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Movies Love Story at the Cleveland Circle, possibly forever

By Thomas Geoghegan

DON'T be mean to Love Story, Maybe it's true what they argue around Nini's, maybe there is a Harvard just for lovers. You know there won't be a dry eye left in Hilles when the angels finally come to stifle Ali McGraw's death rattle amid strains of Mozart and Musak. Once those tears well up in Ryan. O'Neal's eyes, maybe the Law School will triple its scholarship program. Then alumni may make chaste suggestions for a Barrett obelisk or a Cavilleri mummy. Why, if he has not done so already, John Dunlop could turn over the Yard to Hollywood Rents and really cash in on the Love Story bonanza-Harvards' biggest impact on the public imagination since the glass flowers.

Love Story is the simple story of an amazing commercial enterprise, showing scores of Hollywood hacks how to package a mawkish screenplay into a "promo" for the movie even before it is released. If the literary residue has all the integrity of Newspeak, it reads so quickly that you finish before you really begin. By eliminating antique appendages like adjectives and adverbs, Segal created the Evelyn Wood Primer without the Evelyn Wood course. His novel naturally made the critics apoplectic. What more serious writers hoped to develop-the cinematic novel-Segal achieved rather grossly in a pulp classic that has more blackouts than Laugh-In or Meander. The GWTW Margaret Mitchell shouldn't be living at this hour to see how Hollywood has bastardized the best-seller. Segal's screenplay has so little substance that the movie had to be padded just to make it feature length.

Of course, some of the reviewers have made too much of this. Segal's fairy tale has more staggering implications for the GNP than it does for literature. College bookstores are peddling the paperback by the carton, no longer pretending even to unpack the crates.

But the more phenomenal craving has come from the middle-aged reading public, which senses here the moral armageddon of the '70s-New Freedom Meets the Old Schmaltz. Love Story is Forest Lawn's attempt to bridge the generation gap. The dialogue of the two "now" lovers will easily set back the counter-culture three centuries. Their mighty efforts to keep it cool result in funky gems like, "Oh, we're a little negative on the God bit." All this comes with the most maddening smirk, which Ali-Jenny indulges whenever she calls her lover "preppie"-a dangerous line from a Rad-lib Wellesley heroine with fewer Italian gestures than Oliver Barrett III.

What is this thing called, love? Ali and Ollie devote the film to capping each other down like two high school sophomores. Their got-you-last verbal-sparring persists right into the deathbed scene. If the romance seems to mature a little by then, it still leaves you wondering how they have stood each other for so long. Segal's one great profundity, crashing down out of nowhere, hardly resolves the confusion. "Love," say Ali and Ollie, "means never having to say you're sorry." That sounds more like brinkmanship than love.

But Arthur Hiller's film falters only if you worry about Segal's driveling screenplay. The two principals are warm and likeable even if their characters are not, and by tenderly framing their creamy faces and soulful gazes, Hiller saves a pretty stale marriage. The director of Airport knew what he was about even if Segal didn't: a shrewd remake of a Claudette Colbert-Bette Davis tear-jerker, a wet and sloppy romantic interlude which ends in no good for one more tough American broad. Although the death watch exploits Ryan O'Neal as the rebellious scion with a lump in his throat, the real focus of this 1940 star-posturing is Ali McGraw. (Had she worn the midi, it would have been a little too ludicrous.)

The plot of Love Story seems almost incomprehensible to a modern audience. Ollie's capacity for social outrage consists of marrying a girl who looks more at home in a country club than he does. Three years after Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? , Segal's hero is scarcely able to kiss a Cliffie who merely claims to be a former Italian Catholic. With poker face, Jenny attributes the crazy affair to the liberal atmosphere at Harvard-or Mother Leveller, as she is known to friends. Jenny always mentions her family's poverty with vague discomfort, as would any girl with so formidable a wardrobe. For proof positive to WASP America or her priest-ridden childhood, she wears a crucifix in bed. No wonder Ollie's parents tried to stop the marriage.

HILLER disengaged Harvard a bit from the original screenplay, and it is probably just as well. The chase scene has Ollie search for Ali by running up the steps of Widener for a quick glance in the window. Another shot has road signs in the middle of Harvard Yard, the arms pointing west to University Hall and east to Barrett nee Emerson Hall. Ollie's roommate must sleep on a couch in another suite whenever Jenny spends the night, although on camera the lovers share only the single bed in Ollie's suite. Most annoying of all, the newlyweds take up forty minutes of the film to bitch about a perfectly wonderful Cambridge apartment which you could never find in real life. The list could go on, touching anachronisms like the Radcliffe Library or bogus encounters with Law School deans.

Meanwhile, the rest of the country is heaving, sobbing, sniffling, and otherwise ignoring these fine academic distinctions. The softer the crying on the screen, as Hiller knows, the louder the crying in the theatre. When Jenny bids the world farewell, surrounded by so many brave manly fronts-never mind how weak inside-much of the audience simply loses control. Ollie's father (Ray Milland), a stingy old moneybags with a dirty mind, does a heartwrenching doubletake when he hears the dire tidings. The illiterate Italian piety of Phil (John Marley) also deepens the gloom and proves the movies has at least one ethnic. But it is Ryan O'Neal who has been plucking the heartstrings and pursestrings of the ladies of America. Alas, his much discussed son Bozo turns out to be a cruel mirage, a common enough sexual predicament in modern drama. Had there been a child, though, it could have all led to an admirable TV series-the courtship of Jenny's husband or perhaps the making of a widower.

A Footnote on Stardom: The main attraction at a cocktail party held last year for the principals of Love Story and the Boston press was Ali McGraw. She spent the first half-hour seated at a corner table and surrounded by six editors of the Wellesley News. It looked as if the entire staff had shown up to interview her, and one of the girls told me, "She's our most famous alumna since Madame Chiang Kai-shek." Prettier, too, I thought, but the editor sniffed, "Oh, I don't know, she looks thirty to me,"

Later in the evening, Arthur Hiller confided a few observations of his own. "I talked with those Wellesley girls and they said, 'You know, Mr. Hiller, you're going to have a problem with the Harvard guys. You'll be filming a big Hollywood movies on their campus, but they'll pretend to ignore you. They'll keep their cool at all times.' Well, now, I don't think that's so. I was up in Harvard Yard yesterday, walking with Ali McGraw, and you should have seen the freshmen hanging out the windows yelling-Aliiiiiiiii, yoo hoooooo.'

"Come on, you guys aren't all that nonchalant."

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