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.
On the other side of things is Jenny, a poor, Catholic, Rhode Island girl who has taken on, what we are told repeatedly, is the typical haughty intellectual snobbery of a Radcliffe girl. For the first portion of the film she does nothing but lob verbal grenades at Oliver with great seriousness, and for the rest of the film she tends to lob them with amusement, purposefully recalling her earlier terrible attitude.
Do not be fooled, the film’s issues go past unlikable characters as well – it appears as though many (if not all) of the outdoor scenes feature dialogue that was recorded at a later time, sometimes more than one later time as the vocal pitch and room tone don’t match. At some points Hiller attempts to try to have his actors speak so that he can try to match lips with words—it regularly fails to work—and at other points, while words may be spoken on the audio track, no ones lips are moving on screen.
A portion of the film features Oliver renouncing his family fortune and Jenny and Oliver struggling. Here too, however, the film fails to create a believable picture. This young couple is struggling financially, with Jenny working all the time to pay for Oliver to go to law school, and apparently so that he can fix his boat too. Again, maybe things have changed over the course of 40 years, but I have to assume that even then boats cost money (repairs too), and that was the couple truly strapped for cash they could have sold thing. It feels more likely however, Oliver being as unlikable as he is, that he simply refuses to give up the boat even though he and Jenny are forced to lunch on peanut butter and white bread.
The film’s most famous line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” is, perhaps unsurprisingly, is perfectly emblematic of just how ridiculous and narrow-minded is the film and its main characters. At minimum, the phrase is missing its back half which would read along the lines of “but recognizing when you should and wanting to.” At worst, the line is completely representative of the two hate-worthy characters at the film’s center, two character who don’t realize that love and marriage requires effort and work and enough insight and understanding to realize when you were in the wrong and what you need to do to fix things with the person you love.
Certainly some things have changed over the course of the last 40 years—like the notion that Jenny should absolutely have given up any and all of her personal and professional aspirations and that the husband gets told first by the doctor when the wife is dying—but are the rest of the film’s problems things that have only cropped up more recently? Having seen a vast quantity of films of Love Story‘s age and far older, I have trouble believing that they are, but that certainly puts me at a loss to explain the film’s great success.
One thing that is inarguable, is the fact that this release doesn’t look great. Outside of being exceptionally grainy, the picture contains a number of blemishes and other on-screen imperfections, and lacks the detail one would want. Some of the film does have softer focus shots, but one gets the sense watching that not every shot with a lack of detail is meant to be that way. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn’t the most lively, but does occasionally come to life, particularly during hockey scenes (even if the crowd is yelling something rather unintelligible), but mainly the film is unlikable people talking in unlikable fashion and is adequate in that regard. Perhaps the digital nature of the release makes the poorly looped dialogue that much more perceptible.
In terms of bonus features, Love Story comes with an audio commentary and an older look back at the work which runs under 15 minutes in length. It is actually a far more engaging feature than the main one, even if it does set up the audience for an enjoyable experience which doesn’t exist in said main feature. A theatrical trailer also exists.
I have no trouble believing that I will be in the minority when I say that I found Love Story to be trite, disappointing, and remarkable only in it making one wonder why it has been so admired through the years. I love a good romance and a good tragedy, but I don’t see Love Story as either.