When I was a boy, the film that dominated my earliest memories of pop culture was 1970’s Love Story. From the music to the saying, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” to Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal being everywhere, it was the biggest movie of its day; sort of what Titanic was to folks a decade ago. And, yes, like Titanic, it’s a schlocky film. It has a few saving graces which place it above the doomed ocean liner picture, though.
One, there’s no Leonardo DiCaprio in the film. Yes, Ali MacGraw was a terribly wooden actress. Her wooden performance here is mind-numbing. But, it’s still not as earnestly bad as DiCaprio’s. Second, despite the title being meant to refer to the film’s two leads, Oliver and Jenny, played by O’Neal and MacGraw, the far more interesting love story is that played out between father and son. O’Neal plays Oliver Barrett IV, while Ray Milland plays his father, Oliver Barrett III. And, it is this relationship, between WASP scion and patriarch, that is so good that it carries the otherwise predictable soap opera of a film over the threshold to passability as a film. Is it a great film? No way, but Ray Milland does give a great performance as the emotionally impotent father.
The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, a serviceable Hollywood journeyman, and adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name, by Erich Segal. I used to get Segal and the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach, mixed up all the time, because of the Segal/Seagull and Erich/Bach ‘ch’ connections. Also, both films come from the dippy-doo era of American literature. Anyone who is in their mid-forties or older will know the tale, but for the young’uns, a brief recap.
Young Oliver meets Jenny Cavellari on campus at Harvard. She goes to Radcliffe. They have a series of very fast-paced scenes that are ill-wrought dialogue-wise. Nonetheless, much happens in the first twenty to thirty minutes, and, in this way, Love Story was a precursor to the MTV-like editing style that has gripped film for the last twenty or so years. But, technically, the film is quite good. Its use of montage, superimposition, scoring (although, at two or three times the theme song intrudes too loudly), editing, and giving snippets of a scene and letting the viewer fill in the rest, works, and credit should go to Hiller for giving his cinematographer, Dick Kratina, room to experiment. In modern films, this utilitarian concision does not happen. A film is cut quickly, but the viewer has no way of filling in the action, so you get a sort of narrative strobing, whereas in this film, the cuts work because the setups so strongly reinforce what will happen, which is confirmed no less than a scene or two later.
Naturally, Jenny’s widowed father, Phil (John Marley), is much more open to their love and marriage, whereas old Oliver disowns young Oliver, who cannot forgive his father. Trials and tribulations abound. The pair take shitty jobs, but still love each other until Oliver is told Jenny is dying, by her doctor, after a checkup to see if they could conceive. Naturally, forty years ago, a husband might be told such, while the wife kept in the dark. The film never specifies, but it’s likely that Jenny gets leukemia. Oliver’s career as a lawyer progresses, and he borrows five thousand dollars for her treatment from his father, all the while letting the old man believe he knocked up another woman. The father’s look of frustration, contempt, and disgust, for both himself and his son, after young Oliver leaves, is priceless.
Milland was a hell of an actor. By contrast, little is made of the character of Mrs. Barrett (Katharine Balfour), Milland’s wife. Jenny then dies, and, as young Oliver leaves the hospital (in New York, where they moved to) his father shows up, and says he’ll do all to help. But, it’s too late, the melodramatic death (given away from the very first scene that then flashes back- a narrative error) is over. The son tells the father what Jenny earlier told him: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This time, unlike the melodramatic moment MacGraw speaks it, the saying has a bit more heft, and one senses, that as young Oliver leaves his father behind, to sit near an ice rink alone in Central Park, to contemplate his wife, he and his father will reconcile. Hiller echoes this sentiment in his audio commentary.
The DVD, put out by Paramount, has minimal features: the original theatrical trailer, a fifteen minute making of featurette with director Arthur Hiller, and also an audio commentary by Hiller. The 100 minute long film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The commentary is solid, but one gets the definite feeling that Hiller is far more attached to the film emotionally than he can defend it critically. In 1971, the film got seven Oscar nods, but won only for Best Original Music Score. And Francis Lai’s score is memorable, just inaptly and heavy-handedly applied, at times. Far more amazing is that there were three nominations for acting: the leads, O’Neal and MacGraw, and for best supporting actor for….John Marley. Yes, while Marley is solid, his role is nothing compared to that of Milland’s, who was superb. The film also won numerous other awards, and, thankfully, got mixed reviews. Roger Ebert loved the film, stating:
But the Segal characters, on paper, were so devoid of any personality that they might actually have been transparent. Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, who play the lovers on film, bring them to life in a way the novel didn’t even attempt. They do it simply by being there, and having personalities.
The story by now is so well-known that there’s no point in summarizing it for you. I would like to consider, however, the implications of Love Story as a three-, four-or five-handkerchief movie, a movie that wants viewers to cry at the end. Is this an unworthy purpose? Does the movie become unworthy, as Newsweek thought it did, simply because it has been mechanically contrived to tell us a beautiful, tragic tale? I don’t think so….Hiller earns our emotional response because of the way he’s directed the movie. The Segal book was so patently contrived to force those tears, and moved toward that object with such humorless determination, that it must have actually disgusted a lot of readers. The movie is mostly about life, however, and not death. And because Hiller makes the lovers into individuals, of course we’re moved by the film’s conclusion. Why not?
It would have been nice if Ebert had differentiated between successful mechanical contrivance and patent contrivance; but that’s just me. Other critics, like Judith Crist, dismissed the film. I lie in the middle, but closer to Crist. It’s not a good movie, but it is technically well made; so marginally worth experiencing.
While I am a bit more negative on it than Vincent Canby, he had perhaps the best take on the film, when he wrote:
That it looks to be clean and pure and without artifice, even though it is possibly as sophisticated as any commercial American movie ever made. That my admiration for the mechanics of it slops over into a real admiration for the movie itself….I can’t remember any movie of such comparable high-style, kitsch since Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) and his 1957 remake, An Affair To Remember. The only really depressing thing about Love Story is the thought of all of the terrible imitations that will inevitably follow it.
Other than that, the only other thing of note about the film and DVD is that it marked the film debut of Tommy Lee Jones (billed as Tom Lee Jones), in a minor role. All of the rest of the trivia and gossip surrounding the book, the film, and how it got to the screen, is readily available elsewhere. In short, if you’ve seen the trailer of the film, you get the whole film, in 1/30th the time length. But, I do have to admit that I liked seeing the shots of 1970s era New York City, from the old style taxi cabs to the use of real (not Hollywood) snow to the puke green city buses. It reminded me of home- dated, but home. A final point, though. For a tearjerker, I was left dry. Love Story is schlock, pure and simple, but well made schlock. Cum-see, cum-sa.