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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Revisiting Love Story (1970)

My recent experience has been that mentioning Love Story will generally 1) bring on sneers or giggles, or 2) prompt almost an involuntary uttering of the famous tagline "love means never having to say you're sorry." So with the film a fuzzy memory at best (I only saw it once decades ago as a teenager having been too young to see it on initial release), I decided to attend the 50th-anniversary screening thanks to TCM & Fathom Events. And the film was, and wasn't, as I remembered it, inspiring me to share here my spoiler-filled reasons why the film, while not a great one, isn't the schlocky, saccharine mess that its current reputation may have you believe.

As a brief refresher...the runaway 1970 hit was made from an Erich Segal screenplay that he subsequently turned into a novel to capitalize on the movie's popularity. For the film, the two New England college-student lovers from radically different economic backgrounds are portrayed by Hollywood up-and-coming actors Ali MacGraw (Jenny Cavilleri) and Ryan O'Neal (Oliver Barrett, IV). A small but critical supporting role of Oliver's father is played expertly by classic Hollywood suave leading man Ray Milland. Arthur Hiller directed for Paramount Pictures.
Ryan O'Neal and Ray Milland at the end of Love Story
It's not a bad movie--really!  Despite some script weaknesses, the film is cleverly crafted on several fronts. First, it's a study in storytelling economy with a running time just over 90 minutes: after a brief voiceover intro scene leading into the extended flashback, we are instantly at the lovers' first meeting. From there, months and years pass in leaps and bounds, with milestones in the lives of the characters being the only guide to time--meeting, finishing school, marriage, jobs, moving to a new city, etc. About two-thirds in, the critical, sad news about Jenny's terminal illness is revealed. The pace is quick but consistent and never rushed. Yet there is no unnecessary lingering for emotional effect.

Second, the visual symbolism is striking at times. I don't know the reason for nearly all the scenes being filmed in winter, but the abundant snow that required our protagonists to always be bundled up reflected their ongoing struggles with coming to terms with their relationship, their life choices, and tragedy--life can be tough and cold. The brief scenes set in summertime come as quite a shock.

Jenny and Oliver have a serious discussion in the cold
rain; snow is on the ground.
Oliver helps a weak Jenny across snow-covered Central Park
on her way to Mt. Sinai hospital.
Jenny and Oliver in a rare summer scene
The presence or absence of extras seemed significant, too. At the very end, when Oliver has left the New York hospital after Jenny's death, he wanders around in a snow-covered New York City street and Central Park setting that are completely devoid of other people - an impossibility in NYC--but the choice underscored Oliver's solitude in a world without Jenny. In the screenshots below, Oliver is a tiny image in the unmoving settings.

Third, each of the three main characters--Jenny, Oliver, and Oliver's wealthy father--are complex humans with inscrutable, or at least shifting, motives. Every viewer's reaction to each character is likely to be influenced by their age, status, gender, and life experience. Initially, Jenny's tough-girl persona ("the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass") understandably puts earnest Oliver on the defensive, but then later at times he is rigid and unyielding in their relationship. Oliver Sr. is stern and formal and wants Oliver Jr. to be cautious or at worse give Jenny up due to her lower social status; Oliver Jr's reaction to this in abruptly cutting himself and Jenny off from his parents is either appropriate or disproportionate to what is obviously a father trying to do right by his family depending on your viewpoint. Jenny is the voice of reason, trying unsuccessfully to get Oliver to ease up on his father. Roger Ebert references the characters' multidimensionality in his initial (4-star) review: "The movie is mostly about life, however, and not death. And because Hiller makes the lovers into individuals, of course we're moved by the film's conclusion. Why not?" 

Fourth, the soundtrack is really good. Because it has been so overplayed over the years, you can't blame modern audiences for souring on the theme song or other parts of the score. But it is perfectly tuned to the overall melancholy tone of the film, and has both a contemporary and classical feel appropriate for the story of a classical music student. The composer, Francis Lai, received the film's only Oscar. The main themes can be found here.

The film is a window into 1960s feminism. Viewed through a 21st-century lens, the character of Jenny is a study in quaint contrasts, perfectly reflecting the struggles of women of her era. Initially, her brass, smart-mouth persona complements her ambition as a smart young woman trying to make it in a man's world of music. She wants a career, she bucks convention, she's sexually liberated, she rejects her "old-school" Catholic upbringing for atheism. This places her squarely in the 1960s/1970s version of women's liberation. But many women of this era also were drawn powerfully back, by societal conventions, to being a traditional wife and mother, and we see this happen to Jenny as well. She gives up her career to marry Oliver and wants desperately to have his baby. She says to him when dying, "I don't care about music; I don't care about Paris." In her era, women had not fully figured out how to realize dueling ambitions of career and home--a struggle that while not completely resolved today, has shown considerable advancement.
Jenny dutifully pours coffee for Oliver after serving him breakfast
Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor in one of the many film
adaptations of Camille
It's a modern La Dame aux Camélias! Opera fans know that a number of popular operas end immediately upon the dramatic death of the consumptive heroine -- Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme and Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata are probably the most famous. There is no epilogue - just the tragedy leaving the audience gasping for air. Walking out of Love Story, I was struck with how the sudden end of the film after Jenny's death paralleled these operas. But another lightbulb went on - Segal's story is Camille, the English language version of Dumas' novel La Dame aux Camélias that was the basis for Verdi's La Traviata and several film adaptations. The broad outlines of the story match perfectly. The two lovers are from opposite ends of society. The woman is, for a time, pulled into 'higher' class society because of her lover. The man's family's opposition to her causes deep stress and complications for the young lovers. Ultimately, the terminal illness of the woman brings about a reconciliation of sorts. 

I learned I wasn't the only one who saw the parallels; while I couldn't find the original quote, Wikipedia mentions film critic Judith Crist referring to the movie as "Camille...with bullshit." I'm not sure if Segal intended the parallels; a NY Times interview cites his personal experience and that of several contemporaries (including Al Gore!) as providing inspiration for the film, but no mention of Dumas' self-sacrificing heroine.

So if you've always avoided this one, or haven't seen it in decades, consider giving it a look. It's currently streaming on Amazon Prime. As always, I'm interested in what you think of the film, so please comment below!