Love Story (1970)

Dir. Arthur Hiller. Starring Ryan O’Neal, Ali McGraw, Ray Milland

This is a movie about two and a half things. The half-thing is Harvard, which always manages to insert itself into places it doesn’t really have any reason to be, though I appreciate the commitment to the bit and I also appreciate how this movie wouldn’t have been made if these people went to Macalester. Here’s the thing about Harvard, and, aside from Erich Segal’s fascination with the place he went to school, the reason it’s set in and around the place. It’s because having gone to Harvard is, in the popular imagination, a replacement for a personality. You may apply to that to anyone in the news you care to apply it to, and it’ll be true. In Love Story, Harvard is American history and American greatness and American noblesse oblige all tumbled on top of itself. Oliver (O’Neal) is strangled by Harvard as much as he’s strangled by his dad (spoiler alert), the fact of a Barrett Hall on campus named for a forefather, the fact that everyone else in his family going all the way back is a Harvard man, the expectation that Harvard is just the beginning. For so many people, Harvard is just success, and in Love Story Oliver’s success, or at least his outstanding good fortune, is what he’s trying to extricate himself from. This hardly makes Oliver a more interesting person—again, a replacement for a personality, not a personality in itself—but it shows the movie is aiming at a certain set of values before we know anything about the principals.

The second thing is the title. For some stretches of the movie, Love Story is ostensibly just that, and we see how Oliver and Jenny (McGraw) get on, how they fall in love, how Oliver chooses her above breeding and family and money, and then about how little time they have together before Jenny croaks. I feel like I’ve spent years of my life throwing shade at Ryan O’Neal, but he definitely deserves the lion’s share of praise to be divvied up among the movie’s central couple. O’Neal is at least slightly compelling. Ali McGraw (and perhaps more importantly, Ali McGraw’s lines) just aren’t. There isn’t anything new in a girl whose primary language is a defensive, probing sarcasm, and there isn’t enough difference between the irony and the real person to make us think that we’ve scratched the surface of someone new under the jaunty facade. Oliver, at least, must alter a little. Dragged out of his preppy milieu by his impatience and pride, we at least get a shot at seeing what he would have been like if he’d grown up, say, in Cranston, Rhode Island, and needed to work his way through school. Jenny is just talented and ironic and pretty and wry and doomed, and it’s possible she only dies because her body is in solidarity with her personality. Yes, they have a good time rolling in the snow together, and they have long talks in Oliver’s tiny car, and they have a bit about carrying her over the threshold. It never crosses the line, though, to the point where the movie invites you to imagine what that’s like as opposed to inviting you to imagine what that would be like if it were you. What would it be like to be Oliver and Jenny, wrapped up in each other for the unfathomable reasons that any two people get together, the collection of small moments that adhere and fuse together that no one else can fully list, to have moments which persist far beyond what anyone might have predicted and to have moments which seem important and which turn out to be motes. “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” aside from being a line that Peter Bogdanovich got to make fun of himself just two movie roles later, sums up the nothingburger quality of this relationship. I mean, that’s it? That’s love? That’s what spins these people together and keeps them together through their troubles, all the way to their deaths? Okay, boomer!

But the first thing, which is what the movie is really about even when it says it’s about the second, is how Oliver rejects his father. Love Story is not an uninteresting movie when it’s about generational warfare, the asphyxiating pressure brought on the new guard by the old one. Without overstating the point, there’s a bit of zeitgeist-flavored competition in the works, one which The love story seeps into the fight between Oliver Barrett 4 and Oliver Barrett 3 (Milland), as Jenny is the one who insists loudest that Oliver reunite with his father, and whose death opens a door for the two of them to reconnect (once Oliver 4 leaves the bleachers, presumably). That is almost certainly when the movie is worst, not merely because of how gauche it is to use a women’s death as a tool to bring papa and sonny-boy together again, but because it’s plain tiresome. We barely get any time to watch Milland crush O’Neal under the wheel, and less than that to see O’Neal get under Milland’s skin. Things are just bad between a Brahmin and his son, and all it is is a difference of personality. Oliver 4 wants to go to Harvard Law, become a prosperous lawyer. Oliver 3 wants the same things for him, but he wants to put his foot on the scale to ensure they happen; Oliver 4 rejects that help up to the point where he would still take Oliver 3’s money for tuition. Maybe this is just stubbornness, and to some extent Love Story is about this stubbornness, too, and how foolish it is in the end. If that’s the case, though, then why make something this pointless into the key position to struggle against for Oliver and Jenny? The only obstacle to their happiness until her inevitable demise is Oliver’s dad, and the movie shows how unimportant that is by making the difference in planned results so minuscule. Even Jenny, whose station Oliver 3 doesn’t much care for, is not a real obstacle. Finish law school and then get married, Oliver 3 says. Then we’ll know that the love affair (which is still fairly new!) has legs. Jenny has a scholarship to study music in Paris; they could do long-distance, hard as it is, apply themselves the studies they care about, and come back to one another then. This strikes Oliver as a terrible deal and he storms of out of the room, and the rest of us sigh a deep sigh and sigh, “Youth, youth!”

This is one of those movies where you kind of want to shake the people involved and tell them to save themselves and jump off this ship while they can. Francis Lai’s theme is maybe the single best thing about the movie, melancholy and touching in a way that Love Story never is on its own. Ray Milland is very good, very closed-off as Oliver’s dad, and John Marley is very funny and very kinetic as Jenny’s. Clearly, there’s someone behind the camera with a brain. Arthur Hiller is the same guy who made The Americanization of Emily, which is a really great picture, and one that I don’t think would be caught dead in association with this one. In that movie, Hiller showed himself capable at presenting some cynicism, some darkness, some real skepticism about people’s willingness to act in good faith. None of that’s here, clearly, but the storyteller is not missing. There are long stretches of the picture which get by on images and music, eschewing dialogue entirely and asking his performers to do just that. That long sequence where Jenny and Oliver spend a day in the snow is shot well enough, and there’s something like a home movie quality to some of its messiness; I even liked the scene where you can watch Oliver thinking about whether or not all his sacrifices were worth it as he sells Christmas trees to supplement their paltry income. These are both scenes without dialogue and with O’Neal, who can look regretful or happy enough to make us believe, more or less, what he’s suppose to be feeling.

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