praise from many in the psychiatric community as one of the rare times their profession is shown in a positive light in film.[10] Hirsch was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, losing out to co-star Hutton. Additionally, Ordinary People launched the career of Elizabeth McGovern who played Hutton's character's love interest, and who received special permission to film while attending Juilliard.

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 89%, based on 102 reviews, with an average rating of 8.50/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Robert Redford proves himself a filmmaker of uncommon emotional intelligence with Ordinary People, an auspicious debut that deftly observes the fractioning of a family unit through a quartet of superb performances."[11]

The film was a box-office success, grossing $54 million in the United States and Canada[12] and approximately $36 million overseas[13] for a worldwide gross of $90 million.

Ordinary People garnered four Oscars for 1980, including the Academy Award for Best Picture. The picture, Robert Redford's debut in directing, won him the Academy Award for Best Director. Alvin Sargent won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Timothy Hutton won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in his first film role (he had previously appeared on television).[8]

The film's prominent usage of Pachelbel's Canon, which had been relatively obscure for centuries, helped to usher the piece into mainstream popular culture.[14]


Julia L. Hall, a journalist who has written extensively about narcissistic personality disorder, wrote in 2017 upon Moore's death that she "portrays her character's narcissism to a tee in turn after turn."[15] She praised Moore for taking such a career risk so soon after having played such a memorable and likable character on television, "scaffolding gaping emptiness with a persona of perfection, supported by denial, blame, rejection, and rage."[15]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Ronald L. Schwary Won
Best Director Robert Redford Won
Best Actress Mary Tyler Moore Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Judd Hirsch Nominated
Timothy Hutton Won
Best Screenplay – Based on Material from Another Medium Alvin Sargent Won
British Academy Film Awards Best Actress in a Leading Role Mary Tyler Moore Nominated
Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles Timothy Hutton Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Robert Redford Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Won
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Donald Sutherland Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Mary Tyler Moore Won
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Judd Hirsch Nominated
Timothy Hutton Won
Best Director – Motion Picture Robert Redford Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Alvin Sargent Won
New Star of the Year – Actor Timothy Hutton Won
Japan Academy Film Prize Outstanding Foreign Language Film Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Won
Best Director Robert Redford Won
Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Supporting Actor Won
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Director Robert Redford Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Best Film Won
Top Ten Films Won
Best Director Robert Redford Won
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actress Mary Tyler Moore 2nd Place
Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton 2nd Place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Won
Best Director Robert Redford Runner-up
Best Actress Mary Tyler Moore Runner-up
Best Supporting Actor Timothy Hutton Runner-up
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium Alvin Sargent Won

Home media

Ordinary People was released on DVD in 2001.[16] It was released on Blu-ray in March 2022, featuring a 4K restoration of the film.[17]

See also


  1. ^ Harmetz, Aljean (30 May 1981). "Pryor and Alda Proving Stars Still Sell Movies". New York Times. p. 1.10. Archived from the original on 10 November 2020. Retrieved 28 December 2020.
  2. ^ "Academy Awards: Best Director Facts and Trivia". AMC filmsite. Archived from the original on 11 November 2020. Retrieved 16 October 2020.
  3. ^ Portman, Ros (2007-11-16). "Golden globes". Nature Nanotechnology. doi:10.1038/nnano.2007.407. ISSN 1748-3387.
  4. ^ Wuntch, Philip (1985-11-14). "Gene Hackman Happy with his Career Despite 'Honorable Disappointments'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2021-08-22.
  5. ^ Ebert, Roger (1 January 1980). "Ordinary People review". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on 2020-09-03. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  6. ^ "Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists (1969–1998)". innermind.com. Archived from the original on 2018-07-27. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent (19 September 1980). "Redford's Ordinary People". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2017-12-12. Retrieved 16 October 2018.
  8. ^ a b Siegel, Scott and Barbara (1990). The Encyclopedia of Hollywood.
  9. ^ "25 Biggest Oscar Snubs Ever: Donald Sutherland, Ordinary People". Entertainment Weekly. Archived from the original on 2015-06-22. Retrieved 22 June 2015.
  10. ^ Martin, Linda B. (25 January 1981). "The Psychiatrist in Today's Movies: He's Everywhere and He's in Deep Trouble". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2007-12-14. Retrieved 13 September 2006.
  11. ^ "Ordinary People (1980)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on 2019-05-23. Retrieved 11 August 2022.
  12. ^ Ordinary People at Box Office Mojo
  13. ^ Watkins, Roger (April 29, 1981). "CIC Sights a $235-Mil Global Windfall". Variety. p. 3.
  14. ^ Fink, Robert (2010). "Prisoners of Pachelbel: An Essay in Post-Canonic Musicology". Hamburg Jahrbuch. Archived from the original on 2021-04-30. Retrieved 2020-01-28.
  15. ^ a b Hall, Julie L. (February 11, 2017). "Remembering Mary Tyler Moore as the Chilling Narcissist Mother in 'Ordinary People'". The Narcissist Family Files. Retrieved October 6, 2021.
  16. ^ Redford, Robert, Ordinary People, retrieved 2022-07-30
  17. ^ "Ordinary People (Paramount Presents) Blu-ray Review | High Def Digest". bluray.highdefdigest.com. Retrieved 2022-07-30.