by Sam Juliano
What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me. Once, when she specifically lumped me with those musical types, I asked her what the order was, and she replied, smiling, “Alphabetical.” At the time I smiled too.
Thus begins the novella that took the country by storm in 1970, leaving some macho men blubbering and enhancing the stock of tissue companies everywhere. The year’s #1 bestseller with five-and-a-half million copies sold was a debut work written by a Yale graduate named Erich Segal. People read it in the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices, on the buses and subways, and even in some schools. In short order it became a pop-culture phenomenon. I first encountered it at age 16, choosing it from a reading list in my sophomore English class. My teacher, Patrick J. Shelley, who is now retired and living in Connecticut, was one of the coolest educators I’ve ever had the fortune of connecting with. Our semester grade was determined by how many pages we read from an extensive reading list that included some choices that most teachers wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. The list included stuff like Portnoy’s Complaint, Mickey Spillane, the Mack Bolan “Executioner” series, and even The Godfather, which published in 1969. One of the hot topics that school year was the infamous “Page 28” which graphically described Sonny Corleone’s tryst.
In order to get full credit for the books you read you had to pass an “interview” with Shelley at his desk. To this day I remember some of the questions he threw out at me to confirm I had read Love Story. One was to identify the actual focus of Oliver’s attention when he watched Jennifer Cavilleri study (her legs), another, what Oliver called his father (sonavabitch) and still what Jennifer said to Oliver after he refused to pick up the phone to speak to his father (“You are a heartless bastard.”) At the time we were excited to read curse words in books we read for class, but years later it is easy enough to see that the populist Segal was hopelessly coy, and that Love Story as a novel is rather shameless.
Roger Ebert, a non-fan opined: “Segal’s prose style is sort of a cross between a parody of Hemingway and the instructions on a soup can, and his story is fatally infected.” The book critic for Newsweek was even more scathing: “The banality of ‘Love Story’ makes ‘Peyton Place’ look like ‘Swann’s Way’ as it skips from cliche to cliche with an abandon that would chill even the blood of a True Romance editor.” In early 1971 after Love Story was submitted for consideration for a National Book Award, the fiction jury threatened to resign in a body unless the novel was removed from contention. It was. One of the corniest aphorisms ever to appear in pint was the book’s most famed coda: Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry. It inspired decades of permutations and parodies.
How completely unexpected it was then when the film version of a generally transparent potboiler tuned out to better its source by quite some distance. Mind you, Arthur Hiller’s Love Story, which back in the day garnered seven Academy Award nominations that included nods in the four major categories and mostly favorable reviews does not survive as any kind of romantic masterpiece, but 44 years after if first appeared it can still pull you in, suck out some tears and make you wax lyrical about some of the components that hold up admirably. Though he trashed the novel, Roger Ebert was an adoring fan of the film, awarding it 4 stars of 4 in a glowing appraisal.
The narrative is a conventional doomed love story. A feisty and very rich Harvard graduate (Oliver Barrett) and ice hockey player en route to law school meets Jennifer Cavalleri, a witty and vivacious music student attending Radcliffe. Her various rejoinders to seemingly innocuous comments from her boy friend turn conversations into endurance tests, though budding affection trumps all. Jenny is up front about her social standing – she even to startling effect proclaims to Oliver’s parents in a later dinner at their mansion that her father is employed at “Phil’s Bake Shop.” Oliver and Jenny fall madly in love, but their union is off-putting to the parent’s of the male lover who find she is beneath their son. As Oliver already has maintained a dysfunctional relationship with his father -both father and son are stubborn, and each has their own idea of how the son should proceed in life – the relationship with Jenny exacerbates the situation, and eventually precipitates complete estrangement. In an ironic role reversal Jenny’s salary as a school teacher supports Oliver as he attends law school. Upon completion he lands a position with a prestigious New York law firm, and they comfortably ponder their marital bliss with plans to add to their family. After repeated attempts to impregnate turn up negative, Jenny visits a doctor. Tragic news is then imparted to Oliver, who is left dazed by the news that her wife’s problems are well beyond infertility – she is in fact dying of a seemingly rare disease. The implication is that it is some kind of late-stage cancer, though it is never revealed. As she has little time to live, the last weeks of the girl’s life are spent strengthening their bonds -one tryst at a skating rink really fans the emotions- though from that point the film is mired in the deepest kind of gloom. Oliver achieves rapprochement with his father, when he pays him a surprise visit to ask for money he needs for Jenny’s medical bills, though never letting on to the reason for the request. The father arrives at the hospital just as Oliver is tearfully leaving with the news of Jenny’s death, and offers his condolences, upon which Oliver haltingly responds, hand raised, with: “Love. Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The very essence of this is shameless, yet there is no denying that it works within the context of a terrible and tragic situation that will only leave the most cynical persons unmoved.
