Ordinary People is a 1980 American drama film that marked the directorial debut of actor Robert Redford. The film 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 one of their sons in a boating accident. The screenplay by Alvin Sargent was based upon the 1976 novel Ordinary People by Judith Guest.
The film received six Academy Award nominations and won four: the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director for Redford, Adapted Screenplay for Sargent, and Supporting Actor for Hutton. In addition, it won five Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director (Redford), Best Actress in a Drama (Tyler Moore), Best Supporting Actor (Hutton), and Best Screenplay (Sargent).
The Jarretts are an upper-middle-class family in suburban Chicago trying to return to normal life after the death of one teenaged 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), tries to connect with his surviving son and understand his wife. Conrad's mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), 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 (though perhaps more what he represented), and because of the suicide attempt, has 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), 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, including Stillman (Adam Baldwin), with whom he gets into a fist fight. He cannot seem to allow anyone, especially Beth, to get close. Beth makes several constrained attempts to appeal to Conrad for some semblance of normality, but she ends up being cold and unaffectionate towards him. She is consistently more interested in getting back to "normal" than in helping her son heal.
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. Afterward, 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, calling her out on her attitude.
Conrad suffers a setback when he learns that Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend of his from the psychiatric hospital, has committed suicide. A cathartic breakthrough session with Dr. Berger allows Conrad to stop blaming himself for Buck's death and accept his mother's frailties. 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 and Timothy Hutton both won Academy Awards for their respective debuts: Redford as Best Director and Hutton, in his first film (he had previously appeared on television), 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 complex performance 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 was likewise 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. 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 Entertainment Weekly has described as one of the worst acting snubs in the history of the Academy Awards. 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.
Ordinary People received critical acclaim. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 93%, based on 40 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Though shot through with bitterness and sorrow, Robert Redford's directorial debut is absorbing and well-acted.". 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." He later named it the fifth best film of the year 1980. Gene Siskel ranked it the second best film of 1980. Vincent Canby writing for The New York Times called it "a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them."
Pachelbel's Canon, used as thematic and background music, enjoyed a surge in popularity as a result.
The film was a box office success, grossing $54 million in theaters and $23 million in rentals.