By Alan Hurst
When Love Story was released in late 1970 it caused a sensation. It quickly became one of the biggest box office hits of all time, it made major stars of both Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, and it’s gorgeous, overtly emotional score hit the top of charts. Even the film’s most famous line – “Love means never having to say your sorry” – became an instant cliché and would serve as punchline in O’Neal’s What’s Up Doc? (1972), delivered coquettishly by Barbra Streisand.
But was it any good? Reviews at the time were mixed to positive and it featured prominently in that year’s Oscar race with seven nominations including Best Picture, as well as nods for both O’Neal and MacGraw. Now, almost 50 years later, it does feel dated – not only the basic tear-jerking plot, but also in its depiction of the social gaps between generations and financial status between families. But I’ll be damned if it still doesn’t move you to tears by the time the inevitable tragedy plays out and director Arthur Hiller has his camera pull back from a grieving Ryan O’Neal sitting on a bench alone in the snow, as Francis Lai’s lush score takes over the soundtrack.
The genesis of Love Story from a script by writer Erich Segal to the final film didn’t happen the normal way. Segal had written his original screenplay and sold it to Paramount. When the film went into production, he was asked to adapt the screenplay into a novel to help with publicity for the film. When the novel was released it became an instant – though critically derided – best seller. It was the biggest selling non-fiction book of the year and stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 41 weeks.
The story is very simple and straight forward. O’Neal plays Oliver Barret IV, the son of a wealthy east coast family and he is attending Harvard and studying to be a lawyer. Oliver seems to resent both his background and his father (Ray Milland), with barely concealed contempt registering on Oliver’s face in all of their scenes together. MacGraw plays Jenny Cavilleri who is studying classical music at Radcliffe. She’s the daughter of an Italian baker and enjoys a much warmer relationship with her dad (John Marley). Oliver and Jenny meet, spar, fall in love and ultimately marry, much to the annoyance of Oliver’s parents who then cut him off financially. She takes a job as a teacher to help him get through law school, he graduates and gets a job a New York law firm and they try to start a family. Cue the emotional music when they discover Jenny cannot get pregnant because she’s is terminally ill. We’re never really sure with what, but whatever it is we definitely don’t see the ravages of illness on Ali MacGraw’s photogenic face.
The simplicity of Love Story may be the film’s ace in the hole. There is nothing to distract us from enjoying the burgeoning relationship between the two leads and then suffering with them as things start to unravel. The only real sub-plot here is around the family dynamics between the young couple and their parents and those couldn’t be more stereotypical if they had tried.
Director Arthur Hiller wisely keeps things moving at a decent pace, there’s a nice mix of drama and comedy (mostly from MacGraw’s verbal teasing of Olivier), but everything is surprisingly subdued. Oh, the manipulation of the audience rears its head towards the end, but until then we’re treated to a story about the lives of a relatively normal young couple who happen to be passionately in love.
I think one of the reasons the story resonated at the time of its release is because O’Neal and MacGraw were so young and so attractive that audiences just didn’t feel something like a terminal illness would ever touch them. We know from the very first scene that Jenny is going to die, but somehow you just don’t want to believe it. Ironically, I’ve always found it interesting that the film has the emotional impact it does because O’Neal and MacGraw are two of the least expressive actors of the seventies.
To me O’Neal always seemed slightly wooden in any of his serious roles, and that’s also true here. O’Neal isn’t able to give Oliver a lot of depth or nuance. In the scenes with his father he comes off as petulant, and with Jenny he’s simply a WASP in love. Where O’Neal did excel was as a comic actor – he’s excellent in both What’s Up Doc? and Paper Moon (1973), two of the best comedies of the decade. Comedy seemed to both energize his focus and allow him to physically relax.
MacGraw is an interesting case. She was not a good actress but just try to take your eyes off her in Love Story. She may be awkward, and she may not exude confidence, but she has a commanding screen presence. She comes across as slightly spoiled, icy, even entitled – probably not the traits the author intended for the more down to earth Jenny – but it doesn’t matter. MacGraw’s appearance and tone communicated a relevancy that other actresses at the time didn’t have – she felt very current, very now. By the time the credits rolled at the end of the film, everyone wanted to look like Ali MacGraw, be Ali MacGraw. Her impact was that huge. In the comedy Goodbye, Columbus (1969) the year before she seemed much more relaxed as the princess-like focus of Richard Benjamin’s attention. Probably her best film work was in Sidney Lumet’s darkly comic Just Tell Me What You Want (1980) where she delivers a raucous and witty performance as the mistress of blustery Alan King. She’s barely watchable in some of her other seventies’ releases including The Getaway (1972), Convoy (1978) and Players (1979) but, like O’Neal, MacGraw seemed to relax a bit when she was allowed to play more broadly.
Ultimately what Love Story does is allow you to wallow in a still emotionally impactful time capsule. Bring on the tissue.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.