Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Never Having to Say You're Sorry

"Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Ali MacGraw, 'Love Story'
13th–greatest movie quote of all time,
American Film Institute

Arthur Hiller's "Love Story," which made its debut on this day in 1970, was phenomenally popular. Even after 45 years, it is still one of the highest–grossing movies in American history.

Of course, there is always a market for sappy love stories, and it doesn't get much sappier than blatantly advertising what it is in the title. Most love stories have the decency to try (or appear to try) to conceal the truth until the reader or viewer has made his/her commitment. Not "Love Story."

It was a tearjerker, all right, and proud of it. Ryan O'Neal played a well–to–do law student who fell in love with a free–spirited, even rebellious daughter of a blue–collar working man (Ali MacGraw). She called him "preppy" and "jock." He found her charming, her honesty refreshing. They fell in love. Then she got sick with what has been described as a "movie disease." The disease itself is undefined — although the implication in "Love Story" was that it was some kind of cancer — but it has shown up in many movies since — and whoever gets it is going to die. Of that, you can be sure.

And MacGraw died. There was no physical decline. She was just as beautiful when her character died as she had been when she was healthy.

"What can you say about a 25–year–old girl who died?" asked O'Neal's character in the second–most quoted piece of dialogue from the movie. "That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me?"

In between, there were other issues. O'Neal's father (Ray Milland) threatened to cut off his son financially if he married MacGraw. Of course, O'Neal and MacGraw married, anyway, and then had to struggle to make ends meet. Especially after MacGraw got sick. That development forced O'Neal's character to swallow his pride and approach his father for some financial relief.

Erich Segal wrote the screenplay, then was encouraged by Paramount Pictures to write a novel from the screenplay. The novel was published on Valentine's Day 1970 and became a bestseller well in advance of the movie's release.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote that he read the novel "in about 14 minutes flat, out of simple curiosity. I wanted to discover why 5.5 million people had actually bought it. I wasn't successful. I was so put off by Erich Segal's writing style, in fact, that I hardly wanted to see the movie at all. Segal's prose style is so revoltingly coy — sort of a cross between a parody of Hemingway and the instructions on a soup can — that his story is fatally infected."

But Ebert conceded that he felt the movie was better than the book.

Based on his assessment of the book, I would have to say that it would just about have to be better.

I never read the book, but I saw the movie once. I was unmoved. But lots of people clearly were. MacGraw's character's pearl of wisdom — "Love means never having to say you're sorry" — took on iconic qualities, and the movie's theme song, sung by Andy Williams, was a huge hit. "Love Story" captured the culture's imagination.

Addressing the point that the makers of the movie obviously wanted to move the audience to tears, Ebert wrote, "Is this an unworthy purpose? Does the movie become unworthy, as Newsweek thought it did, simply because it has been mechanically contrived to tell us a beautiful, tragic tale? I don't think so. There's nothing contemptible about being moved to joy by a musical, to terror by a thriller, to excitement by a Western. Why shouldn't we get a little misty during a story about young lovers separated by death?"

Whether it was beautiful is a matter of opinion. That it was tragic was undeniable.

It went on to inspire many other movies, which gave viewers basically the same plot but with a few modest alterations, and most were successful, although none was as successful as "Love Story," the biggest moneymaker Paramount Pictures had ever had.

Today I suppose I find "Love Story" more noteworthy as the movie debut of actor Tommy Lee Jones. He's had better roles since then, but, heck, we all have to start somewhere, right?

The thing that I find really remarkable about "Love Story" is that it was actually nominated for seven Oscars — and won one. It was for Best Music, which I have always thought was more a response to the impressive sales the soundtrack generated than the quality of the score.

But "Love Story" was also nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, and both O'Neal and MacGraw were nominated for their acting.


O'Neal lost to George C. Scott, who famously refused the award, and MacGraw lost to Glenda Jackson.

Thank God cooler heads prevailed.