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Love Story (1970): A Timeless Tale of Love and Loss

Love Story is not just a love story; it is a poignant and heartbreaking tale of loss and the enduring power of love
Love Story (1970)

Love Story is a 1970 American romantic drama film directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. It tells the story of Oliver Barrett IV, a wealthy Harvard University student, and Jenny Cavilleri, a working-class Radcliffe College student, who fall deeply in love despite their contrasting backgrounds.

Oliver, heir to a prominent family fortune, is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend law school. He plays hockey for the university team and leads a privileged life. Jenny, on the other hand, comes from a modest background and works several part-time jobs to support herself while pursuing her passion for music.

Their paths cross at a Harvard-Radcliffe ice hockey game, and they are immediately drawn to each other. Despite their differences, they fall madly in love and defy societal expectations by getting married. Oliver’s disapproving father disinherits him, forcing the young couple to start their new life together on their own.

Through witty banter, shared dreams, and unwavering support for each other, Oliver and Jenny create a world of their own. They rent a small apartment in New York City, where Oliver lands a job at a law firm. Their love seems to conquer all, but their happiness is tragically short-lived.

Jenny is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and their once bright future takes a devastating turn. Oliver dedicates himself to caring for Jenny, cherishing every remaining moment they have together. Faced with mortality and the inevitable, their love shines even brighter, reminding the audience of its strength and resilience.

Love Story is not just a love story; it is a poignant and heartbreaking tale of loss and the enduring power of love. The film’s emotional impact is further amplified by Francis Lai’s unforgettable score, which includes the iconic song “Love Story,” a timeless ballad that perfectly captures the essence of the film.

The film was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $100 million at the box office and becoming the highest-grossing film of 1970. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor and Actress for O’Neal and MacGraw.

Love Story remains a beloved classic, capturing the hearts of audiences for generations. It reminds us to cherish every moment, to embrace love in all its forms, and to find beauty even in the face of tragedy.

Here are some of the key themes explored in the film:

Love conquers all: Despite their social and economic differences, Oliver and Jenny’s love proves to be unyielding and enduring.
The importance of family and support: While Oliver’s family rejects him, Jenny’s love and support provide him with strength and resilience.
Facing mortality: The film tackles the difficult subject of terminal illness and the impact it has on individuals and their loved ones.
Living life to the fullest: Despite knowing her time is limited, Jenny embraces life with courage and joy, inspiring others to do the same.
The power of memory and love: Even after Jenny’s passing, Oliver finds solace in the memories they shared and the love that continues to bind them together.

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Reviews

 

by Gary Arnold
The Washington Post, 1970

When it comes to a movie like Love Story, criticism and immunology necessarily overlap. It was quite apparent from the clearing of throats and muffling of sobs and blowing of noses going on at the preview showing that if one resists Love Story, one probably resists it in vain. Many people—perhaps a clear majority of the human race—are not just willing to be sapped by this sappy mate­rial; they’re also willing to grab the emotional blackjack out of the hands of writer Erich Segal, director Arthur Hiller, composer Fran­cis Lai and friends and happily sap themselves. Indeed, I’m not sure the material would work unless people were predisposed to swallow it whole and helped wash it down with lots of self-pity.

For the record, one notes that Love Story has been grossly successful in print both here and abroad and that the film version should be more grossly successful yet. Curiously, the story began as a movie scenario and was then recast as a wafer-thin, best-selling novel. This genesis may cause problems of categorization for the Motion Picture Academy, unless screenwriters have enough self-respect to decline blessing the script with an Oscar nomination at all.

Once one has conceded Love Story its popularity and profits, however, the diagnosis is gloomy. I found this one of the most thoroughly resistible sentimental movies I’d ever seen. And I mean resistible on commonplace grounds. There is scarcely a character or situation or line in the story that rings true, that suggests real sim­plicity or generosity of feeling, a sentiment or emotion honestly experienced and expressed. Moreover, the film simply compares poorly with countless decently or indecently sentimental movies one recalls with affection.

