“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach and the Beatles? And me.” – Opening narration from Love Story
Ali MacGraw Disease: A movie illness in which the only symptom is the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches – Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary
Watching Love Story today is like opening a time capsule you didn’t know had been buried. The movie is at times shocking, not because it’s bad (it’s actually surprisingly good), but because it is a movie unaware of the time and place where it is set. Erich Segal’s screenplay and novel (he wrote the script before the book) are shrewd mixes of innocence and shameless manipulation. The movie is devoid of all the hot-button topics of 1970: political orientation, the Vietnam War, drugs, the burgeoning awareness of the environment, civil rights, equal rights for women, rock & roll. (When poor working-class Catholic girl Jenny tells wealthy WASP Oliver that she loves the Beatles, you get the feeling she’s more of a Rubber Soul fan than The White Album.) By removing anything that could be remotely perceived as “controversial,” the filmmakers ensure a direct connection between the audience and the film. The universal blandness of the story allows us to project our own memories and feelings onto the characters. Love Story is calculated with a vengeance to get an emotional reaction out of the viewer. And I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still work.
(The one concession to contemporary audiences at the time is the rather touching use of profanity. Words like “bullshit” and “bitch” are tossed into the middle of sentences almost at random. Similar to when sound was first introduced, filmmakers were finding their way when it came to the new freedom of modern language. It is said that President Nixon liked the movie except for all the cursing. You can’t please everyone.) As you watch the following scene, notice the language as well as the syntax in this scene:
The story of Love Story is so simple it’s almost primal. It chronicles the romance between fourth generation rich Harvard kid Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and poor Radcliffe girl Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw). There are no major obstacles preventing them from being together. Oliver isn’t tempted by some sexy hippie chick. Jenny doesn’t have an affair with some long-haired campus radical. When Oliver’s humorless father cuts him off from any financial assistance for marrying “that girl,” they take their destitution in stride. Then, after Oliver graduates Harvard Law School and becomes a successful New York lawyer, they attempt to start a family. When they can’t conceive it is discovered that Jenny is ill. Jenny’s death turns a storybook romance into a tragedy.
1970 saw American movies responding to the radically changing times. Just look at the list of movies released that year: Woodstock, Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Catch-22, Gimme Shelter, Tropic of Cancer, Zabriskie Point, The Revolutionary, Alex in Wonderland, R.P.M., Hi, Mom!, Brewster McCloud. Hell, even Patton, the winner for Best Picture, was embraced by the counterculture as it turned the ultimate hawk into a rebel. Like Airport, (the other runaway hit of that year), Love Story was like a shelter from the storm. It provided a release for audiences growing more and more uncertain of the world around them. And like Airport (which kicked off the trend of disaster movies), Love Story more or less became ground zero for what is derisively referred to in some circles as the “chick flick.” Everything from An Officer and a Gentleman to Ghost to Titanic to The Notebook can be traced back to Love Story.
(I am in no way suggesting that Love Story is on par with any of those movies. It’s more on the level of The Notebook than Ghost or Titanic.)
So why was Love Story such a hit? That’s the mystery, isn’t it? The strength in Arthur Hiller’s direction is his knowing not to get in the way of the actors. He knows he’s working with very delicate material, and that if you push it you are likely to get bad laughs. (For some viewers the bad laughs were always there.) Hiller is one of those reliable journeyman directors who knows how to get you what you want. He knows how to bring movies on time and on budget. In other words, he has no real distinctive style. That’s crucial for a movie like Love Story. Both Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw are onscreen almost constantly. We must believe they are drawn to each other from frame one. We do. The dialogue and plot developments are secondary to how they look and relate to one another as both actors and their characters. Hiller does do a smart thing that is key to the movie’s success; whenever possible, he places O’Neal and MacGraw in real locations. Scenes of Oliver and Jenny walking and courting are given real immediacy when we can see activity swirling around them. Hiller indulges in what Roger Ebert at the time termed the Semi-Obligatory Lyrical Interlude. That’s when the movie stops and shows two characters walking together as a song plays on the soundtrack. By 1970 this had gone from novelty to standard to cliché. There are at least three such sequences in Love Story (the best being the one where Oliver and Jenny are goofing around in the snow). The musical score by Francis Lai is purposely ladled over the movie. Its swooning piano theme is appropriately romantic and mournful. (Since Jenny is studying classical music the score has a reason for being so formal. You do wonder though, if she’s a Beatles fan, does that mean Oliver is a Stones fan?) Watch Oliver and Jenny goof around in the snow:
(Note: By the time its sequel, Oliver's Story, was released in 1978, Watergate, the fall of Saigon, Star Wars, disco, and punk had occured. Audiences no longer cared if Oliver was still in mourning. They had their own problems.]
The performances by MacGraw and O’Neal are a case study of different energy levels matching up beautifully. At the time MacGraw had major heat coming off of Goodbye, Columbus. Her dark-haired attractiveness was in at the time. I admit she doesn’t do much for me. Compared to other actresses at the time like Faye Dunaway, Ann-Margret or Jane Fonda, there isn’t much mystery when it comes to MacGraw. What you see is what you get. She lacks the vulnerability, strength, and potential madness that marks all great actresses. And the staccato chirpiness of her line readings can be at times quite grating. Then, she’ll make subtle adjustments in her performance that makes it difficult to dismiss her. Her scenes with John Marley as her very understanding father show that Jenny doesn’t act the same way with everyone. (Marley, who is probably best known for playing the ruthless Hollywood producer Jack Waltz in The Godfather, is quite winning, especially in his final scene with O’Neal. I admit I kept expecting Marley to turn to O’Neal at any moment and say, “Well, let me tell you something, my Kraut-Mick friend.”) The way MacGraw says the word “preppy” has just the slightest hint of playfulness that you wonder if Oliver ever realizes that she’s mocking him. For me, MacGraw’s best moment is toward the end when she and Oliver are sitting together after he’s ice-skated for her. She asks if they have money to get a cab. He says, “Sure, where do you want to go?” Jenny’s two-word response is the most heartbreaking moment in the movie.
The success of MacGraw’s performance is due in no small part to O’Neal’s forceful acting style. Like Redford, O’Neal was also burdened with being extraordinarily good-looking. Both men spent a good part of their careers having to overcome their beautiful exteriors in order to be taken seriously as actors. Redford used his looks to deconstruct the myth of the entitled WASP male. O’Neal used his looks as a way to disarm those around him. It allowed him to play con men, cads, jerks. He both embraced and resented the fact that being good-looking enabled him to get almost anything he wanted. (It was genius on Kubrick’s part to cast him in Barry Lyndon.) There is a constant seething anger in O’Neal’s acting that charges even the most routine scenes with the possibility of violence. There’s a startling moment when he gets mad at Jenny and tells her to stay out of his life. For a moment you’re genuinely scared for her safety. (It is this scene that leads to the moment where Jenny utters the immortal line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”) O’Neal’s scenes with Ray Milland as his stern father are filled with tension as both father and son are constantly unable to make any kind of connection. (I’m sure at the time the Milland character was hissed at by young viewers rebelling against their out-of-touch parents. Seen today, Milland is very good at suggesting a man who comes from a generation not accustomed to expressing emotions. His final scene with O’Neal is a little jewel of understated acting.) The final scene between O’Neal and MacGraw is deservedly famous. Both actors display such genuine love and affection toward one another that we not only feel Oliver’s loss, but Jenny’s too.
What can you say about 42 year old movie that became apart of the zeitgeist? That it is synthetic, shameless and corny even by the standards of the time it was made. That if actors believe in their
characters you’re capable of believing anything. And that it still works.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.