Op-ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Love Story’ (#9)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judge whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
When it came to last week’s entry on AFI’s list, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), I was fascinated by the production of the film due to my interest in Jennifer Jones’s personal life and the ways in which her marriage impacted the romantic dramas she appeared in. I can’t say that I care about the union between Ali MacGraw and Robert Evans so I have almost no emotional investment in Love Story (1970) which is a far more conventional tearjerker. This film is most interesting when viewed as a holdover from the 1960s as it was made in a decade of experimentation and innovation and yet Love Story feels like it could have been made in the era of the studio system. It tells a very basic story about a young couple from different sides of the tracks falling in love and getting married before one of them slowly dies and the audience cries as the happiness experienced by this young couple is destroyed. This is a template that does work and I am susceptible to tearjerkers but I need to invest in the characters and believe in the situation and in this case, I found myself utterly bored by the two protagonists and shaking my head in disbelief at the scenes in which we a watch a dying girl growing even more beautiful.
Last week I talked about a big studio production from the 1950s and it was full of all of the tropes that we associate with that era as it was shot in a foreign location, it featured two major stars and it clumsily dealt with important themes like race. When we think of romance in the 1950s we do think about that sort of film as it was an era in which the studio system was shaky but still dominant and conservative politics reigned. You did get stories about blandly attractive youths who are kept apart for arbitrary reasons getting together before one of them starts to suffer from some disease and both of them get to act noble and serious. This is why a lot of people dismiss the 1950s as a time in which studios were afraid of stepping away from formulas and trying to do something new.
The 1970s are looked at differently as cinephiles will fondly wax poetic about the wonderment of that brief period in which directors like Hal Ashby, Francis Ford Coppola, Sidney Lumet, and Brian De Palma were able to get big studios to invest in their weird, irreverent projects. You typically think of character studies, gangster films, and paranoia thrillers when you think back to this time but you also had kooky little romantic comedies that have come to be regarded as classics. Harold and Maude (1971), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), and What’s Up, Doc? (1972) all feel a little offbeat and inventive because they were produced by directors with unique artistic visions and those directors had the nerve to challenge audiences. I think that we would all like to pretend that these were the only romances that were being made during these time and these are films that still appeal to modern audiences and their weirdness means that there is still a reason to watch them as they could not have been produced at any other time.
Unfortunately, we must admit that while the 1970s were a great decade for cinema it was also a time in which ridiculous, overlong Irwin Allen disaster movies were massive hits and terribly unfunny, sexist comedies adapted from Neil Simon plays were released every year. These productions were not politically progressive and they might as well have been made in the 1950s as women were often presented as sex objects, people of color were pushed into the background, and cliché plots were presented as ‘deep and meaningful’ without a touch of irony or self-reflexiveness. Love Story could have been released in 1955 as it is a shamelessly manipulative tearjerker and it doesn’t aim to do anything new. It feels like a holdover from that decade and it was likely successful because parents were comfortable letting their young daughters watch it. There is a sex scene but for the most part it encourages people to adopt traditional values as two young virginal people get married but the girl’s father gets to give his daughter away and these young people have the sort of perfect marriage that people were told they should have in the 1950s.
The Motion Picture Production Code played a major role in censoring Hollywood films between 1934 and 1968 and it helped to cut nudity, frank explorations of sexuality and relationship issues, and people of color out of cinema. In the 1960s everything started to change and directors started to seriously push back against it with films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) proving that audiences were hungry for cinema that featured curse words and conversations about sex, alcoholism, and painful marriages. In 1969, the industry went wild and films were released that broke every taboo as nudity was suddenly acceptable and producers were eager to cash in on this. There was still a large section of society that disapproved of depictions of sexuality and there were also racists in society who only wanted to see pretty white people who looked and acted as they did. They wanted to see traditional family films that did not push any boundaries and big studios tried their hardest to attract these audiences by pushing out musicals full of ‘pure’ characters. Love Story was almost certainly produced to appeal to this audience and it ticks all the boxes as it does not offend anybody and it ends up seeming so dull because of that.
I already explained the basic outline of the plot but the film concerns wealthy university student and ice hockey player Oliver Barrett, Ryan O’Neal, who has a strained relationship with his overbearing and emotionally distant father, Ray Milland. He falls in love with poor student Jenny Cavilleri, Ali MacGraw, and they are married even though Barrett’s father disapproves of their relationship. They are happy together but she develops a life-threatening illness and Barrett is forced to go to his father so that he can obtain the money that will pay for her treatment. She dies but Barrett has learned about the power of love.
