Films aim to manipulate. They want us to feel a certain way, and so they go about playing with our emotions until they reach their desired effect. They toy with us, try to control us, and when a film is great, we’re completely at its mercy.
There’s no questioning Love Story’s agenda. It opens with the line “what can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles and me?” It’s clear as day then, director Arthur Hiller wants little more from us than to cry. That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with a film asking us to do this, but when it’s so overt in it’s manipulation, so transparent and heavy-footed with it’s pathos, you can’t help but feel the magic is lost.
Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O’Neal) and Jenny Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw) are the perfect, handsome couple whom the love story revolves. They hail from opposing backgrounds, Oliver is studying law at Harvard, but who reluctantly sits on an imposing family fortune, while Jenny is working class, her father a baker, and studies music at Radcliffe College.
The two are immediately taken with another, admiring each other’s self-assuredness and intellect. They’re the only match for one another, and the film quickly becomes about their various struggles as they tough their way through college and marriage, from financial trouble, to diametric class, and of course Jenny’s crushing illness.
To its credit, Love Story is a juggernaut. It dominated the box office in 1970, and it has become a measuring stick for its genre. Its immortal refrain, “love means never having to say you’re sorry” has become the battle cry for the melancholic chick-flick, its characters have provided the stencils from which all subsequent films of similar intent have outlined their key players and story. The social dichotomy of the young lovers, the disapproving aristocratic parents, the noble and accommodating parent of the other, economic struggle, familial resentment, Love Story is one of those film’s that upon seeing it, puts all following films of the genre into perspective. The tropes started here, these are the footprints that are being traced.
Love Story may be the originator, but that doesn’t make its story any less contrived or obvious.
Franic Lel’s Oscar winning Bach-ian score attempts to sombrely dance around the young lovers but in reality tip toes on a creaky floor, its attempt to subtly colour is too a blatant spear for the tear glands. The film’s character arcs are predictable and by-the-numbers, and as a whole, the picture wallows in sentimentality.
And yet, on some level, Arthur Hiller does rope you into his romance. Transparency aside, Love Story is injected with vigour, its pair of leads are virile and vibrant. It succeeds in the personality it brings to its central characters, however simplistic their journey may be. Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw have an engaging, quick witted chemistry, crisply hurling verbal barbs at one another as quickly as they embrace. O’Neal’s buff, tough-guy veneer masks a core of vulnerability which he carefully strips away and MacGraw, underneath all the melancholia, gives the film a much needed zeal. She’s foul mouthed, and sharp tongued, and she wonderfully straddles the tight rope of overconfidence and tenderness.
The most emotionally honest portrayal comes from John Marley as Jenny’s father, who in a nice touch of character is only referred to as Phillip, even by his daughter. Marley is wonderfully affectionate in his role, putting up a fantastically lousy face of no reservations for the benefit of the couple, despite his obvious qualms of their social difference and their rejecting of religious norms. However he’s never sardonic or judgmental, just loving.
But we’re never allowed to enjoy the film’s characters for too long. Time and again we’re bashed over the head with clumsy schmaltziness. Hiller’s direction, with his weepy outbursts and obtrusive use of score, serve as constant reminders that we’re being manipulated. We’re never given the chance we’d like to lose ourselves in the romance of Oliver and Jenny, the film instead tripping over its own feet in its race for affect.
Love Story could be absorbing, there is affection and personality in it, but the best tear-jerkers make you cry. This one asks you to.