“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” (What else?)
One often hears about Erich Segal’s book “Love Story” without realizing that the screenplay and film came first. Segal, however, was working on a novelization of his screenplay as shooting progressed and the book actually was published before the film premiered in 1970. Both book and film were exceptionally popular, feeding off each other’s success. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, but won only for its memorable score. Paramount has now released Love Story on DVD in a fine special edition.
Harvard boy Oliver Barrett comes from a rich, preppie background. Radcliffe girl Jennifer Cavalieri comes from a modest background. Preppie boy meets Radcliffe girl. Boy and girl eventually fall in love. Boy and girl marry. Girl falls prey to terminal illness. Boy feels sorry for himself. Finis. (Except that eight years later, in a startling twist [right!], same rich boy meets rich girl in Oliver’s Story, but nobody cared.)
Despite my antipathy towards the two lead actors in Love Story, I like this film overall and I believe I enjoyed it more now than I did upon its original release. (Although I would hope we have progressed from the idea that a woman need give up her aspirations and dreams just so that her husband can chase his.) Its story is simply told and although it relies on the old saw of the fatal illness to tug at our emotions, it does not do so mawkishly. The film is really in two parts — the meeting and courtship culminating in marriage, and the beginning of married life that ends with Jennifer’s illness and passing. There is a truthfulness to the second part that makes it distinctively better and more interesting than the first. Jennifer’s character, and her portrayal by Ali MacGraw, is also somewhat less grating in the second half.
One of the strengths of Love Story is the inspired casting of old pro Ray Milland as Oliver’s father. He’s an old-school father who cannot relinquish control. Much is made of the fact that Milland agrees not to wear his hairpiece for the part. It’s the correct choice, for something as simple as that makes the character seem real. Milland’s portrayal always conveys an air of sadness about the elder Barrett, as though he’s the one hard done by rather than the author of his own misfortune through his inflexibility. A nice contrast is provided by John Marley as Jennifer’s father Phil. He’s obviously of the old school too, but he’s aware enough of changing times to realize that a new generation has to be allowed to make its own decisions, even if they may be contrary to his own beliefs.
Mention of course should be made of Francis Lai’s original score and the beautiful “Love Story” theme that has become so familiar now. The score provides just the right mood throughout, without ever overpowering what’s on screen. Its Academy Award win was well deserved.
Paramount has certainly delivered a stand-out job on its transfer of Love Story. The image is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced, and utilizing 18 scene selections. With the exception of a couple of early scenes that seem a little dark, the image is bright and clear with colours accurately rendered. The transfer was obviously done from fine source material for it is virtually blemish-free. Edge enhancement is non-existent. The film looks every bit as good as when first released.
Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is utilized for both English and French sound tracks. The sound is not particularly dynamic, but it is quite serviceable for this dialogue-driven film. Dialogue is clear and distortion-free and Lai’s music is adequately if not expansively conveyed. English subtitles are also included.
A nice selection of supplements has been included on the disc. The best one is an informative screen-specific audio commentary by director Arthur Hiller. Hiller has a nice folksy style of speaking that makes him a pleasure to listen to. He covers the various production aspects thoroughly in the course of his talk and also throws in some interesting comments on his early days in Canada and how he came to direct for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before going on to feature films. Once you hear the commentary, the other main supplement — a new making-of documentary called “A Classic Remembered” — is redundant. It just consists of Hiller talking about the film, but he says little that he hasn’t already said in the commentary. A theatrical trailer is also included.
I’m a sucker for a well-done love story. Just the night before I watched this DVD, I happened to put on one of my favourite films — Now Voyager (1942, WB), a love story if I ever saw one — and was hooked as usual. The strength of that film is the skill of both Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in the lead roles. It’s that strength that is the weakness of Love Story — the two lead players. Now Oliver and Jennifer are not exactly multi-dimensional characters, but neither of the actors playing them have any great charisma nor do they exhibit any superior acting ability that would make you care greatly about the individuals they’re playing.
Ali McGraw spends most of the first half of the film smirking and trying to create a character seemingly built on sarcasm. Although she tones it down a little in the second half, it’s too late. The empathy that you need to have with the character is never allowed to develop and so you find it hard to care when you find out that Jennifer’s terminally ill. A well-done tragic love story makes you want to cry. Love Story never really does. As for Ali MacGraw, the rest of her career, which went gradually downhill from there, seemed like just a series of variations on the sarcastic, self-absorbed Love Story girl, no matter what the role called for or how she tried. It somehow doesn’t seem surprising to see her now trading on whatever lingering cachet from a 31-year-old role there may be, by hosting films on Encore’s Love Stories channel.
Ryan O’Neal has always struck me as a pretty bland item. He’s okay in Love Story and actually succeeds in giving some feeling of depth to Oliver in the film’s second half. His work is the more accomplished of the two principals, although that’s not saying much. With the exception of Love Story though, it’s always seemed to me that most of those of his films that in any way really succeed, do so more because of the players opposite him. Barbra Streisand comes to mind in What’s Up, Doc? (1972, WB), or Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon (1973, Paramount). O’Neal in some ways reminds me of the very early James Stewart — the easygoing, everyman type but not particularly dynamic. The difference is, Stewart matured and we quickly discovered that he could have a dark side to him. His performances became more richly textured with the passing years. Ryan O’Neal never made that transition, and a quick scan of his filmography indicates only diminishing returns.
Despite my reservations about Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, I like Love Story for the somewhat understated way in which it tells its story, for its wonderful score, and for some fine work from its supporting cast. Paramount has done an excellent job in its transfer of the film to DVD and included an interesting commentary by the film’s director. Recommended.