Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Love Story

What can you say about a forty-two year-old film that dies? That it was beautiful and brilliant? It was not. That it loved showing us two bad actors endlessly cavorting in the snow...had no concern whatsoever with dramatic logic or continuity...and still bugs me?

Arthur Hiller’s Love Story was the highest grossing film of 1970. Love Story single-handedly saved Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. Love Story is one of the worst films I have ever seen in my life.  Although Roger Ebert admits to admiring the film (certainly more than the best-selling book by Erich Segal that spawned it), I prefer to side with critics like Judith Christ, who famously said that Love Story was “Camille...with bullshit.”

The film concerns the courtship, marriage, and ultimate tragedy (I would say “Spoiler Alert,” but the FIRST LINE of the film tips it) of Oliver Barrett (Ryan O’Neal) and Jennifer Cavalieri (Ali MacGraw). The film spoke to the generation just coming of age in the early seventies -- the first wave of the massive Baby Boom -- who I am sure “saw themselves” in these two shallow, stereotyped characters.  The film also gave us the immortal line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

This film is decidedly strange in that it chooses to focus on snow and ice hockey and chooses to ignore its own plot, relevant details of that plot, dramatic structure, or any reason why it should exist as a thing.

Armed with a handy stopwatch, I did the following tabulations. See if this makes any goddamned sense:


    Cavorting in Snow: 2m 44s
    Ice Hockey/Oliver Skating: 6m 47s
    Driving an Open Convertible in Freezing Weather: 6m 31s
    TOTAL: 16m 02s


So the film spends more time on the COLD than on Oliver’s three years in law school and more time on the fact that it is WINTER than on either major characters’ dramatic climaxes. Jennifer is diagnosed and dies in a little more than ten minutes. This is TRAGEDY LIGHT...BUT BOY, WAS IT COLD.

The dialogue in this film is what I have often described as a moron’s idea of cleverness. Here is the main characters’ “meet cute:”

Jennifer: You look stupid and rich.
Oliver: Well, what if I'm smart and poor?
Jennifer: I'm smart and poor.
Oliver: Well, what makes you so smart?
Jennifer: I wouldn't go out for coffee with you; that's what.
Oliver: Well, what if I wasn't even gonna ask you to go out for coffee with me?
Jennifer: Well, that's what makes you stupid.

Like Jack and Rose’s problem in Titanic with saying each other’s names too many goddamned times, these young lovers say “Well” quite a lot -- I think it is to give them more time to come up with those uproarious bon mots! Check out this priceless little exchange:

Jennifer: You're gonna flunk out if you don't study.
Oliver: I am studying.
Jennifer: Bullshit. You're looking at my legs.
Oliver: You know, Jenny, you're not that great looking.
Jennifer: I know. But can I help it if you think so?

With this level of sophistication and sarcasm, one would be excused from thinking that the script was some sort of collaboration between Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and the entire Algonquin Round Table. While I was watching the film, I kept waiting for one of the lovers to shout, “I know you are, but what am I?”

The Jennifer character says the word “bullshit” a lot. This is intended to be endearing. It is actually annoying. Perhaps it is meant to make the character relatable and demonstrably middle class; however, Ali McGraw’s highbrow elocution clashes with her working-class vocabulary, and in some scenes she sounds like either a space alien or a dope. Perhaps screenwriter Segal thought it was “hot” that Jennifer curses so much? That is not the way this particular character quirk comes off at all. If he really wanted to make Jennifer “hot,” he would have had her say things like “I am going to make you a grilled cheese sandwich and then give you a blowjob.”

The Oliver character is running away from his immense fortune and his overbearing Dad (Ray Milland). This of course matches my reality because all the rich people I know are involved in an endless, frustrating struggle to run away from their immense fortunes. Visit a rich neighborhood on any afternoon (rich people do not work) and you will witness countless rich people building bonfires on their spacious, well-manicured front lawns using stocks, bonds, and securities for kindling. Then watch them flee!