Having been susceptible to Camille or Dark Victory or Jezebel or Goodbye, Mr. Chips or Lassie Come Home or The Rainmaker or Tiger Bay or Breakfast at Tiffany’s and heaven knows what else doesn’t necessarily make one ready for Love Story. In fact, really vivid memories may be a hindrance, since they’d illustrate how elementary Segal & Co. are at the tearjerker game, how dependent they are upon our capacity for self-hypnosis.

What this means, of course, is that in rejecting Love Story one is essentially rejecting the side of people that makes them fall for it, or even want to fall for it. But, under the circumstances, what else can one do? This material tries to establish a very unhealthy relationship with our most morbid apprehensions and regrets, then flat­ters us for feeling susceptible. It’s a smug tearjerker, worth resisting on principle, because it’s been so deliberately designed as a mass-cultural bromide, a reactionary bridge over all the troubled political and artistic waters of the last few years, leading backward and go­ing nowhere.

There is Dick Shawn on the Tonight Show, subbing for Johnny Carson and congratulating Erich Segal on the success of his pint-sized powerhouse of a scenario-novella. Shawn remarks how re­freshing he found the book to be and hopes, like thousands of others, no doubt, that it’s a great trend-turner and trend-setter, the sort of entertainment we’ll all be “getting back to.” Segal accepts the accolades humbly but declines to make any far-reaching specu­lations about the drift of American morals and letters.

The situation would be laughable if it didn’t have such perni­cious implications. The book was, of course, widely promoted as an antidote to the “sort of thing” that “went too far,” particularly Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Even if one were prepared to disapprove of Roth, the maudlin thing Segal is getting back to has never been a vital or wholesome part of American literature. Love Story is economy-sized Fannie Ilurst written in economy-sized Er­nest Ilcmingwaycse. Ironically, college romance is a Roth spe­cialty, and his accounts of it—in both Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy—expose the shallowness of Segal’s material.

Or.e can imagine a new Rip Van Winkle, asleep for the past generation, waking and entering a theater playing Love Story. Ex­cept for details—clothes, hairstyles, the fact that Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker didn’t quite look like themselves and that Rav Milland had somehow gone old and bald—he would probably feel right at home.

Segal himself must have mixed feelings about getting away with this smarmy, anachronistic piece of idealization. There’s something rather anomalous and tragicomic about a professor of classical literature becoming a mass-cultural hero, adored for that book that doesn’t take any effort to read and doesn’t assault you with sex, sex, sex. Surely it’s occurred to him that Plautus would have gone for Portnoy’s Complaint.

One infers the ambivalence from the writing, which is surpris­ingly awkward. It was a chore to get beyond the following sentence on page 2: “I ambled over to the reserve desk to get one of the tomes that would bail me out on the morrow.” Huh?

Segal drops this unwieldy sportive—if that’s what it is—diction for his first-person narrator after a while, but the falsely snappy note remains in the dialogue:

“What the hell makes you so smart?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t go for coffee with you,” she answered.

“Listen—I wouldn’t ask you.”

“That,” she replied, “is what makes you stupid.”

To put it mildly, this is not particularly witty or winning repar­tee, and characters who speak it sound rather subhuman. “Listen—I wouldn’t ask you” also sounds a bit echt Jewish for the hero, a Harvard WASP named Oliver Barrett IV, and the heroine, an Ital­ian-Catholic Radcliffe girl, often repeats this locution. Is it inten­tional, accidental, mistaken, gratuitous? Who knows? I doubt if Segal himself does. What he’s probably done is simply indulge an indiscriminate personal taste in kitsch, schmaltz, and whimsical-whamsical banter. He doesn’t get it quite right, but if the rest of us are similar softies it won’t matter. Finally, even the lousy emotional punch lines, like the heroine’s great, dubious platitude, “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry,” will touch the heart while they insult the ear and the brain.