While critics and some audiences have always been quick to point to the hokey underpinnings of this fleeting and calculated drama -perhaps more so today then when it was released and benefited from a national craze for the original source material, a closer look at Love Story reveals some difficult-to-refute attributes. One lies at the center of why such a film would still make any serious listing of the cinema’s greatest romances, even among a group that is naturally predisposed against including works purely in a popular vein. The earlier comforts of love, when Oliver and Jenny are entwined on a sofa while each read a book mirrors the early stages of a relationship, and there is an undying loyalty that puts every other aspect of life on the permanent back burner whether other family members, scholastic or vocational loyalties or domestic priorities are concerned. This is love is its purest, most unadulterated terms. For all its preconceived trappings there is an underlying sincerity that has always made the film difficult to resist or to connect with. The emerging love scenes transform into the union of permanency, making the wedding promise of ‘Death do us part’ one set in stone. Like Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet this is a love story for the young, and the psychology throughout embraces the youthful bliss without pre-condition, and doing the “right” thing is secondary to the affairs of the heart. These concerns are visualized far better than they are couched in Segal’s prose. And director Arthur Hiller, a competent journeyman, uses Boston locations most effectively, especially in the bittersweet winter scenes. There’s a montage-style immediacy to the scenes of frolicking in the snow, and Hiller throughout makes his lovers human beings, moving beyond the more symbolic connotation in the novel. Hiller’s cameraman, Dick Kratina helps to create rich and colorful visual textures that are aesthetically appealing, but more important help to heighten the sense of sensory pleasure that one associates with both budding romance and the bleary nonacceptance of impending doom. Some of the latter scenes depicting Oliver as a wandering specter in a world that is crumbling around him really hit the mark.
The most indispensable technical component in the film is the lush largely piano-laden score by Francis Lai, which was a popular stand-alone from the moment the film released. The pensive main theme, suffused with the sound of unattainable longing and impending grief seems to fit the emotional fabric of the film, and is understandably reprized at the right moments. A particularly wistful female solo accompanies the love-making in the snow that helps to define the mood and romantic progression of the sequence. Two other pieces remain unforgettable for anyone who has seen the film: the sublime “Christmas Trees” and the Nutcrackerish “Skating in Central Park” with its bittersweet melodic line and an achingly beautiful musical motif that suggests a triumph of life over death and the resilience of memories. The is a clock-ticking foreboding in the later piano chords that re-interpret the main theme, and the score in general is always attentive to the on-screen drama, which is one sign of exceptional screen music. Without Lai’s contribution Love Story would be a different film – not necessarily diminished, but without this very distinct aural accompaniment.
Few could or would argue that the most important constituent in Love Story is its cast and they are called on to overcome some dangerous dramatic territory. Much like the Oscar winning Terms of Endearment, which also ends with the death of a popular character, the performers in it seem determined to cut through the inherent cloying nature of the material to bring humanity formed by the full gamut of emotions, concurrent with personal interactions. Ryan O’Neal gives the most famous performance of his career as Oliver Barrett IV, if not the most accomplished (many would counter he did greater things in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) but for right or wrong the actor is wed to this role, and his Oscar-nominated work in it is impressive. He plays ‘smitten’ to the hilt, develops into the loyal and dutiful husband and is shattered to his core by a development he could not have foreseen in a million years. He is properly macho, displays a roller-coaster of emotions, has an appealing and commanding voice and he broke many hearts back in 1970 with available women. Whether standing up to his father or getting intimate with Jenny he was a real natural in this role, winning the sympathies of grief stricken audiences and 1970 critics.
Ali MacGraw is known to many as the former partner of Steve McQueen and the star of Goodbye, Columbus and The Getaway, but few in Movieland few could ever think of her as anyone but the lower-class Italian-American who won a scholarship to an Ivy League School, and rhetorically (and otherwise) held the reigns on a rich, but independent Harvard guy. MacGraw shares the spotlight with John Marley (who plays her father) for helping to negotiate the film’s funniest moments, and her irascible style keeps her lover on his feet. Only once -when Oliver refused her impassioned request to speak to his father on the phone- was she faced with being turned down, and her reaction is heart-felt. MacGraw, who is a gifted piano student, had many men dreaming in theaters back in the day, and she helped to consummate what many saw as the dream couple. A few in the minority found her work theatrical and grandiose, but there is always a fresh spontaneity in her delivery that especially shines through, even on re-viewing. Like her co-star, MacGraw was nominated for a lead acting Oscar. Both lost out to George C. Scott and Glenda Jackson, respectively.
Two years before journeyman actor John Marley landed his unforgettable, albeit brief role as the defiant film producer Jack Woltz, who woke up to a severed head in his bed in The Godfather, the gravelly-voiced actor played Phil Cavelleri and won an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor as the lovable, uneducated proprietor of a small doughnut shop. Marley plays a widower, whose entire life centers around his affectionate daughter, and when tragedy strikes he is left mentally shattered and practically unable to communicate. The scene where he is informed that Jenny and Oliver won’t marry in a church is a hoot, as Marley grabs onto anything he can to maintain some semblance of tradition. The other family patriarch, Oliver Barrett III, is played by celebrated actor Ray Milland, who also delivers an exceptional turn as a domineering and wealthy magnate, who has his son’s life all mapped out for him. Milland’s icy demeanor masks a more benign interior (seen movingly in the final scene when he comes upon O’ Neal outside the hospital) that is compromised only because he’s as pig-headed as his son. Milland’s mannered introvert was good enough for an Oscar nod as well, but voters settled on just naming Marley.
Erich Segal’s screenplay from his novella is spare and more conducive to cinematic application than to literary – a perception that is strengthened by his original desire to write a movie screenplay rather than a book. In the end the actors, craftsman and a reliable director bring his conceit to maximum clarity and conviction in a film that captivated baby boomers from the flower power era. The best news is that decades later it holds some relevance.
Note: Though LOVE STORY placed Number 97 in our polling, it ended up way higher on the American Film Institute (AFI) list where it finished in the Top 10, at#9.