Released in 1970, Love Story was nominated for seven Oscars; won an Oscar; spawned a sequel; and, according to the behind-the-scenes featurette on the Blu-ray release, helped bring Paramount back from the brink due to its huge box office success. This reviewer, watching it today, has trouble believing how any of that is possible.
Has cinema changed that much over the course of 40 years where at one time a movie filled with unlikable characters, horribly looped dialogue, and uncomfortably shaky zooms could have been seen as a triumph and today is seen as horribly overwrought melodrama without a redeeming factor? Or, would I have disliked this film as much upon its original release as I do today?
Starting at the beginning, directed by Arthur Hiller with a screenplay from Erich Segal (he later turned it into a novel), Love Story tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers, Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw) and Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neal). We know that they're star-crossed because the film starts with a voiceover telling us that Jennifer dies at the age of 25. The fact that the two meet in college (Harvard and Radcliffe) and not as freshman means that at best they have six or seven years together before we come to the film's conclusion. And, I will say that even though the film's running time is 100 minutes, it feels like the full six or seven years.
The problem is that neither character is at all likable. First, there's Oliver, the rich kid with family problems. You see, Oliver tells us over and over again that his father, Oliver Barrett III (Ray Milland) is a terrible guy who orders IV around. III is, Oliver says, only interested in himself and the way his son reflects upon him. Now, if we saw III act that way in the movie IV's claims could be taken seriously, but we really don't. We unquestionably see III bristle, but only when repeatedly pushed by IV, other than that, III seems like a truly concerned father trying to do his best to have a relationship with his son. Unfortunately, outside of his relationship with Jenny, IV's character is entirely defined by his acting horrifically to his parents for no particular reason, and as he takes out his parental hatred on Jenny, Oliver Barrett IV, the center of this film, is someone we actively dislike. That's not a particularly good thing when the movie only works if you feel a kinship with him.