My primary issue with this film is the writing of the characters. At the beginning of the film, we hear O’Neal saying “What can you say about a 25-year old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.” This is a line that suggests how flat and generic that these characters are going to be. What American girl who was alive in the 1970s didn’t like The Beatles? Cavilleri would be more distinctive if she wasn’t a fan of the Fab Four or if she took an interest in a band that wasn’t so aggressively mainstream. If she revealed that she was actually a big fan of Poco and regularly listened to “Just In Case It Happens, Yes Indeed” then I might have thought of her as a more distinctive figure. She is meant to be poor and slightly resentful of the rich kids who surround her at university but other than the opening scene in which she throws weak insults at the boy she likes we don’t see anything that supports the idea that she has a chip on her shoulder. If she had been more insecure about her social position and how poor her father is then there might have been more conflict in her relationship with her rich husband. She could have listened to music that established her working-class background and it could have made her seem different to the rich girls at university who like music that everybody listens to. Instead of giving her any flaws or insecurities, they turn her into a cute young woman who could be any girl in the audience.
I get the fact that you want to relate to the characters in the film and because this was a mainstream production it needed to appeal to a very wide audience but did this mean that the main characters needed to have no character traits. Maybe teenage girls looked at her and liked her because she was pretty and every other character in the film seemed to love her but surely they yearned to experience some of the struggles they went through in day-to-day life. Before she begins dying from a mysterious illness she is just an attractive model who features in scenes that could have come out of a jeans commercial. She drops the snark that she possessed in the opening scene almost immediately and starts to adopt mannerisms that were clearly meant to be whimsical and sweet. MacGraw is an actress of limited talent who never gave a performance that was reliant on anything more than her natural beauty. She isn’t working with much here but she lacks presence as a movie star and started to get on my nerves pretty quickly. She frequently wrinkles her nose and I could sense that she thought this made her look cuddly and worthy of our affection. I just wanted to slap her character whenever she did this and I kept wondering when she was going to start behaving like a human being who isn’t happy 100% of the time.
When she gets sick she starts to act like Greta Garbo and I became even more irritated as she is lit to the heavens and the camera admires her while she is in this suffering, weak position. We are meant to think that there is something glamorous and aspirational about this youthful, highly attractive girl who stoically deals with something that would presumably cause her great pain. We are never allowed to understand how this illness and the slow approach of depth is impacting her on a psychological level. She is saintly in the way that she simply accepts these things and her husband is allowed to express all of the anger while she angelically sits back and counsels him whenever he expresses doubts or concerns. I just don’t think that this is an accurate depiction of what it must feel like to be young, in love, and near-death and it makes young girls think that dying young is a romantic idea. This is a highly problematic notion that was heavily popularized during the 1960s and 1970s as a lot of countercultural icons died young. Dying young allows people to remain young, beautiful, and idealistic forever and it also lets people imagine what they could have been rather than dealing with what they truly were. It is disgusting that the screenwriters chose to turn dying young into something glamorous and their refusal to properly come to terms with how hard it would be to die at this age is angering.
This film also falls into the trap that Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing fell into as its midsection is essentially just an extended montage of two attractive people who are in love doing different activities while looking gleeful. In both cases, these scenes are not used to tell us more about the characters, their personalities, or why they are attracted to one another. They both look nice and they go to scenic areas but this series of fun activities starts to seem boring and repetitive after some time. The characters rarely get to talk and their ‘connection’ ends up seeming so shallow. Yes, they like having sex with one another and the cinematographer is very eager to show us that they both have nice bodies but neither of them seem at all anxious about sleeping together. I don’t think that this was realistic as both characters would seem to be sexually inexperienced based on the limited information we are given and I haven’t met any people in their early twenties who are as confident as these characters. They are meant to be extremely attracted to one another so I assumed that they would be uncomfortable presenting their bodies to one another because they are eager to please the person they are with. This does not turn out to be true and we get a fantasy sex scene in which everything works out perfectly for them. Again, this was probably feeding into the desires of the teenage girls in the audience who wanted to believe that their sexual experiences would be perfect someday but the scene would have been more interesting if it had explored the difficulties that young people face when they have sex with somebody they actually like.
The other activities they perform also lack specificity and that stupid montage of them flopping around in the snow did not put a smile on my face. I also want to touch on that awful, awful line that MacGraw’s character delivers as she says “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” and we are meant to think that this is wise and romantic. Anybody who has ever been in love, whether in a romantic or platonic sense, will know that this statement is factually incorrect. When you love people you often fight with them because you know that your bond with them is strong enough to overcome minor disagreements. You also end up fighting because you have to make some of the most important decisions of your life together and this inevitably creates conflict as you are both under stress when you have to make choices that could irrevocably change your lives. You end up saying sorry to the people you truly love every single day because you end up feeling guilty for arguing with them and because you want to see them happy again you decide to apologize for your rude and inappropriate conduct. If I approached my mother after arguing with her and told her that I shouldn’t have to say sorry to her because I love her I do not think that she would be very happy with me. MacGraw’s platitudinous line is meant to tie everything together and make us weep but she doesn’t impart anything of meaning to the audience when it comes to the experience of being in love.
