Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? What else? A self-consciously vapid … love story.
What did I get? Love Story is so soothingly innocuous and was once so incredibly popular (11 whopping weeks at #1) that it’s a challenge to write about it without some powerful elitism kicking in. It’s the kind of movie that prompts questions about the validity of mass taste, which at other moments has given a big fat kiss of approval to Shakespeare, the Beatles, and The Simpsons. What annoys the discerning isn’t that Love Story is “bad” — it’s not “bad, it’s fairly “good” in certain identifiable ways — but that it’s “wrong.”
A good starting point is the title: “Love story.” It’s no coincidence that the title is simply a bland assertion of genre — as with Pulp Fiction, the title serves as an obvious yet oft-overlooked signal as to its aims. Love Story is ruthlessly pared down of anything offensive; its strategy for success was to offer itself as archetype (writer Segal’s day job of Harvard classics professor was surely a key to its massive success).
The movie is overtly calculating, to the point that one wonders why its fans weren’t put off by it. The novel, which was an expansion of the screenplay and released several months earlier, reads pretty much like a screenplay — it’s one of the quickest reads imaginable, another key to its success. The book and movie are about Oliver Barrett IV and Jennifer Cavilleri, who represent opposite ends of the social spectrum (if you restrict the field to white Harvard students, that is). He’s hyper-privileged and appropriately sheepish about it — his thinly explained rage at his plummy pop supplies most of his characterization. For her part, Jennifer says disrespectfully sassy things to him, as his money doesn’t unduly impress her, and is solid and sensible and virtuous. Having renounced his money, Oliver continues at Harvard Law while working menial side jobs. (Since her job as a schoolteacher pays better, Love Story is actually a setup for one of those familiar stories where the husband, whose career is a by-product of the wife’s early sacrifices, vamooses with a younger woman at the age of 46. But that plotline is helpfully interrupted.)
O’Neal and MacGraw are perfectly cast — it probably helps that neither is actually a good actor; MacGraw in particular isn’t up to some of her later scenes. The movie equivalent of the photographs that appear on the promotional materials distributed by universities to prospective students — laughing circles of clean-cut, ethnically diverse adultlings — Love Story has about as much claim to depth. See it, roll your eyes, hoot at it (as has since become a Harvard tradition) — shy of cringeworthy, it’s merely silly.
What here smacks of 1970? A hit this big ends up representing its time more than most movies. The psychoanalyst would say that people wanted something unabashedly positive during at a moment dominated by Kent State and Vietnam. For such a “liberal” movie, the mild sexism that crops up every fifteen minutes is noteworthy.
IMDB score: 6.7
My score: 3
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Erich Segal
Starring: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland, Russell Nype, Katharine Balfour, Tommy Lee Jones
IMDB synopsis: Harvard Law student Oliver Barrett IV and music student Jennifer Cavilleri share a chemistry they cannot deny – and a love they cannot ignore. Despite their opposite backgrounds, the young couple put their hearts on the line for each other. When they marry, Oliver’s wealthy father threatens to disown him. Jenny tries to reconcile the Barrett men, but to no avail. Oliver and Jenny continue to build their life together. Relying only on each other, they believe love can fix anything. But fate has other plans. Soon, what began as a brutally honest friendship becomes the love story of their lives.