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.