Paramount // 1970 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker // February 7th, 2012
That's what it's about, Preppie.
What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?
Rich Harvard boy Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neal, Paper Moon) meets poor Radcliffe girl Jennifer Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw, The Getaway).
They fall in love.
They get married.
It's really impossible to make sense of Love Story the Movie without considering Love Story the Phenomenon -- and make no mistake, Love Story was a phenomenon.
While many consider it something of a pop-culture blight, Love Story was an incredibly influential film. Massively successful, it was instrumental in pulling Paramount out of a difficult fiscal period, and the one-two punch of this film and The Godfather two years later likely factored in to the studio's willingness to produce smaller return prestige films like Nashville, The Conversation, and Chinatown. Its adjusted gross puts it at number 34 on the list of all-time domestic earners, higher than Spider-Man, Beverly Hills Cop, The Sixth Sense, any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, any of the Lord of the Rings movies, and any of the Harry Potter movies.
It certainly wasn't a "hip" film; in fact, it was polar opposite of cool flicks like MASH and Five Easy Pieces, but it still had the cachet of youth to it. Despite its release at a time when "New Hollywood" was insinuating itself on the landscape, and despite its fairly young stars, this is certainly not a picture from the revolution. Of course, its lack of hipness helped broaden its appeal, and its PG rating meant that high schoolers too young to be admitted to R- and X-rated youth films could make this a date-night movie and brag to their friends about hearing Ali MacGraw curse. The simple story and simplistic emotional hook made this an easy wallow and far less taxing than the more adventurous fare that would go on to be considered classics of the era.
The novel by Erich Segal was written after the screenplay by Erich Segal and published a few months before the film was released. The book was a slight affair -- it actually takes longer to watch the film than it does to read the novel -- but that didn't stop it from becoming the best-selling fiction book of the year.
Having a best-selling novel come out that close to the film's release, naturally, proved to be a hugely lucky break. That the film was practically verbatim the book meant there wouldn't be those annoying arguments about which medium better told the story.
The film and the book provided one of the hookiest catch phrases of all time, easily one of the most memorable "romantic" lines ever. It's really an excruciating combination of eight words, and I'm not going to type them here. Those words -- still used, I'm sure, in marketing -- were one-time mainstays on greeting cards, coffee cups, romantic tchotchkes, in flower arrangements, private notes, and anywhere that a sappy turn of phrase would be appropriate. It was quoted, co-opted, and riffed in all manner of media, with The Abominable Dr. Phibes making particularly good use of a variation and Ryan O'Neal getting the chance to rebut it in What's Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand.
Love Story made a star out of Ryan O'Neal, and it briefly made an icon out of Ali MacGraw. The knit hats and scarves she wears throughout the film became a must-have fashion accessory, and her dowdy-yet-sexy "Jenny" look influenced the style of a generation of young women. I doubt that it's a coincidence that "Jennifer," in fact, became the most popular baby name for girls in 1970 -- a position it kept the entire decade and into the next.
Arthur Hiller's direction was simple and punchy -- actually, punchliney. Most scenes consist of characters bantering (lamely), leading up to a clever quip or retort (usually by Jenny) and then a cut. Were it better written, it might constitute verbal volleying. Non-dialogue scenes offer the characters walking around or ice skating, and in the film's pivotal montage, love is declared through two grown-ups playing in the snow.
The score by Francis Lai is probably the best part of the film and certainly a major part of its success. It really did work perfectly with the film, hitting exactly the right notes and sealing itself to images and moments. It also had staying power. It was a tough one to get out of your head, made tougher still by the public's adoring embrace. A version with lyrics sung by Andy Williams made the ABC Top 100 list for 1971, coming in at 52nd, beating out James Brown's "Hot Pants," "Chick a Boom" by Daddy Dewdrop, and "Love the One You're With" by the Iseley Brothers, among others. To this day, it turns up at weddings and in light-listening instrumental forms. It's a bit of a shame that the main theme became so well known, as some of Lai's secondary arrangements -- particularly the music that scores the otherwise execrable snow scene -- are actually quite good, adding a nice Euro flavor to the film.
Lest anyone forget, Love Story gave the world leukemia chic, "Ali MacGraw Disease" (or "Love Story Disease"), the strange yet swift malady that causes the afflicted to depart this mortal coil with gleaming hair, an athletic body, and a full complement of eye make up.
