Watching “Love Story” again, 50 years later, I found it terribly disappointing.
The film was an enormous hit at the box office, earning $130 million—the equivalent of $1 billion today.
It was a box-office phenomenon, a tearjerker that offered its audience a classic love story filled with amorous scenes and, ultimately, tragedy.
Fifty years later, I found the two leads far less appealing than I remembered. Ryan O’Neal, who plays highly-privileged Oliver Barrett IV, and Ali MacGraw, who plays Jenny, a super-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, encounter each other on the Harvard campus as undergrads. After some sparring, they quickly fall into each other’s arms. But I didn’t find either them or their relationship overwhelmingly endearing.
Ali MacGraw’s character, Jenny, strikes me now as borderline obnoxious. She’s constantly smirking, overly impressed with her brain-power and witty repartee.
Even Oliver, who falls madly in love with her, calls her “the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass” and a “conceited Radcliffe bitch.” (As you probably know, Radcliffe was the women’s college affiliated with Harvard before Harvard College itself admitted women.)
Jenny would repeatedly retaliate, ridiculing Oliver by calling him “preppie,” a term used at the time by non-privileged students in an attempt to diminish the puffed-up opinion that privileged prep-school graduates had of themselves.
Jenny may have been Hollywood’s version of a sharp young college woman of her time, but 50 years later, I view her character as unrelatable and hard to take.
I received my own degrees at a rigorous college, a demanding grad school, and a world-renowned law school. My classmates included some of the smartest women I’ve ever known. But I don’t recall ever encountering any bright young women who exemplified the kind of “smart-ass” behavior Jenny displays. If they existed, they clearly stayed out of my world.
The film has other flaws. In one scene, filmed near a doorway to Langdell Hall (the still-imposing law school building that houses its vast law library), Jenny bicycles to where Oliver is perched and proceeds to make him a peanut butter sandwich while he is so engrossed in his recognizably red Little Brown casebook that he barely notices her presence. This scene is ludicrous. Law students are traditionally super-focused on their studies. Well, at least some of them are. But Oliver’s ignoring a beloved spouse who’s gone out of her way to please him in this way is offensive and totally contrary to the “loving” tone in the rest of the film. In short, ludicrous.
The movie also became famous for its often quoted line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” The absurdity of that line struck me back in 1970 and has stayed with me ever since. I’ve never understood why it garnered so much attention. Don’t we all say “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something hurtful? Especially to someone we love?
Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in March 2021 (on CBS Sunday Morning), both Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal (still vibrant and still in touch with each other) confessed that they never understood the line either. “What does it mean?” Mankiewicz asked. MacGraw’s response: “I don’t know.”
One more thing about that famous line: If you watch the hilarious 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” you’ll probably get a kick out of a scene at the very end. Barbra Streisand cleverly mocks the “Love means never…” line while traveling on a plane with her co-star (and “Love Story” lead) Ryan O’Neal.
Another line in the film, this one spoken by Oliver’s father, struck me as remarkable as I listened to it 50 years after the film first appeared. When his father, played by veteran actor Ray Milland, learns that Oliver has been admitted to Harvard Law School, he tells Oliver that he’ll probably be “the first Barrett on the Supreme Court.” Just think about this line. Who could have predicted in 1970 that someone named Barrett would actually be appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020? (My opinion of that appointment? No comment.)
One more thing about Jenny: Yes, women used to give up great opportunities in order to marry Mr. Right, and many probably still do. But I was heartily disappointed that Jenny so casually gave up a scholarship to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger so she could stay in Cambridge while Oliver finished his law degree.
What’s worse, instead of insisting that she seize that opportunity, Oliver selfishly thought of himself first, begging her not to leave him. Jenny winds up teaching at a children’s school instead of pursuing her undeniable musical talent.
I like to think that today (at least before the pandemic changed things) a smart young Jenny would tell Oliver, “I’m sorry, darling, but I really don’t want to give up this fabulous opportunity. Why don’t you meet me in Paris? Or wait for me here in Cambridge for a year or two? We can then pick up where we left off.”
But I’m probably being unfair to most of the young women of that era. I’m certainly aware that the prevailing culture in 1970 did not encourage that sort of decision.
When I decided to marry Marv in 1971 and leave my job at UCLA to move with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I wasn’t giving up anything like Paris and Nadia Boulanger. For one thing, I had had a perilous experience in LA with a major earthquake and its aftershocks. [Please see my post, “I Felt the Earth Move under My Feet,” July 17, 2019.] I was also aware of other negative features of life in LA.
And shortly after Marv asked me to marry him, we set off on an eight-day road trip from LA to San Francisco, via Route 1, along the spectacular California coast. Spending every minute of those eight days together convinced me that Marv and I were truly meant to be together. (On one memorable occasion, while dining at The French Poodle restaurant in Carmel, Marv insisted that the server let me, not him, taste our wine before accepting it for our dinner. In 1971, this was absolutely stunning.)
So I decided, on balance, that moving with Marv to Ann Arbor would mean moving to a tranquil, leafy-green, and non-shaky place where I could live with the man I adored. The man who clearly adored me, too.
I was certain that I would find interesting and meaningful work to do, and I did.
Both of us hoped to return to California after a few years in Ann Arbor, where Marv was a tenured member of the University of Michigan math faculty. (He’d been at UCLA in a special one-year program and had to return to Ann Arbor in 1971.)
But when that didn’t work out, and we jointly decided to leave Ann Arbor, we settled elsewhere—happily–because it meant that we could stay together.
I’ve made many unwise choices during my life. The list is a long one. But choosing to marry Marv, leave LA, and live with him for the rest of our gloriously happy married life was not one of them.
The unwise choices were my own, and loving Marv was never the reason why I made any of them.
On the contrary, life with Marv was in many ways the magical life I envisioned when we shared dinner for the first time at Le Cellier in Santa Monica in October 1970.
It was, in the end, and forever, another love story.
Postscript: If Marv were still here, we’d be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this month.
Susan, I read your “Another love story” and found it so interesting. Believe it or not, I never saw the original; probably because I was so counterculture then or took stances that were; and the film seemed too maudlin and maybe mawkish. But everyone knew about the plot and the lines you quote. Now reading more details about it, I don’t think it has stood up to the test of time–yours, mine & even Rotten Tomatoes.
Weaving your personal story in as only you do so well was brilliant. Especially focusing on women’s education, societal expectations and professional choices of women. The Hollywood Love Story played to all the cliches and didn’t go deeper because they wanted a tear-jerker. Looking back, maybe Jenny’s demise was symbolic? (Though a horrible young death should never be spoken of that way.) I can’t remember the specifics though I do remember the film was controversial in probably all the points you mentioned and most of all misrepresenting both sides of the tracks for optimal drama.
I love reading all you write. C
Very nice, Susan
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