One of Hollywood’s highest grossing films in history, Love Story (1970), is an astute character study. The screen version of Erich Segal’s bestselling novel of the same name is well made. Like another Seventies blockbuster, Rocky, it’s been lambasted for a single line. Yet Love Story is a romantic, if tragic, dramatization of pursuing the American Dream.
It’s a tale of two young lovers, Oliver and Jenny, played by Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. He’s an aristocratic, pre-law Harvard athlete — Oliver plays ice hockey — and she’s a musician studying at Radcliffe. At center is angry Oliver, who’s in conflict with his controlling father (Ray Milland), with Jenny as a kind of prize whom he comes to realize he truly loves. They’re both atheists.
Look for Tommy Lee Jones in a small role and John Marley as Jenny’s widowed Catholic father. Listen for Francis Lai’s Oscar-winning score, including the indelible main theme, and music by Bach and Mozart. Segal’s writing is good. But Love Story succeeds thanks to director Arthur Hiller, who depicts young love, especially O’Neal as a young lover, as serious. Hiller fully entices the audience.
For example, when Ray Milland as Oliver’s wealthy businessman father attends his son’s game only to see him spend time in a penalty box, Oliver apologizes to his father for having “to see [the team] lose”. His dad responds with a clarification which is also a key plot point: “I came to see you play.”
It’s one of several insightful scenes underscoring the complexity, depth and risk of love, romantic or otherwise. Oliver laments the “verbal volleyball” that jaded Jenny, whom he meets at Radcliffe’s library, engages. Soon, they’re kissing in the rain.
The college students also study and listen to music, read, spar, take an interest in each other’s goals and focus on themselves. Love Story portrays the attractive couple in playful, wintry games with O’Neal’s Oliver in a pale blue jacket. They tumble and make angels in the snow.
Playing on ice, in snow and with banter adds up as they discuss work, marriage and children. Hiller’s direction of setting, framing and transition — converging the sound of an airplane with the sound of a motor car — showcase the beauty of falling in love in Boston, Cambridge and, later, Manhattan.
Whether Oliver drives a roadster with the top down, the camera follows them in a single take to meet his parents or summertime kids applauding the couple fade into parents applauding law school grads, Love Story offers more than cutesy playacting.
Like Seventies megahits such as Rocky, Airport and Star Wars, Love Story embraces idealism. After someone takes a dig at making money, someone else retorts that “[w]hen you inherit [wealth], you can give all of [the] money back for reparations”. Oliver points out to his disapproving parents that lower middle class Jenny is “not some crazy hippie”. Jenny wants to know, understand and teach masters of music, play piano and visit Paris, even if she has to subsist on Skippy peanut butter. Oliver and Jenny are secular — and they celebrate Christmas.
That their pursuit of mutually earned, traded and shared happiness comes to a devastating conclusion just as their self-made life starts in New York exhibits Love Story’s theme that, in love, one can mine truth. Hiller even lingers on the Latin for the term. That Jenny acts to foster, gain and keep love for Oliver without sacrificing what she knows is his love for his father — Milland delivers a standout performance, particularly in the final scene — with courage and fortitude strengthens the love story.
Characters could be deeper. Certain scenes are too cute. Yet Love Story quietly, assuredly moves the audience as it depicts man coming full circle through the agony of lost love. Hiller punctuates life’s unfairness with empathy, not pity. A hospital visit includes a glimpse of a newborn baby at Christmastime. Other touches, too, give this tragic tale of two types of love between two East Coast winters poignancy, including a trash can on its side to suggest that a world’s been knocked over.
This is how love probably feels to the lover who is swept into wisdom after suffering great loss. If the phrase “love means never having to say you’re sorry” rings hollow, bland or false, Love Story, one of the top money-making movies of all time — the movie which made a new cliche and begins as it ends — prompts one to think about the sense in which the saying is true.