Also, maybe it is just because I am “old” and a “father,” but Oliver’s dad does not seem like such a bad guy. He drives hours to see his son play hockey, he treats his son to a Harvard education, and he offers to help his son get into a good law school. His crimes? Pressuring his son to do well, and not fleeing his “money bonfire.”

It is hard to decide whose acting is worse in the film. Though both MacGraw and O’Neal were nominated for Oscars, and though this film does concern the problems of rich white people, they both lost. Generations of young men (and Robert Evans) apparently thought Ali MacGraw was sexy and desirable. I beg to differ and would use the adjectives “pug-nosed” and “horse faced.” In fact, with her thick eyebrows and absence of secondary sex characteristics, she resembles nothing less than a teenage boy trying on his mother’s sweaters. Sexy!

Ryan O’Neal, on the other hand, is a beautiful woman -- but his Cigar Store Indian demeanor and lack of acting talent do him in. Here is a game you can play while watching Love Story. Freeze the frame on each of O’Neal’s close-ups. No matter what emotion he is supposed to be conveying (mild bemusement, total infatuation, utter loss, or white guy ennui) his expression never changes. I would say we could turn this into a drinking game, but I think Ryan O’Neal already has.

Eighty minutes into the (ninety-three minute) film, Jennifer is diagnosed with a mysterious terminal illness and dies. I say “mysterious” because no one in the film EVER MENTIONS what goddamned disease it is. Roger Ebert has famously suggested that it is a case of “Ali MacGraw Syndrome, where the victim gets more and more beautiful the closer she is to death.” I guess informing the audience of her exact medical condition would eat into the running time and force the filmmakers to trim some of that precious snow footage.

In fact, Ali MacGraw’s specific illness has plagued filmgoers for decades; but F-Heads, I have figured it out. Given all the snow frolic footage, given the two lovers’ penchant for driving around in an open convertible in the dead of winter, given how often Jennifer attends Oliver’s hockey games in that chilly rink -- could Jennifer have died from DOUBLE PNEUMONIA? I believe I have just solved this little cinematic mystery. You’re welcome!

My other guess was AIDS.

As I mentioned above, the film gave our culture the immortal line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I love my wife -- a lot -- and therefore I find myself saying,  “I’m sorry” on a daily basis. Once every few years, she even says it to me. There is no other human being to whom I have wanted/needed/been required by Illinois law to say “I’m sorry” more often than my wife. I have days where I wake up saying it: “I-I-I-I-I-I,” I start, drawing out and elongating the individual vowels so that I can make a single “I’m sorry” last the entire day. I am usually just finishing the final “R-R-R-R-R-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y-Y!” as I lay my head down in bed at night next to her.

I am in love and have no fortune to flee.

Better Yet: If you are looking for an infinitely better love story, look no further than Casablanca, which is set to be re-released on the Blu-ray on March 27th. To hype the new release, TCM has scheduled screenings of the film in honest-to-God movie theaters on Wednesday, March 21st, the 70th anniversary of the film’s original theatrical release. It is my favorite film -- do not miss it!


  1. Damn, JB, for a buzz kill you did take a mighty fine dump on this movie - I will now avoid it like the whatever disease killed off Ali MacHorseface.

    And, though I'm speaking from a place of limited knowledge, "I would say we could turn this into a drinking game, but I think Ryan O’Neal already has" might be one of the most brilliantly funny things you've ever said/written. Epic burn!

  2. I've never seen the film, and that was a deliberate choice in response to that ridiculous tagline. If those in love never said they were sorry, no one would be in love.

    And Ebert's opinion should always be treated as a mild endorsement or condemnation, he gets the credit he does due to his longevity in his position but he also has a history of puzzling reviews. He gave 1998's Spawn 4 stars, but only 2 1/2 to Die Hard. I rest my case.