List Grid

Blogs Crosscuts

“One Big Birthday Present”: Judith Guest on Robert Redford’s Adaptation of Ordinary People

On November 2, 2016, writer Judith Guest introduces the Walker Art Center’s screening of Ordinary People, the Robert Redford–directed film based on her 1976 novel. In 1976, before my novel, Ordinary People, was published, I got a letter from Robert Redford telling me that he’d received my manuscript from his reader in New York City and […]

Ordinary People (1980) Directed by Robert Redford Shown: Timothy Hutton (as Conrad Jarrett), Mary Tyler Moore (as Beth Jarrett)

Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People. Photo courtesty Universal Pictures/Photofest

On November 2, 2016, writer Judith Guest introduces the Walker Art Center’s screening of Ordinary People, the Robert Redford–directed film based on her 1976 novel.

In 1976, before my novel, Ordinary People, was published, I got a letter from Robert Redford telling me that he’d received my manuscript from his reader in New York City and wanted to let me know how much he’d enjoyed it. I was thrilled, but it didn’t occur to me that this meant he was interested in making it into a film, until my publisher called to say there had been three movie offers on it. “Two are from big studios, which means they might make it. Or they might just buy it to keep somebody else from making it. And the third offer is from Redford.”

“So, what do you need from me?” I asked. “We want you to tell us who to go with.” I thought for about 2-½ seconds about it, as you can imagine.

From then on, it was all one big birthday present. Redford would send me drafts of the screenplay (written by Alvin Sargent), with a note attached saying, “Judy, feel free to wail.” Once he called to run some names by me: “Tell me how you feel about these guys,” he said. I listened to the names of actors, some whom I loved, and some not so much. “Hey, this sort of feels like playing God,” I complained at one point. “Never mind that,” he said. “Just tell me if you like him or not.” Then I mentioned an actor I liked, and he said, “Nope, he’s got weird eyes.” And I saw how one’s acting job could hang by a thread that small.

He told me this was to be his directing debut. “Needless to say, I want the movie to be good,” he said. “And if it is, it should give your book a lot of shelf life.” Which, of course, it has. And for that I couldn’t be more grateful.

Redford sent his production manager to scout the Twin Cities as a set, but since the Minnesota Film Board had yet to be founded, there wasn’t much support for it, and they decided instead to film in Chicago. But Redford did come to Minneapolis to do some casting. He said that New York kids had too much angst and California kids didn’t have enough, and he wanted to cast the lead, Conrad, from the Midwest. While he was here, we went over the script together. I mentioned one scene that hadn’t worked for me, and he said, “Yeah, I don’t like it either. Don’t worry, it’s gone.” Another scene, where Conrad and his doctor hug during a therapy session, prompted me to say that, as much as I liked the idea of them having that moment together, I thought it would take away from the primary embrace at the end, between Conrad and his father. “No, no, this will work,” he assured me. And then proceeded to act out both scenes for my benefit. “Okay,” I said when he was finished. Who wouldn’t have? I had my own private screening with Redford starring, for heaven’s sake.

At one point I confided to him my many frustrations with the character of Beth, the mother. “I don’t see her as a villain,” I said. “But people seem to hate her. I have a lot of sympathy for her, and yet I wasn’t able to get that across. Some characters are like poems: you never finish them, you just abandon them in despair. “ He told me, “I see how you as the author might feel like that, but for me, and for the purposes of this movie, I think she works just fine.” So I quit worrying about her.

He never did cast Conrad in the Midwest; he used California actor Timothy Hutton in the role, but he did find Scott Doebler, a Twin Cities drama student, to play the role of Conrad’s brother, Buck. And I remember him telling me how much he loved Mary Tyler Moore as Beth, the mother: “You barely have to breathe at her, and she knows exactly what you want.”

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People, Chicago, 1980. Photo courtesy the author

Judith Guest and Robert Redford on the set of Ordinary People, Chicago, 1980. Photo courtesy the author

I got to visit the set in Chicago twice, and I met all 80 people on the crew and found out what each one of them did on the movie. I also made a good friend, Jim Sikking, who played Calvin’s law partner in the film. He and his wife, Florine, are natives of California. We still exchange Christmas cards, and I see them whenever I am in LA. So for me, this experience was as good as it gets.

And the best part of it was the night of the Academy Awards. I should mention that they were postponed for a day, due to the fact that President Reagan was shot. Thus does life pre-empt art. On the following night my neighbors, Doug and his wife Linda, had a party. Doug set up three TVs and we all sat around them, making predictions while he taped the show. The movies Ordinary People was up against for best picture were Elephant Man, Tess, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Raging Bull. I loved them all and didn’t think OP had a prayer of winning. I can still see Redford sitting at one end of the row and Scorsese at the other—two guys who couldn’t appear more different from each other!

It was up for six Academy Awards and won four: best picture, best director, best screen adaptation, and best supporting actor. And every time it won an award, we’d all jump up and down and scream our heads off, and the phone would ring and it would be my dad calling from Detroit, saying, “D’you believe this??!!” After the party was over, and everyone had left, Doug turned to me: “Let’s watch it again!” We didn’t, though. At least, not that night…

Afterward I sent my mother a copy of the letter I had gotten from Redford, and she called to tell me she had copied and mailed it to several of her friends. “But, that’s all right, isn’t it?” she asked. “I mean, the letter belongs to you, right?”

“Well, no,” I said. “Legally a letter belongs to the person who writes it, not the person who receives it.”

My mom thought about this for a minute. “You mean if he found out, he could sue me?” And then her voice got all quivery and excited: “Oh, gosh, I hope he sues me!”

Ordinary People screens November 2 as part of Robert Redford: Independent/Visionary, a 25-film retrospective and dialogue. 

No posts