Robert Fulford's column about Love Story

(The National Post, February 14, 2000)

In 1970, with the Vietnam War grinding on remorselessly and millions of young people screaming about revolution, Hollywood scriptwriters lived by an iron law: Whatever else a young man does, he must rebel against his father. Love Story, which appeared 30 years ago next month and became its generation's favourite pop romance, applies that rule to a wealthy student riding toward success down the fast track of Harvard Law. Oliver, the hero, has been angry at his rich and bigoted father for years, and finally his rebellion takes tangible form. Against the old man's advice, he plunges into marriage with Jenny, a totally unsuitable woman.

It's only when we consider why she's unsuitable that we realize how quaintly the makers of Love Story framed their drama -- and how long ago 1970 was. Jenny is brilliant, beautiful and articulate, but Oliver's father rejects her because she's lower-middle-class, Italian and nominally Catholic. Today, a rich father considers himself lucky if his son doesn't choose a cross-dresser called Bruce or a bald cocaine addict with seven nose rings. But in 1970 it was still conceivable, by Hollywood standards, that an American plutocrat would insist that his son marry a girl of his own class.

Pauline Kael once remarked that Hollywood didn't make movies about Vietnam while the war was on, but instead filled films on all other subjects with a melancholy Vietnam-era atmosphere. Happy endings disappeared after everyone realized Vietnam could not possibly end happily, and other political themes turned up in coded forms. Love Story fits the Kael thesis. Its plot is a checklist of 1970 obsessions: furious generational conflict, a rich and guilty old man symbolizing the Establishment, and death claiming the young and the beautiful. It's a Vietnam film in which Vietnam remains offscreen.

Love Story begins and ends with death. Both the novel by Erich Segal and the film directed by Arthur Hiller from Segal's screenplay open with the same sentence ("What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?") and both end when leukaemia kills Jenny. And yet the film plays, most of the time, as romantic comedy, in the genre that uses mutual character assassination as erotic foreplay. Like characters in a 1930s comedy, Oliver and Jenny come together by insulting each other; they're the pallid 1970 equivalents of Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, who find each other insufferable until the script of It Happened One Night demands that they fall in love. Oliver calls Jenny "a Radcliffe smartass," Jenny calls Oliver a dumb preppy or a "goddamn hockey jock," and they both find this so exciting they decide to spend their lives together.

Oliver plays hockey and loves fistfights on the ice, especially against "the wild Canadian hordes" on the Cornell team. Jenny plays piano, wins a scholarship to study in Paris and claims to know by heart all the catalogue numbers that Ludwig von Kochel gave to Mozart's music.

Ali MacGraw, as Jenny, is visually period-perfect: shiny black hair ironed flat, big glasses with black rims, woolly jumpers and orange pantyhose. As an icon she's great; it's just the acting that gives her trouble. This film made her reputation, such as it was, but she's never better than awkward, a bad reader of her lines and a shameless mugger. She projects what would be in real life an unbearable conceit, under the impression that it's attractive.

Ryan O'Neal may be no better as Oliver, but he's not trying so desperately hard to be cute. Ray Milland's character, the father, has been described by his son as a walking Mount Rushmore stone sculpture, so Milland sees no reason to deploy more than two expressions, stern and sorrowful, which as it happens look remarkably alike.

John Marley makes a more agreeable impression as Jennifer's father, a salt-of-the-Earth Italian baker. This was two years before he achieved immortality in The Godfather as a vehemently anti-Italian movie producer, Jack ("Johnny Fontane will never get that movie! I don't care how many dago guinea wop greaseball goombahs come out of the woodwork!") Woltz, whose mind is changed when he awakens to find the bloody head of his favourite horse sharing his bed.

Oliver is properly called Oliver Barrett IV. That gives him pain but gives Jenny the best line in the movie: "I love not only you yourself. I love your name. And your numeral." Along the way Oliver reveals himself as a whiner, one of those rich people who want pity for being rich. When he breaks with his father and sacrifices all future financial aid, he assumes Harvard Law will automatically give him a scholarship.

Naturally he's angry when the dean suggests that since this year's scholarships have all been awarded, it might be easier to reconcile with dad.

