Love Story: Hollywood’s Popular Romantic Melodrama Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

Love Story:  Schmaltz? Kitsch? Guilty pleasure? Date Movie? Pop Culture Artifact?  All of the above and more!
Five Decades ago, Love Story, Arthur Hiller’s romantic melodrama, based on Erich Segal’s best-selling novel, broke box-office records upon its initial Christmas release. It went on to become one of the top-grossing pictures of 1970: Made on a small budget of about $2 million, the movie grossed over $136 million at the box-office!  
The movie catapulted to major stardom the actors who played the cute couple, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal. The then-unknown O’Neal was not the first choice for the part, and was paid only $25,000.  But he will solidify his leading man position in Bogdanovich’s 1972 screwball comedy, What’s Up, Doc? and Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece, Barry Lyndon.  Tommy Lee Jones made his screen debut in a small part.
The conventions of Hollywood romantic dramas and comedies have changed considerably over the past 50 years, and one wonders if a film like Love Story could have been made in today’s climate, let along touch such deep chords with younger viewers as that movie did back then? 
The novel, penned by Segal, then a Yale professor, tells of Oliver Barrett IV (O’Neal), a handsome, wealthy Harvard University Law grad student. Prince charming meets and falls in love with Jennifer Cavelleri (MacGraw), a bright, sexy, working-class Radcliffe College student. Upon graduation from college, the two get married, against the wishes of Oliver’s stern father, who severs ties with his son.
Without his father’s financial support, the couple struggles to pay Oliver’s tuition, and Jenny, the loyal sacrificing wife, has to work as a school teacher. Then, upon graduating third in his class, Oliver lands a position at a prestigious New York law firm.  The pair decides to have a child, and after failing to conceive, Oliver is informed that Jenny is fatally ill, suffering from an unspecified disease.
Following his doctor’s orders, Oliver attempts to live a “normal life” without telling Jenny of her condition. Jenny, nevertheless, discovers her ailment and begins a costly cancer therapy, which Oliver is unable to afford. Desperate, he seeks financial relief from his father, claiming that the money will be used to pay for an abortion by a girl he got pregnant. 
Meanwhile, from her hospital bed, Jenny speaks with her father about funeral arrangements. Courageously, she tells her lover boy to avoid blaming himself, and asks him to embrace her before she dies.  The tale includes reconciliation between Oliver and his father. When Mr. Barrett realizes why his son borrowed the money, he sets out for New York. However, by the time he reaches the hospital, Jenny is dead, and all he can do is to apologize.
While the movie was in production, Paramount asked Segal to turn his script into a book in order to pre-publicize and promote the movie’s release, and upon publication, the novella became a bestseller on its own terms.
Several lines of the text have entered movie lore, such as the first phrase, spoken in voice-over: “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.”  The most notoriously famous line, however, is “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It is actually spoken twice, once by Jennifer when Oliver is about to apologize for his anger, and then by Oliver himself when his father says, “I’m sorry,” after Jennifer’s death. This quote made it to #13 on the American Film Institute’s AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes.” 
The screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc? which stars O’Neal, mocks the aforementioned trademark line. At the end of that film, when Barbra Streisand says cynically, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” while batting her eyelashes, O’Neal’s character responds: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard!”
Reel/Real Impact:
Placed in broader perspective, Love Story competed for the top Oscar with the WWII biopic Patton, which won Picture, Best Actor for George C. Scott, and other awards; the disaster flick Airport, which inexplicably received ten nominations, but won only one (Supporting Actress to veteran Helen Hayes); Five Easy Pieces, which was nominated for four Oscars but didn’t win any; and M-A-S-H, Robert Altman’s war satire, which had earlier earned the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and later spawned a long-running TV series.
The movie’s melodic theme song, “Where Do I Begin: Love Story,” also became major hit, particularly in the the vocal rendition of Andy Williams.  And several reports indicated that Jennifer became one of the most popular names for baby girls in the U.S. in the 1970s, driven no doubt by the massive status of the novella and the movie. 
As is often the case in the movie industry, the success of Love Story led to a 1978 sequel, Oliver’s Story, which turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment. There have also been countless imitations, parodies, and homages, trying to reinvent Hollywood’s classic romantic melodrama, some of which resulting in the “new” sub-genre of the “chick flick.”
Currently, the movie holds the ninth spot on the AFI’s list of “100 Years… 100 Passions,” which recognizes the top love stories in American cinema.
The fact remains that, despite critical backlash by high-brow reviewers, Love Story has maintained its iconic position as a cultural point of reference, positive, for those who like old-fashioned heartfelt melodramas, as well as negative, for those who dislike manipulative tear-jerkers.