If I am going to go even further in comparing this to the sort 1950s melodrama that I looked at last week then I would say it falls short in terms of the way it is written and the way it looks. I wouldn’t say that the 1950s were the apex of great screenwriting in Hollywood as you got formulaic scripts full of lines that felt overwritten rather than coming across as breezy and natural. At the same time, there is often a fascinating artificiality to dialogue from 1950s melodrama as a film like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) are full of lines that stretch the bounds of the imagination before becoming so otherworldly and thrillingly odd that you can’t help but be seduced by them. In that film, Ava Gardner’s character says “Yes, I would. I’d die for you without the least hesitation. I know that sounds extravagant. But, I thought about it and I meant it. I’d give up my life for you. That’s the measure of my love. And you? What would you give up?” She delivers lines that are full of platitudes but they take on grandiose proportions and the film never pretends that these are things that people would say in real life. Love Story wants to be realistic and grounded and all of MacGraw’s lines are delivered with a solemnity that made me want to roll my eyes. She delivers bad dialogue in the worst way possible as she acts like she is saying something that is really original and insightful and doesn’t have the sense to realize that she’s in a Hollywood melodrama and not an Ingmar Bergman family drama.
The cinematography is another big issue in this film as we usually look towards romances to give us imagery that evokes the passion and excitement of being in love. So often romances are set in exotic locations where shots of beaches and notable landmarks can be used to highlight the fact that these people are living in a fantasy land of sorts. They usually aren’t trapped in the suburbs where the cinematographer would have to make the broken roof of a tract house look visually stunning. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was not great but at least there was something romantic about the sight of a single tree wavering in the wind at the top of a hill while two lovers frolic around in the grass. Those visuals were what got me through that film but with Love Story I often found myself marveling at just how bland it looked. Brown and white seem to be the only colors that Richard Kratina wanted to highlight so we get plenty of MacGraw and O’Neal wandering around in beige jackets while the snow falls behind them. There is nothing remotely exotic or exhilarating about this! Perhaps these utterly boring colors are meant to represent these lifeless, un-engaging characters rather than adding any texture or detail to the university campus they inhabit.
The production values here are not very strong as the imagery is bland and unmemorable, the costumes don’t tell you anything about the characters and the production designers seemingly forgot what it was like to be a university student. There are posters plastered everywhere in this university but we don’t feel like we are immersed in day-to-day life at this university at any point. Barrett plays ice hockey and appears to be good at everything but we only get brief scenes in which he interacts with members of the student body who are not his wife. It is fun to see Tommy Lee Jones playing his roommate as you would never think that he would go on to become one of the most respected actors of his generation based on his role in this film. He looks too craggy, even as a 24-year old, to be a traditional leading man and you can see why the more traditionally attractive O’Neal was given the leading role in this film. Jones looks like a slightly dangerous older guy who might psychologically torture you on the way home from your first date. I kept entertaining the idea of what this film would look like with Jones in the O’Neal role and while the former wouldn’t be a perfect fit for the part I do think that he would have given a more interesting performance than O’Neal.
I want to close out this article by acknowledging the fact that I was once weak enough to give Love Story a three-star review. Back in the days when I had barely seen any films I was horribly uneducated and I didn’t know what constituted a good romantic drama. Superficially, Love Story had everything going for it and I was blinded by that so I dared to call it passable entertainment that would satisfy the needs of its target audience. I now have more respect for teenage girls and I realize that they could be consuming better entertainment as classic tearjerkers like Shadowlands (1993) exist and they will intellectually engage young women as well as making them feel sad when one half of the central couple dies. I hate myself for having so little self-respect in the past as I should have realized that there were better options out there rather than settling for something as poorly made like this.
I completely hated this film but I can completely see why AFI placed it so high on their list. They are a group of squares who would be resistant to any film that pushed back against the status quo. They are comfortable with something like Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because it is no longer a cause celebre and even the most mainstream critics have embraced it but they can’t handle anything from the 1990s that goes against the grain. Love Story was also a big hit in its day and I have to assume that a lot of AFI voters were part of its target audience when it was released. They were probably swept up in it at the time because it became such a sensation and in voting for it they are displaying the fact that they are nostalgic for a time in which something as unexciting and uninventive as Love Story could be a massive hit. It remains fairly well known as an example of the weepie genre even if modern teenagers aren’t actually watching it and while it doesn’t have critical support behind it I do think that some people still have warm feelings towards it. There are several entries on the list that got in based on populist support alone as the AFI voters didn’t seem to take the opinions of critics very seriously. Obviously, I wouldn’t have placed Love Story on the list at all but I do think that the high placement of the film is a sign that the voters often made poor choices when putting together their ranking.