To Oliver, this is just one of the mortifying afflictions that come with being rich. "Why should I be penalized?" he says. But rebellion has its limits. He doesn't give back the dashing English roadster with the right-hand drive, which we can be fairly sure he didn't buy with the proceeds from a paper route. It turns out that Oliver can always find something to complain about. In Oliver's Story (1978), the highly forgettable (and in fact pretty well forgotten) sequel directed by John Korty in 1978, Oliver is a widower of some 18 months' standing. He faces a tough problem: Candice Bergen is coming on rather aggressively. Annoys the hell out of him, of course.

The catchphrase connected with Love Story was as loopy as anything else in the film: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." It was used in all the ads and it briefly entered the language. Nobody knew what it meant, but after a while people began assuming that it must be grounded in philosophical wisdom. It comes up when Jenny tries to make peace in Oliver's family and he shouts at her, "Get the hell out of my life!" Later he says he's sorry, and she, weeping, says, "Don't. Love means never having to say you're sorry." By emphasizing "say," Jenny may mean that when you feel true love, you apologize through your actions. Or maybe she means that the person who was wronged will sense intuitively that the transgressor is sorry. That's not exactly Plato -- in fact it's not Khalil Gibran -- but even that possibility dissolves at the end of the film when Jenny dies and stiff old Oliver Barrett III says he's sorry. Oliver IV replies, "Love means ..." etc., but this time without the emphasis on "say." Clearly, Oliver IV didn't understand it any better than anyone else.

Love Story was a major event for several of the people involved. Erich Segal, a young classics professor best known for Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus, decided to go for money as well as distinction, scored with Love Story and has since spent most of his life as a dedicated schlockmeister without ever coming anywhere near his first success.

It brought him a welcome celebrity for a time and the opportunity to explain in public the similarities between his work and that of Charles Dickens -- rather like Jacqueline Susann a couple of years earlier or Tom Wolfe three decades later. "Great art is often disdained by the critics," Segal liked to say.

Arthur Hiller, the director, who was born in Edmonton and trained at CBC Toronto, remembers that almost no one working on Love Story had any idea they were generating a megahit. "We thought we were making a nice little movie, which we had to bring in under $2-million. The producer was the only one who thought it might be really successful. I told him he had to believe that, because he was the producer." Hiller liked the story, so he agreed to accept a quarter of his normal fee -- and then, during the pre-production period, was asked to reduce it still further, in return for a piece of the theoretical profits. But the profits turned out to be real. Right after it opened, Love Story drew lineups wherever it played, the money poured in and at the end of the day Hiller was left financially comfortable. He wrote the producer a note saying, "I'm a believer."

Hiller considers Love Story one of his best four or five movies (The Americanization of Emily is probably his finest) and thinks it arrived at just the right moment: "The audience was ready for an affirmation of the human spirit."

Segal and Hiller apparently had a rule against surprising their audience: Love Story feels as if every character was rented from the stereotypes collection at central casting. Remarkably, however, people are still arguing about who inspired these ciphers. Janet Gartner, a pianist and music coach in Greenwich, Conn., claims that she was the basis of Jenny. Segal told her so, Gartner says; he called the book "a 258-page love letter." (Actually, the first edition was 131 pages, but if the quote is accurate he might have meant the manuscript.)

Gartner kept this a secret from all but her family, until recently. What made her publicize it was the news that Vice-President Al Gore had said that he and his wife, Tipper, inspired Oliver and Jenny. (Gore now says he was misunderstood.) Segal says he may have taken some characteristics from Gore but borrowed more from Tommy Lee Jones, Gore's college roommate (who has a bit part in Love Story as a student, credited in those days as "Tom Lee Jones"). Oliver might well have been based on Gore or Jones, but he might just as easily have been based on any old Henry Fonda movie.

Obviously, this is not the perfect rental for Valentine's Day. But despite all the gaucheries, the pathetic climax works. Looking at it now is like digging an ancient piece of machinery out of an old warehouse and discovering that if you oil it a bit, the damn thing still runs. Hiller set out to make a moist and manipulative romance. He succeeded in 1970, and he succeeds now. He wrings us out like a dishcloth. His famous tearjerker, I have to confess, can still jerk a few tears.

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