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Love Story (1970)

GRIT-FREE: 70s cinema without the 70s 

by Andy Sturdevant

Love Story is, to put it delicately, not a film crying out for a major reappraisal anytime in the near future. There are very few Love Story apologists out there. It was, of course, a massive hit when it was released in 1970, garnering seven Oscar nominations and netting $48 million at box office ($263 million in today’s dollars).  It also saved legendarily irascible superproducer and Paramount Studios chief Robert Evans’ ass so he could go on to produce Chinatown, The Godfather and others. It hasn’t held up particularly well, though; certainly not as well as some of Evans’ other celebrated productions. Seeing Love Story now, it comes off as an awkward, middling compromise between soapy Old Hollywood melodrama and clear-eyed, unsentimental New Hollywood naturalism. It’s a little like watching Now, Voyager injected with the DNA of Five Easy Pieces – seems like an interesting idea, but ultimately making you wish you’d just picked one or the other. 

The plot is attractively simple enough: millionaire Harvard jock Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and working-class Radcliffe smartass Jenny Cavalleri (Ali McGraw) meet and fall in love in Boston, his rich parents disapprove, they marry anyway, she dies, and a $48 million deluge of tears ensue. Your parents saw it, and so did everyone your parents hung out with in 1970. Everyone saw it. For every moviegoer that slapped down their money for a ticket to see the massively popular Woodstock, three did the same for Love Story. So much for the triumph of the counterculture. 

But what does all of that leave us with now? The problem with the massive hits of the past is that no one will step up to claim them for posterity. They belong to everyone, and so in the end they don’t belong to anyone. It’s hard to imagine a seventeen year old kid stumbling across a copy of Love Story today and embracing it with the same kind of obsessive teenage reverence he or she might shower upon Harold and Maude or Mean Streets. Actually, even theoretically, I can’t imagine what sort of kid would really embrace the movie. Definitely not Harvard students; apparently they screen Love Story for the freshman class every year, who all hoot and holler derisively at the screen and then go back to their dorms and snort Adderal and watch “America’s Next Top Model” or whatever it is eighteen year old kids do for fun these days. 

Of course, the kids have a point, because Love Story is not really a great or timeless film. Ali McGraw’s star-making performance is legendarily stiff, and the dialogue (particularly the whole “love means never having to say you’re sorry” bit) is impossibly silly at times. Hardly any of the signifiers of what we now recognize as “‘70s cinema,” those traits that we mark as the roots of contemporary cinema, are present. There’s no urban grit, no Nixonian paranoia, no disillusionment, no radical politics. No politics at all, actually! There are oblique references to the feminism and “the troops,” but it all happens in a fairly timeless vacuum, where the characters are totally unaffected by the tumult of the 1960s. Harvard was, like many American schools, a hotbed of radicalism and antiwar activity; there was a student strike in 1969 on campus when the movie was being filmed, and yet you’d never know such radicalism was afoot in these snowy, photogenic environs. The film’s events could essentially be dropped into any setting where a rich guy and a working-class girl fall in love and their parents are jerks about it, which is essentially any point in American history between the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the first season of The Real Housewives of Orange County.  

That timeless quality was, for many people, the attraction of the film. It seemed to be just what the title is, your basic love story, leavened with a little bit of light naturalism for an era in which people supposedly weren’t enjoying straight romance films anymore. However, anytime Oliver and Jenny start acting like a real, three-dimensional couple and you begin to fall under the illusion that you’re maybe watching a delicately shaded, fleshed-out story unfold, the movie starts pulling its punches. When we finally learn that Jenny, for example, is dying, we want to hear details. It seems to be cancer, but everyone is so vague. Is it cancer? How aggressive is it, exactly? Is it treatable? Why does she still look so great? But there are no answers provided; the word “cancer” is never once uttered. One say the couple goes out to ice skate, and then they check into the hospital, just like that. Next thing you know, Jenny is lying on her deathbed, and she looks positively pre-Raphaelite. At the end of the film, Oliver walks out of the hospital right as his wealthy, estranged father happens to walk in. The elder Barrett awkwardly tries to console him in his stiff, Brahmin sort of way. Oliver snaps. “She’s dead!” he exclaims, and we think “What? She is? When? Just now?”  

The ending is justifiably famous, of course. Oliver leaves the hospital in tears, sits on a park bench in Central Park, the score swells with the plinky piano theme we’ve heard throughout the entire film, this time backed with a full orchestra. The camera pans out as Oliver stares off forlornly into the barren, snowy landscape, and roll credits. The end. It’s an effective moment of transcendent miserablism. Completely over-the-top, of course, but you really don’t mind letting the moment happen. It doesn’t matter that you may feel manipulated or cheated out of a more reasonable ending – the music is just so damned sad that you feel like a monster for asking a bunch of nitpicky questions. 

More than anything, that’s what makes Love Story so interesting. The factors that made it so wildly popular in its day don’t translate well, but little hints peek through. When we consider the films of the early ‘70s we love, it’s largely the difficult, scrappy, cynical ones – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Godfather, The French Connection. Love Story is none of these things, but does betray some dawning awareness that these was going to be the emotional currency of the 1970s and beyond, and that the viewers were accordingly adapting fast.

Andy Sturdevant is a writer and artist in Minneapolis. He tumbls here.

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