The story’s basic sentimental notion is derived from Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Ollie Barrett, the emotionally buttoned-up rich boy, is humanized by his marriage to Jenny Cavilleri, the warm, gay, mag­nanimous poor girl. The denouement partakes a little more of Camille. Jenny dies of leukemia, but her death results in the recon­ciliation of Ollie and his estranged Brahmin father.

At least this was the way it was supposed to work in print. There were stumbling blocks—the synthetic nature of the writing, the bathos, and, largest of all, a nauseating proportion of masochism. It was extremely distasteful to hear the smart little heroine getting the last aphoristic-shrewish word on her husband from first ac­quaintance to last gasp. Much of the book’s appeal depends upon our sharing the hero’s unattractive and life-denying notion that he was unworthy of this brave, noble, beautiful, understanding crea­ture. Scenes like the following inspire one to question her divinity:

“It’s nobody’s fault, you preppie bastard,” she was saying. “Would you please stop blaming yourself!”

I wanted to keep looking at her because I wanted to never take my eyes from her, but still I had to lower my eyes. I was so ashamed that even now Jenny was reading my mind so perfectly.

“Screw Paris,” she said suddenly.

“Huh?”

“Screw Paris and music and all the crap you think you stole from me. I don’t care, you sonovabitch. Can’t you believe that?”

“No,” I answered truthfully.

“Then get the hell out of here,” she said. “I don’t want you at my goddamn deathbed.”

The Camille you love to hate?

The movie, as one would expect, is virtually word for word from the original “book,” and Arthur Hiller’s direction—now clumsy, now obvious—is syntactically faithful to the author’s prose. How­ever, there are some new stumbling blocks, which will require re­doubled efforts at ignoring reality and surrendering to fantasy on the part of customers who want their money’s worth.

To get away with a role like Jenny on screen, an actress doesn’t need great talent. It will be enough if she simply looks beautiful and warm. For some reason, Ali MacGraw has been allowed to “interpret” the role, and she plays it as superciliously as the hero­ine’s worst lines read. It’s a performance that only makes sense if one decides that it’s satirical—maybe a Wellesley girl’s revenge on snotty-superior Radcliffe girls.

Miss MacGraw wears a permanently smug expression and fails to temper the vain, emotionally bullying tone of the dialogue. I realize there are people who still find her adorable, but I thought it one of the most effectively hateful characterizations I’d ever seen. When this little angel breathed her last, remorse and I were light-years apart. The performance is so wrongheaded that the emotional balance of the material turns upside-down: one prefers Oli­ver, in the amiable, steady presence of Ryan O’Neal, to Jenny.

Because Miss MacGraw is coming on shallow and disagreeable, viewers will almost have to substitute real loved ones or themselves for “the beautiful girl now dead.” The film’s one stroke of genius is to make this imaginative substitution more likely by building in longeurs.

There are lots and lots of longeurs in the final reel. Ryan O’Neal, stricken by the news of his beloved’s incurable illness, is discovered sleepwalking his way along Fifth Avenue, while Francis Lai’s som­berly schmaltzy, fake-Chopin piano score encourages us to get way down in the mopey spirit of things. If you’re sufficiently detached, you may feel a bit cheated: why not real Chopin, or red Rachman­inoff. instead of these cheesy imitations? Still, this is beside the point: people do begin to snivel in precisely the way the movie begs them to.

It’s interesting to note, finally, that the movie drops the reconcil­iation scene between Oliver and his father (played by Milland— and it’s quite disconcerting to see him aged and baldish). Instead, Oliver leaves poor old Dad with the same morally superior egg-on-the-face that Jenny used to dish out to him. One is compelled to conclude that this truly stupefying lack of generosity is the Great Lesson of Their Love. Real sweeties, these two.

Presumably, the new ending is intended to feed the resentments and moral vanity of the young audience. In a work this flagrant to begin with, maybe anything goes, but if I were the film makers I’d shoot the original conciliatory ending and give audiences a choice. Ideally, one would have a twin theater and get the kids for the version where Oliver is a snob and parents for the version where Oliver cries in his father’s arms. It’s one of the few messy but profitable possibilities the men responsible for this jerker seem to neglect.

