Calling Ordinary People a “departure” for Mary Tyler Moore is an understatement. Two iconic roles on television – The Dick Van Dyke Show and her eponymous series – had cemented a certain image for her in the minds of most Americans.
“She had only done these bright, happy things, so I felt pretty awkward going in there and suggesting she play a darker character,” director Robert Redford recalled to Entertainment Weekly.
Moore, for her part, was fine with it. “I think, like all actors, I was open to taking on new challenges, including those outside my comfort zone,” she told EW. “But this was not why I took the role. The appeal was the powerful story with its vivid characterizations – including a family dynamic I could relate to.”
Moore’s casting – such a highlight of the film in retrospect – was something of an albatross around its neck at the start: “At that particular time there was no interest in the film,” Redford recalled. “I’d gone to a couple of studios and they were not interested. They thought it was decidedly uncommercial. Also, the lead character was a woman who appeared dark and negative – they didn’t want to have anything to do with that. Especially because it was going to be Mary Tyler Moore. No studio wanted it.”
But once reviews started trickling in, those studios must have been kicking themselves. “Miss Moore is remarkably fine, simultaneously delicate and tough and desperate,” The New York Times noted in their review. Roger Ebert called her casting “inspired” in his four-star review of the film. “[Redford] saw something in TV’s Mary Tyler Moore that nobody else saw – the tension behind that all-American smile,” Jack Kroll wrote in Newsweek. In The Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called “The implacability of Mary Tyler Moore’s mother character from Timothy Hutton’s suicidal-son character is as commendably anti-cliché as anything on the screen in years,” eventually placing Moore at his year-end list of best actresses.
Moore didn’t see the tightly-wound Beth as a villain, however. “Beth was a victim,” she explained. “I shared this with Redford, who told me in our first meeting that the nonrelationship Beth had with Conrad was the mirror of the noninteraction he had with his own father. Beth made me think of my father and his rigidity. I imagine a bit of him in me – along with my own tendency to want everything to be perfect – set the table for bringing Beth to life on film.”
Two real-life tragedies clouded Moore’s work in the film: Her son, Richie Meeker, was killed in a gun accident on October 14, 1980, while the film was in postproduction. Complicating matters, Moore was also in the process of separating from her husband Grant Tinker, whom she divorced in 1981.
Moore worked through her grief and threw herself into Ordinary People‘s awards-show-season campaign. The film was eventually nominated for six Academy Awards; Moore’s Best Actress award was one of only two it lost. At the ceremony, “tumultuous” applause greeted Moore when she walked onstage with Jack Lemmon to present the Best Supporting Actor Award, the first time she’d appeared on television after Meeker’s death.
“I was thrilled for Redford and Tim [Hutton] and for everyone,” Moore said of the Oscars. “Best Picture is about the contributions of every one of the people listed in the credits, so while I was personally disappointed that I did not win, having the chance to work with such an extraordinary group was reward enough for me.”