(SPOILERS) There are some movies you studiously avoid but sense that, in the fulness of time, you owe it to yourself to see, just to confirm the uninformed opinion you already have on them. Mamma Mia’s one, and someday, perhaps when the world has awoken anew as a transhumanist paradise, I expect I shall brave those infernal waters. Love Story’s another, a movie that has become the very cliché of the woefully clichéd chick flick. It’s everything I expected and less, but it has the undeniable redeeming quality of being mercifully short.
That may be because there’s miniscule plot to speak off. Unfortunately then, while Love Story isn’t a long movie – it’s suggested that its brevity boosted its success, since cinemas could get in more screenings per day – it does rather go on and on by dint of not having a lot going on. That, and a severe shortfall in charisma on the side of its stars. The movie’s tear-sodden success surfed the perfect package of insipid drippiness, a simple but earworming tune (and title) and a couple of young pretty people. Pretty vacant ones. Oh, and tragedy. As Pauline Kael put, it a “‘contemporary’ R. & J. story”. Only, without any other discernible characters, Ryan’s dad aside, and thus suffocatingly insular.
I struggle to find positives. I’d note, for all its idiot sheen, director Arthur Hiller (never an auteur, as See No Evil, Hear No Evil readily attests) lends the material a naturalistic milieu, with real locations – including elite haven Harvard – and handheld camera. That doubtless upped the relatable ante – the Harvard part aside – for many of its swooning, inconsolable audiences. It needs the verisimilitude, as neither Ryan O’Neal nor Ali McGraw bring it.
Kael demolished the picture in expert fashion, observing “Those who are susceptible to this sort of movie may not even notice that Ali McGraw is horribly smug and smirky, though if you share my impulses, whenever she gets facetious you’ll probably want to wham her one”. And it’s true. I couldn’t for the life of me figure why – Bob Evans’ infatuation and the success of Goodbye, Columbus aside – Jenny was supposed to be appealing, with her insistently diminishing “What do you think, preppy?” snoots at rich jock Oliver (O’Neal). I was put in mind slightly of another Ally, Sheedy, in The Breakfast Club. Except that Sheedy’s a really good actress, not the sort whose “attempts at classy repartee are destroyed by nose-flaring, lip-curling amateurishness”.
On the other hand, Kael was generous to the studiously indifferent O’Neal, who “knows how to be emotional without being a slob”. Evans, self-aggrandising even when he was announcing himself as self-deprecating, was the major motive force behind the movie (his biography reads like Bogart if Bogart were a drama queen). He recounts how eight actors turned the picture down: “Conversely, any one of the brilliant eight would have become ‘fuck you’ rich making this ‘piece of shit’. Oh, and by the way, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best actor and best actress”. Yes Bob, but how much did it do for either’s career? I mean, obviously, McGraw got McQueen and jettisoned Evans, while Ryan got Kubrick. But the latter only because bean counters mistakenly assessed him as someone audiences wanted to see (Love Story, Paper Moon, What’s Up, Doc? are about the extent of it. You know, Paper Moon – the one that should have been called Ryan's Daughter).
Hiller didn’t want O’Neal (understandably): “Let’s use Christopher Walken. He’s a legitimate actor”. That would have been commendably bizarre, but I doubt it would have saved the picture. Curiously, Evans recognised the Love Story was wafer thin, aghast at the first cut: “Just two pretty faces, Ali. No plot, holes as big as the Boulder Dam”. His solution was silence (“bike rides, car rides, running through the park together”). Montages, in other words. That’s quite shrewd, in fairness. But it doesn’t make Love Story a good movie, just a saleable one. One opening on Christmas Day. Well, it has a lot of snow.
Along these lines, I searched vainly for dramatic nourishment. You have to buy into these obnoxious kids’ – well thirty-year-olds playing a half decade or so younger – doomed romance. Without that, there’s nothing. Ray Milland is great, even in the cornball part of the manipulative, class-ridden father. I was curious to learn the novel ends with Oliver’s reconciliation with dad; it’s a shame this was lost, as that’s the his is the sole potentially engaging role.
There’s also a very young Tommy Lee Jones in one scene. Very young meaning he only looks about forty, rather than 24 that he was at the time. I was going to make a joke that Love Story might have been more interesting had Oliver, in common with many Ivy League schools, joined a secret society, but it seems Segal based Oliver both on Harvard graduate Jones and his roommate Al Gore…
The picture, in its own low-calorie way, is trying to be zeitgeist-y, with its rejection of religion and the older generation’s rules (be they marriage or money). Kael dressed this up with “It deals in private passions at a time when we are exhausted from public defeats, and it deals with the mutual sacrifice of a hard-working, clean-cut pair of lovers, and with love beyond death”. Which sounds sociologically astute, but the success is really an example of not knowing there’s a gap in the market until you happen upon it (the largely female audience would return again and again). It wasn’t one that could be repeated, because whatever perverse alchemy Love Story wielded was based neither on stars nor script, but rather the idea of what the package represented at that moment.
Evans might have been right to a degree, then, in his vainglorious assessment that “Men and women equally hungry for an all but lost emotion – romance – kept returning to Love Story. More than a film, it was an aphrodisiac, a phenomenon”. That’s blarney and blather, of course, and I doubt the male contingent was going willingly, but Love Story exerted a draw in a similar way to Titanic quarter of a century later. I suspect the sequel – Oliver’s Story – flopped partly because no one who saw the original wished to be reminded of the malaise that washed over them eight years earlier. And because O’Neal was never a star.
Time Out’s Geoff Andrew dismissed Love Story as “Dated before it was made” and “The bland mating of love and leukaemia”. The novel was written after the script but became a bestseller prior to the movie’s release; Kael noted the publishing phenomenon (“One can be sure that movie companies will now take a new interest in the script-into-novel market”). This would be the decade of The Exorcist, The Godfather and Jaws, all publishing phenomena (if not script to text, they’re near enough in terms of sudden combined might).
Anthony Holden has it, in The Secret History of the Hollywood Academy Awards, that Love Story was nominated “by virtue of its huge commercial success” (see also the later Titanic). He doesn’t stop there, though, suggesting it was also down to “the fact that its female lead, Ali McGraw, was married to the head of Paramount, Robert Evans”. Why, the temerity of the accusation! And Robert, such good pals with spotless rap-sheet elite-stooge luminary Henry Kissinger and all! This kind of thing isn’t/wasn’t uncommon, of course. But even if one is inclined to give Love Story a free pass based on populism (it shared Best Picture nominee space with Airport that year), there’s considerably less leeway in deducing how it was that either McGraw or O’Neal managed Best Actress and Best Actor nods for their torpid turns. “Evans’s clout around town was in itself enough to win McGraw a Leading Role nomination” attested Holden.
“Love Story didn’t open, it exploded” boasted Evans. The only hint of that pull to a cold, unwaveringly dry eye fifty years on is the insistent Francis Lai theme, the leading blub of the opening line (“What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?”) and the ridiculous – but ridiculously memorable – poster line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Writer Erich Segal went on to unparalleled lack of success in his various adaptations. Among them was A Change of Seasons, in which Anthony Hopkins romps in a hot tub with Bo Derek. Surely, it’s time for the multiple Oscar-winning jab dodger’s lost classic to be rediscovered? What do you say about a fifty-year-old movie that made you want to run and hide? Love Story’s very dull, and absent of drama or charm, but it isn’t actually awful for the most part. Like its leads, it’s devotedly indifferent.