* * *

by Arthur Knight
Saturday Review

In these days when the old movie formula seems to have been reduced to boy meets girl, boy gets girl, period, there is something not only refreshing but downright exhilarating about Love Story, a frankly sentimental, frankly tear-jerking, four-handkerchief picture. It reminds us, suddenly, of what movies once were all about: the kind of unabashed emotional involvement with beauti­ful, admirable characters whose triumphs and woes we shared so completely that we laughed and wept and cowered helplessly in our chairs, then left the theater still in the thrall of a catharsis that was all the more joyous because it reaffirmed our essential humanity. If we could respond so readily to those shadows, perhaps we could also respond to real people.

Since Erich Segal’s brief novel (developed, incidentally, from his screenplay, and not, as is customary, the other way around) has been a runaway best seller since publication, presumably just about everyone in America knows that it is a combination of Cinderella and Iloratio Alger, transplanted to Radcliffe and Harvard, and given the twist of an unhappy ending. Cinderella dies of an un­specified but incurable disease, and nobody lives happily ever after. What even the most ardent devotee of the novel will be unpre­pared for, however, is the emotional intensity achieved by its young stars, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, by Francis Lai’s affecting and often inventive score, and by Arthur Hiller’s unobtrusive yet probing direction.

While Miss MacGraw and the engagingly handsome O’Neal could probably carry the picture on their charm alone, Hiller never makes this necessary. He lets their relationship—he the scion of a wealthy Boston family, she the daughter of a humble Italian baker —unfold and enfold through innumerable small, affecting details. There is O’Neal’s original hostility to a “Radcliffe bitch,” and the girl’s self-protective scoffing despite her obvious attraction to the young man. There is a delightful sequence of horseplay in the snow and, for once, a serious premarital discussion of how marriage might affect their respective careers. The visits to the prospective in­laws are beautifully managed, particularly in the choice of flash­backs to highlight the girl’s reception into the chilly bosom of the Brahmin family.

Best of all is a quarrel that flares up between the newlyweds when the girl tries vainly to effect a reconciliation between her husband and his estranged father. The crosscurrent of emotions in each of them is extraordinarily visible with a minimum of words; when she runs out of the apartment, it leads to a prolonged search through the corridors of a music conservatory (she was a music student) ingeniously orchestrated by Lai as O’Neal dashes from one rehearsal room to the next. When he at last finds her, shiver­ing on the porch of their apartment building, he is abject with apologies. “Love,” she tells him, “means never having to say you’re sorry.” It is a small enough nugget of wisdom to carry away from a picture, but it is embedded in such a flow of emotion that one grasps at it as at a profound truth.

For Ali MacGraw, Love Story merely confirms what Goodbye, Columbus earlier suggested—that, properly handled, she is one of the most attractive and capable young actresses around. For Ryan O’Neal, who has been floundering in a succession of second-rate pictures, this film should mean instant stardom. No less impressive are John Marley and Ray Milland in the relatively minor roles of the two fathers. But when an entire cast is as consistently good as this one is, it is generally because of the director, and Arthur Hiller, who demonstrated that he could tap the emotions in last year’s Popi, here has struck the mother lode. I predict that, like Airport, Love Story is going to bring back to the theaters large sections of that “lost audience” that hasn’t gone to a movie in years.

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by Philip T. Hartung
Commonweal

Not having read Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, I came on the movie cold. In spite of the tears one is supposed to shed at this contrived film, I left it—still cold. Since the picture opens with the girl’s funeral and then consists of a long flashback showing the boy and girl meeting, dating, falling in love, sleeping together, getting married (in a sort of do-it-yourself ceremony), enjoying life in an elegant New York apartment, it comes as no surprise that the girl dies. What did surprise me, however, is the girl’s continued use of foul language, particularly the popular four-letter word for ordure. It seems to me that if scriptwriter Segal wanted to indicate how mod this girl is, he could have let her use the word once or twice. But Ali MacGraw uses it again and again—even in the classroom where she is teaching youngsters. So, long before this Jenny dies, I was tired of her aggressive modishness. As the young man from the very wealthy Boston family, Ryan O’Neal is fine. So are the music and good photography.

