Love Story (1970)

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Director: Arthur Hiller

Producer: Howard G. Minsky (Paramount)

Writer: Erich Segal (screenplay)

Photography: Richard C. Kratina

Music: Francis Lai

Cast: Ryan O’Neal, Ali MacGraw, Ray Milland, John Marley, Tommy Lee Jones

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Is there a more famous tearjerker line than that which Ali MacGraw says to Ryan O’Neal in quivering voice, visible breath and tear-streaked cheeks in Love Story? The quote’s widespread popularity is impossible to argue, recently voted the AFI’s #13 Greatest Movie Quote of All Time, right behind “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.”

Perhaps the better question is how many of us still believe such a thing, that love is an excuse for unapologetic relationships, that the bond between two people removes all necessity to admit wrongdoing. It took just two years for us to call ourselves on the crap, taking a cue from Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up Doc? (1972) where Barbara Streisand repeats the line to O’Neal, only for him to look at her square in the eye and say, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” In this way, the quote is the epitome of Love Story itself: outdated, melodramatic, but quintessential in the evolution of the screen romance and our own cultural understanding of love.

The film covers was feels like familiar ground today, but that which was entirely fresh to audiences in 1970. The first image we see is law-school grad Oliver Barrett IV (O’Neal) sitting alone on a snowy hill and asking us, “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me.” From the opening line we know that disaster will befall Oliver and his young lover, Jennifer Cavalleri (MacGraw).

The rest of the movie plays out as one long flashback, a memorandum of their relationship, beginning with their chance meeting at a library, she as a sassy desk clerk, he as the young Harvard student trying to check out a book and feeling compelled to ask her out. As they get to know each other, we as viewers get to know them, learning that Jenny is a lower-middle class music major at Radcliffe, and that Oliver is an All-Ivy hockey jock living under the shadow of his great-grandfather, who has a Harvard building named after him, and his millionaire father (Ray Milland), a former Rhodes scholar and Olympic rower pushing his son toward law school.

A clash of the social classes is inevitable, as Oliver’s father deems Jenny a “charming” girl but not wealthy enough for his son. The two get married anyway, causing a falling out between Oliver and his dad, which costs Oliver his parental funds for law school. Jenny is determined to get Oliver and his father back on speaking terms, just as much as he’s determined to forget the old man. But all this changes when the Grim Reaper steps in, robbing Oliver of the only thing he loves in life — Jenny.

In a reversal of the usual approach, Erich Segal’s screenplay preceded his novel by the same name, a cheap romance that aspires no higher than the realm of guilty pleasure. While Segal’s script delivers one of history’s great movie lines, it’s Arthur Hiller’s direction that takes the film to the next level. His career has faded drastically since the 1970s, but for a brief while, he was as trusted a director as the studios could find. Believe it or not, he was originally offered to direct The Godfather (1972), but he declined because he didn’t feel right for the job. (A) He went on to direct some comedy classics with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak (1976) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). But his career effort was easily Love Story, applying his own soft sensibility to a movie predicated on sentimentality.

Hiller takes a genre ripe for transparent directors and does the opposite, making us feel his presence. Note the close-up on a coffee cup, as a hand pulls away the cup and the camera shifts focus through the coffee machine at Oliver and Jenny in the background. Note the camera tracking along at ice level during the hockey game, accomplished by attaching the camera to the end of two hockey sticks. Note the long shot of the hockey game and the slow zoom all the way across the ice to a close-up on Oliver’s dad sitting behind the glass, symbolizing the pressure Oliver feels from his father.

Note also the long take of Oliver and Jenny’s campus conversation, allowing for a certain realism in their relationship. Note how he presents an entire conversation in voiceover as the camera moves in on a dorm window. Note the POV shot looking out Oliver’s windshield as he approaches his parents’ mansion. Note the elaborate, long-take tracking shot through the mansion and the mise-en-scene of the two young lovers sitting together on the couch, surrounded by his parents across the room. Watch how he intercuts their ride home with flashbacks of the parental visit. Or how the camera circles them as they recite their wedding vows. Or the old Citizen Kane trick of transitioning scenes with applause. Or the reflection of the Paris sign overtop Oliver. And finally, the superimposition of their faces as she watches him skate one last time.

Still, the director’s biggest accomplishment is in his casting, where he did a lot of convincing, especially in the supporting roles. Hiller was able to convince screen icon Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) to appear for the first time in his career without his trusty hairpiece. He also talked John Marley (The Godfather) into playing Jenny’s semi-Catholic father, even though he felt he was too famous for the role, fresh off John Cassavettes’ Faces (1968). The result was an Oscar nomination for Marley. Perhaps Hiller’s most intuitive touch was finding a diamond in the rough in Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive), who makes his film debut playing one of Oliver’s frat buddies.