Love Story was an apolitical film in a wildly political time, innocent in an era cynicism, an uncomplicated little story that for some reason, made people cry.
But buyer's remorse hit fast and hard, and Love Story, which was all about punchlines, quickly became one -- first a kind of awed one, given its success; then a more satiric one, given its transparency; and later, an almost bitter one, a What Were We Thinking? response that made the film a bastard stepchild of blockbusters.
I've sometimes wondered why Love Story fell so out of favor so quickly. Of course, there's the logical reason, that it really shouldn't have been in favor in the first place, but there are a lot of films like that that don't seem to have gotten the bum's rush that this one has gotten when it comes to screenings, TV showings, and home video.
This release, for instance. It's Love Story (Blu-ray), and it looks and sounds OK, but nothing special. It wasn't a particularly impressive visual film to begin with, and while everything looks clean enough, this 1.78:1/1080p transfer is not the kind of striking image we've come to expect from the high def format.
The supplements are ports from the DVD release from Y2K: a commentary by Director Arthur Hiller and a 15-minute featurette, "Love Story: A Classic Remembered," that uses footage of Hiller evidently recorded while he was doing the commentary, since what he says in the featurette is exactly the same. There's also a trailer that's a virtual two-and-a-half re-creation of the film. The iconic theme music doesn't play over the static menu. If anyone from Paramount was thinking that the film was ready for rediscovery in these cynical, complex times, this under-the-radar Blu upgrade isn't going to do it.
I guess I really should talk about the film.
Where do I begin? I mean, what do you say about a 42-year-old film that dies in front of you? That it's insufferable and arch? That's it's insulting to terminally ill people, people in love, the Beatles...and me?
Eh, it's really not an insulting movie, it's just awfully trite. We're told right off the bat that Jenny's doomed, and the film has 100 minutes to make the case that we should care. It fails to do that.
Instead of multi-dimensional characters or people anyone can really relate to, we get stick figures who talk at each other in unnaturally pithy phrases; you'd think Oliver and Jenny spent the last three years studying The Graduate and are determined to spend their lives communicating like a pair of Benjamin Braddocks, only without the wit. Segal's writing crosses all reasonable boundaries of preciousness; if you actually met people like Jenny and Oliver, you'd probably hate them.
Perhaps better actors could have put this over, but O'Neal and MacGraw are awfully limited in the range department. MacGraw's occasionally foul-mouthed working-class coy shtick wears out before the first scene is over, and her vacant facial expressions suggest that she could be selling real estate in Westworld. O'Neal pouts like a 5-year-old when things don't go his way and moons like a hormonal teen boy when things do. Both are so smug, you just want to smack them. As her father, John Marley (Faces) almost transcends the concerned salt-of-the-earth stereotype that Segal has created to help flesh out Jenny's "poor girl" background and to counterpoint any illusions you might have that being rich is a good thing.
Other than Jenny's impending doom, the only real conflict is between Oliver and his father, Oliver III (Ray Milland, The Thing with Two Heads). Oliver IV's impatience with his old man seems justified by O-III's reluctance to embrace Jenny, though O-III's supposed act of aggression -- asking O-IV to finish law school before getting married -- hardly seems worth the rift.
The idea of a young woman dying is inherently sad, but since we've been waiting for the disease to turn up like a Very Special Guest Star really dilutes the impact. Of course, other than being fatal, the disease itself isn't especially fearsome; as depicted here, it's actually a fairly pleasant way to go. Jenny doesn't have a cough, like Greta Garbo in Camille, and she doesn't go blind for an hour like Bette Davis in Dark Victory; she just gets a little tired, walks to the hospital, lobs a few affectionate profanities at her husband, and goes awfully gentle into that good night.
Except for the inherently sad business of a 25-year-old dying, there's nothing to see here. For such a lightweight story, this should all feel kind of effortless and charming, but it's just cloying and contrived, desperate to make you care but too obviously manipulative to work.
Paramount didn't put anything into this Blu-ray to make me reconsider a film that isn't especially good in the first place. Fans who've worn out the earlier release might appreciate the bump to Blu, but it's really not much of an improvement.
Sorry, I just don't love this one.
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG