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Chicago and the Oscars: a Long, Loveless Marriage

The only Best Picture winner fully filmed here, Ordinary People, is barely remembered by Chicagoans, but came out the same year as two cult favorites.

Caddyshack, which came out the same year as Best Picture winner Ordinary People   Photo: Getty

Here in Chicago, we like to think we have a rich cinematic heritage, especially over the last 40 years. WGN’s recent Ultimate Chicago Movie Cage Match pitted against each other such classics as The Untouchables, About Last Night…, Risky Business, and Cooley High.

And yet, Chicago movies have not been well recognized by the Academy. In nearly a century of Oscars, only one movie filmed here has ever won Best Picture — and it’s not beloved by Chicagoans, or even much remembered today.

The movie was Ordinary People, a suburban family drama filmed in Lake Forest and Highland Park during the fall and winter of 1979 and ‘80. It was Robert Redford’s directorial debut, and starred Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore as the parents of a son, played by Timothy Hutton, who attempts suicide after losing his brother in a boating accident.

Local viewers, or at least north suburban viewers, will recognize Walker Brothers Pancake House in Wilmette, Lake Forest High School, the Chicago Riverwalk, and Water Tower Place. North Shore residents still remember seeing Redford around town.

Ordinary People is worth watching for its acting, especially the scenes between Hutton and his psychiatrist, played by Judd Hirsch. (Both were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and Hutton, in his first role, won.) As an emotionally distant suburban housewife, Mary Tyler Moore, a Best Actress nominee, displayed a dramatic depth most wouldn’t have expected from a sitcom star.

And yet, the movie is slow paced and dated, and often feels like an Afterschool Special about teenage suicide. Were Ordinary People made today, it would probably appear on a prestige cable network rather than in theaters.

Despite the locales, it’s not much of a Chicago movie, either. It could have taken place in any upper-class suburb, anywhere in America. (Listen to Donald Sutherland say “aboot” in his Canadian accent, and tell me he’s a Chicago tax attorney.) In the WGN Cage Match, the movie lost to About Last Night… in round two.

In a further blow to its Chicagoness, Ordinary People was released the same year as two other movies that occupy a much larger place in our hearts: The Blues Brothers, which won the WGN Cage Match, and Caddyshack, based on Brian Doyle-Murray’s experience as a caddy at Winnetka’s Indian Hill Club. Neither was nominated for an Oscar, but “I hate Illinois Nazis” and “Cinderella story” are part of every local film fan’s vernacular. When was the last time you heard anyone quote a line from Ordinary People?

(Ordinary People and Redford also beat out Raging Bull and Martin Scorsese for Best Picture and Best Director, but that’s a whole other debate.)

Still, Ordinary People has more cred than other Oscar winners that have tried to pass themselves off as Chicago movies.

Most infamous is Chicago, which, despite having our name, and despite having been co-created by native son Bob Fosse, was filmed in… Toronto. American Beauty allegedly took place in an unnamed suburb of Chicago, but it was filmed in California. The Sting, set in Joliet, did us slightly more honor. A few scenes were filmed in Union Station and LaSalle Street Station.

Chicago might have run up a better cinematic record if not for the obduracy of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who made it difficult to film in the city because of his displeasure over Medium Cool’s portrayal of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Mayor Jane Byrne invited filmmakers back, even allowing The Blues Brothers to drive through the plate glass windows of the Richard J. Daley Center, as long as they cleaned up after themselves.

We have, however, sent to Hollywood a number of Oscar-winning actors, including Marlon Brando, from Libertyville, Charlton Heston, from Wilmette, and Jennifer Hudson, from Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Among Best Directors, Norman Taurog, Bob Fosse, John Avildsen and Robert Zemeckis were born around here, while Mike Nichols got his start in show business with the Compass Players.

This year, no movies filmed or set in Chicago were nominated for Best Picture, and no Chicagoans were nominated in the acting or directing categories. We can only lay partial claim to Greta Gerwig (Best Adapted Screenplay, Little Women), who made some mumblecore movies with Joe Swanberg on the North Side at the beginning of her career.

As Ordinary People demonstrates, though, what makes a great Oscar movie is not what makes a great Chicago movie.

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