in Oscars Fortnight, Review

Love Story (1970)

43rd Academy Awards (1971)
Wins: 1

I had no idea until two minutes ago that Love Story was the highest grossing film of 1970. You know what number 2 was? Airport, which Colin covered two days ago. It’s crazy to think that back in the day, if a film was a big enough hit it would factor big into the Oscars. It doesn’t even matter if it was good. I think this is why the Oscars seemed way more relevant back then. The Oscars, good or bad, were a better reflection of popular culture. Now you ask your average joe how many Oscar nominated films they’ve seen and chances are they haven’t even heard of half of them.

Love Story is not that good, but also, not as bad as I anticipated. Is director Arthur Hiller’s adaptation of Erich Segal’s 1970 book (Segal also wrote the screenplay) a schlocky piece of paperback melodrama? Absolutely, but it has moments. I like Ali MacGraw, I LOVE Francis Lai’s melancholy classical score, and Arthur Hiller shoots the film with a steady hand. It’s just unfortunate that the story itself is a bummer soap opera starring Ryan O’Neal, who is so wooden, you might think he’s playing Pinocchio.

The film is about two star-crossed college students from different sides of the tracks. O’Neal plays Oliver Barrett IV, a wealthy Harvard Law Student trying to break free from his father’s shadow. MacGraw plays Jennifer Cavilleri, a classical music student at a Liberal Arts college who comes from a working-class Catholic family. Wait, a minute… They are complete opposites. Opposites don’t attract… Or do they?!?

The two run into each other by chance and start off their relationship by slinging various barbs and insults at each other. Oliver thinks Jennifer is some stuck-up feminist and Jennifer thinks Oliver is a snobby rich kid. Yet they go out anyway, and even though they never stop dunking on each other, even after Jennifer becomes terminally ill, they fall hard for each other and get married.

Love Story is the most formulaic romance plot one could conceive. I think the most direct comparison for modern audiences would be a Nicholas Sparks movie or book. The classic kind of schmaltz where it seems like all odds are against two people but they find a way to be together, even in the face of tragedy.

The film is so lacking in interiority that it never even tells the audience what disease Jennifer is suffering from. Roger Ebert had a great joke once where he said that Ali MacGraw suffered from, “Ali MacGraw’s Disease: A movie illness in which the only symptom is that the patient grows more beautiful until finally dying.” He nailed it. There is nothing here of substance.

So we all know that this is a movie about a couple who falls in love and then the girl dies, what else happens? Not much. They meet each other’s families which results in some nasty culture clash, they buy a house, they walk around to romantic montages. A real “check your watch movie”, if you will. The only reason I drop my rating by another half star is because of its distinct ’70s look and feel. I love that vibe.

Why was Love Story such a hit? I don’t know. Good timing? Arthur Hiller himself says if the movie had come out a few years earlier it would have been steamrolled by biker films. It helps that the book was the number one bestselling fiction book from May 10th 1970 to February 21st 1971. What a run! Mom’s love a good romance novel. We have the data.

Francis Lai won an Oscar for his score and eight years later a sequel “Oliver’s Story” came out based on another book by Erich Segal. Though by that time no one gave a shit anymore. Now the legacy of Love Story is relegated to parodies and spoofs in other shows and movies. It’s cool that the film had a moment where it clicked with pop culture, where the Oscars felt important, but there are far better movies to have experienced this kind of phenomena since then. Movies like Jaws or The Exorcist. Wow, the 70s man. What a time for movies. Well, got to go, time to watch whatever Madame Web is supposed to be.