“I think just finished at Harvard and I got a call while I was in Boston … from Edgar Sherrick, who’s a producer here on the West Coast. He said, ‘Arthur, there’s this wonderful actor, this kid, he’s great! He said you gotta meet him.’ I said, ‘Fine, Edgar, I’ll meet him.’ … You could tell right away that this, this is an actor,” Hiller said of Tommy Lee Jones.

Still, Hiller’s biggest acting coup came in casting the two leads. From the very beginning, he wanted Ali MacGraw, the girl next door with that long, dark ’70s hair, who would later go on to marry producer Bob Evans. Casting Oliver was much trickier, as both Beau Bridges and Michael York turned down the part. Eventually, Hiller turned to Peyton Place-alum Ryan O’Neal, who knocked the role out of the park to become an instant household name.

What acting by two young leads, who both earned Oscar nominations for their roles. It’s easy to see why. Watching them, we believe they are madly in love. Their romantic play is golden, tackling each other in the snow, making snow angels, breaking snowmen during a kiss and turning the stereotype “Preppie” into an adorable pet name. Who can forget Oliver’s impromptu marriage proposal, then “crossing the threshold” as he carries up the stairs into their new home. Better yet, who can forget his frantic run through the streets, looking for her after they’ve had a fight. Most of all, who can shake the image of them lying together there in that hospital bed. It was a no-brainer for the AFI to rank it #9 on its list of 100 Passions, joining a Top 10 that includes Casablanca (1942), Gone With the Wind (1939) and The Way We Were (1973).

Still, even with such high rankings on the AFI’s 100 Passions and 100 Movie Quotes, Love Story fails to make most overall best lists. That’s because ever since the film’s release, people have been been utterly divided on the film. To this day, the film carries just a 57% among all Rotten Tomatoes critics and an 80% among the site’s “Top Critics.” Mainstream audiences echo this mixed reaction, rating it just a 6.9 on IMDB. It seems many viewers, critics and mainstream alike, are put off by the film’s obvious goal of manipulating viewers into tears.

The late Roger Ebert was one of the film’s biggest supporters, giving it 4 stars with the following argument: “There’s nothing contemptible about being moved to joy by a musical, to terror by a thriller, to excitement by a Western. Why shouldn’t we get a little misty during a story about young lovers separated by death?” I tend to agree with Ebert on this one, with this slight caveat by Vincent Canby of The New York Times: “The only really depressing thing about Love Story is the thought of all of the terrible imitations that will inevitably follow it.” (B)

Indeed, many pathetic imitations have followed. While Love Story was certainly not the first weepie — see Greta Garbo in Camille (1936) — it revived the tragic romance for a new generation and paved the way for the modern tearjerker, from Beaches (1982) to Terms of Endearment (1983), from Steel Magnolias (1989) to The Notebook (2004). The film’s popularity was monumental upon its release, raking in $106 million at the box office, the equivalent of $495.5 million today, as the top grossing movie of 1970. If you adjust for inflation, Love Story ranks #33 in all-time box office, ahead of Spider-Man (2002), Independence Day (1996) and Home Alone (1990).

It’s actually this popularity that launched the career of one Steven Spielberg, who got his first film short Amblin attached to Love Story, allowing it to screen before the feature attraction in theaters worldwide. When Love Story first aired on ABC television in 1972, it marked the shortest time span up to that point between a film’s theatrical release and its TV debut. (C) A sequel followed, Oliver’s Story (1978), pairing O’Neal with Candice Bergen. Decades later, it’s become pop culture shorthand, as Inside the Actor’s Studio host James Lipton asked Conan O’Brien why he chose Harvard for college, and Conan joked, “I’d seen Love Story and I thought I’d meet a girl and she’d die tragically.”

For all its pop culture impact, the film also earned a total of seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, while taking home the hardware for Francis Lai’s powerfully haunting score. Hiller admits the music made him cry the moment he first heard it, becoming a ’70s anthem for the sadness of lost love.

Love Story and its music are one in the same. Those who buy into the film will become swept up in it. Those who dislike the movie will get sick of hearing it. But all who see it are strongly affected by it. I truly believe that if you go for the music, you’ll buy the whole bit. And if that’s the case, I guess I’m one of the pathetic saps who finds Love Story oddly irresistible. Any film that can make us want to love our life partners a little stronger, hold them a little tighter, is a worthwhile movie in my book.

Citations:

CITE A: DVD Documentary: Love Story: A Classic Remembered
CITE B: Rotten Tomatoes.com
CITE C: IMDB Trivia

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