“Ordinary People” may be best known today as the film that won the Best Picture Oscar in the year that “Raging Bull” was released. Somehow, over the years this had led to the mythology that the movie is terrible; that it was one of the Academy’s most embarrassing moments.
Let’s analyze what the leading critics of the day had to say about the film, upon its release.
Richard Schickel, TIME Magazine:
Redford's use of previously unexplored locations around Chicago gives the picture a fresh, honest look. He has also asked much of his actors, and they have all responded superbly, but it is within the Jarrett family that the biggest chances are taken. The dramatically risky stillness in Donald Sutherland's performance remains constant as he moves agonizingly from being a passive player to an active force in reshaping his family's life. Mary Tyler Moore deserves some kind of award for her courage in exploring the coldness that can sometimes be found at the heart of those all-American girls she often plays. As for Timothy Hutton, son of the late Jim Hutton (Walk, Don't Run), he handles the sulks, rages and panics of adolescence with a naturalness any parent will recognize. He is a nice boy, but there is a scary power in the emotional volatility of his age, and he shows how that can tyrannize the lives of those around him. There are no villains in Redford's world, only fallible human beings trying to work things out, failing and succeeding in touchingly recognizable ways. That is a rare enough viewpoint to find at the movies now, but coming from a man whose fame might have carried him far from the realm of Ordinary People, it seems little short of miraculous.
Vincent Canby, New York Times:
The very real achievement of Robert Redford, who makes his directorial debut with ''Ordinary People,'' and of Alvin Sargent, who meticulously adapted Miss Guest's novel for the screen, is that the Jarretts become important people without losing their ordinariness, without being patronized or satirized. ''Ordinary People,'' which opens today at the Loews Tower East, is a moving, intelligent and funny film about disasters that are commonplace to everyone except the people who experience them. Not since Robert Benton's ''Kramer vs. Kramer'' has there been a movie that so effectively catches the look, sound and temper of a particular kind of American existence.
The Jarretts are not only ordinary people, they are also ''nice'' people. They wear the right clothes, read the right books, eat the right things and misbehave discreetly. They put great store in selfcontrol, as much in the privacy of their own house as abroad in the company of friends or strangers. The problem is that such niceness and control cannot accommodate the fears, furies and resentments occasioned when things go to pieces.
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times:
Director Redford places all these events in a suburban world that 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. And, like it or not, the participants have to deal with them. That's what sets the film apart from the sophisticated suburban soap opera it could easily have become. Each character in this movie is given the dramatic opportunity to look inside himself, to question his own motives as well as the motives of others, and to try to improve his own ways of dealing with a troubled situation. Two of the characters do learn how to adjust; the third doesn't. It's not often we get characters who face those kinds of challenges on the screen, nor directors who seek them out. Ordinary People is an intelligent, perceptive, and deeply moving film.
Now, don’t forget the point of this little enterprise – it’s not to tear down “Raging Bull,” it’s simply to tear down the myth that “Ordinary People” was somehow unworthy.