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Screen: Perfection and a ‘Love Story’: Erich Segal’s Romantic Tale Begins Run

by Vincent Canby
The New York Times, December 18, 1970

What can you say about a movie about a 25-year-old girl who died? That it is beautiful. And romantic. That it contains a fantasy for just about everyone, perhaps with the exception of Herbert Marcuse. That it looks to be clean and pure and without artifice, even though it is possibly as sophisticated as any commercial American movie ever made. That my admiration for the mechanics of it slops over into a real admiration for the movie itself. I’m talking, of course, about Love Story, the movie from which Erich Segal extracted his best-selling non-novel, mostly, it seems, by appending “she said’s” and “I said’s” and an occasional “I remonstrated” to the dialogue in his original screenplay. The film, which opened yesterday at the Loew’s State I and Tower East Theaters, is about a love affair so perfect that even the death that terminates it becomes a symbol of its perfection. When, at the end, Jenny (née Cavilleri), the self-styled social zero from Cranston, R. I., the daughter of an Italian baker, is dying of a carefully unidentified blood disease in the arms of her husband, Oliver Barrett 4th, the preppie millionaire from Boston, there is nothing to disfigure love, or faith, or even the complexion. It’s as if she were suffering from some kind of vaguely unpleasant Elizabeth Arden treatment. Jenny doesn’t die. She just slips away in beauty. The knowledge that Jenny will—how should I put it—disappear not only gives the movie its shape (it is told in flashback), but it also endows everything—from a snowball fight in the Harvard Yard to a confrontation with snob parents in Ispwich—with an intensity that is no less sweet for being fraudulent. Curiously, the novel, which I found almost unreadable (I think it might be as readily absorbed if kept under one’s pillow), plays very well as a movie, principally, I suspect because Jenny is not really Jenny but Ali MacGraw, a kind of all-American, Radcliffe madonna figure, and Oliver Barrett 4th is really Ryan O’Neal, an intense, sensitive young man whose handsomeness has a sort of crookedness to it that keeps him from being a threat to male members of the audience. They are both lovely. Then, too, Arthur Hiller, the director, has framed what is essentially a two-character story of undergraduate love with such seeming simplicity that nothing confuses the basic situation. He also associates his film and his characters with all of the good things in life. Jenny and Oliver fall in love in the snow (snow, clean and pure, is very important in the movie.) They court in front of libraries, and they make love (nothing too explicit mind you) while doing homework. When Jenny swears, she fondly uses a four-letter word that was shocking in the fifties, but that even mid-American matrons have heard now. When Oliver graduates from law school, he takes a job with an old, extremely respectable, New York law firm, but it’s one that specializes in civil-rights cases. When Jenny is growing weaker, she can’t remember the Mozart Köchel listings she once knew. Jenny and Oliver have (middle) class. Love Story not only revives a kind of movie fiction that I’d thought vanished, it also revives the rich, WASP movie hero who rebels, but not too drastically, and it brings back the kind of wonderful movie aphorism that persists in saying nothing when it tries to say the most (“love means never having to say you’re sorry”). Francis Lai’s background score, mixes Bach and Mozart and Handel with Lai, and resolutely avoids rock. Although Jenny does disappear at the end, everyone in the audience can take heart in identification—the ladies, because they can see how much will be missed, and the gentlemen, who will have the honor of being abandoned by one of fiction’s most blessed females. I might add that Oliver, though distraught, is also very rich, and he has promised Jenny to be a merry widower. I can’t remember any movie of such comparable high-style, kitsch since Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) and his 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember. The only really depressing thing about Love Story is the thought of all of the terrible imitations that will inevitably follow it.

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