Levy Anatomy: Love Story as Blockbuster in 1970

Decades ago, “Love Story,” Arthur Hiller’s schmaltzy romantic drama, based on Erich Segal’s best-selling novel, broke box-office records, and was one of the top-grossing pictures of the year.
Additionally, the movie catapulted its sweetheart stars, Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, to major stardom—at least in the short run.
Since then, the conventions of the Hollywood romantic drama have changed considerably, and I wondered if such a film could have been made in today’s movie climate, let along become such a blockbuster?
A guilty pleasure par excellence, this tear-jerking melodrama was voted as one of the most romantic dramas by the American Film Institute (#9 on the list). It success led to an even more dreadful sequel, “Oliver’s Story,” in 1978. By comparison, Bette Davis’ melodramas of the 1940s, including “Dark Victory,” in which she gets blind, are pure Hollywood gold; at least they are well acted and enjoyable.
Among other distinctions, “Love Story” marked the film debut of a then-unknown Tommy Lee Jones, who played a minor role and would become a major actor (and Oscar winner) in the future.
The novel, penned by Segal, then a Yale professor, tells of Oliver Barrett IV (O’Neal), a handsome, wealthy boy and a Harvard University grad student. Prince charming meets and falls madly in love with Jennifer Cavelleri (MacGraw), a bright, sexy, working-class Radcliffe College student. Upon graduation from college, the two get married, despite and against the wishes of Oliver’s stern father, who later severs ties with his son.
Without his father’s financial support, the couple struggles to pay Oliver’s way through Harvard Law School; Jenny has to work as a private school teacher. Then, graduating third in his class, Oliver takes a position at a respectable New York law firm. With Oliver’s new position, the pair decides to have a child. After failing to conceive, they consult a medical specialist, who informs Oliver that Jenny is fatally ill, suffering from advanced leukemia.
Following his doctor’s orders, Oliver attempts to live a “normal life” without telling Jenny of her lethal condition. Jenny nevertheless discovers her ailment after confronting her doctor about a recent illness. Their days together seem numbered.
Jenny begins costly cancer therapy, and soon Olive is unable to afford the hospital expenses. Desperate, he seeks financial relief from his father. Instead of telling his father what the money is truly for, Oliver says he needs the money to pay for an abortion with a girl he got pregnant.
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 tightly before she dies.
The tale also includes reconciliation between Oliver and his father. When Mr. Barrett realizes that Jenny is ill and that his son borrowed the money for her, he sets out for New York. However, by the time he reaches the hospital, Jenny is dead. Mr. Barrett apologizes to his son, who replies with the same words that Jenny had once told him: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Segal wrote the screenplay and sold it to Paramount. While the movie was in production, Paramount wanted Segal to write a novel to help pre-publicize the movie’s release on Valentine’s Day! Upon publication, the novella became a bestseller on its own terms.
The film reflected the times: Jennifer most likely has leukemia, but the characters never mention the disease explicitly. In the novelization of the picture, however, the illness is specifically mentioned.
The movie’s main song “Where Do I Begin: Love Story,” was a major hit, particularly the vocal rendition recorded by Andy Williams.
Several lines from the film have entered popular culture, such as the first line, said 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.”
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” is spoken at least twice, once by Jennifer when Oliver is about to apologize for his anger, and then by Oliver to his father when his father says, “I’m sorry,” after Jennifer’s death. The quote made it to #13 onto the American Film Institute’s AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movie Quotes, a list of top movie quotes.
The 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” which stars O’Neal, mocks this 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 with the line: “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Reel Impact
At the beginning of every academic year at Harvard, the movie is screened for freshmen, who generally respond derisively with “Rocky Horror” type catch phrases and antics. Despite a modest critical backlash, the film remains a popular culture icon. It holds the number nine spot on the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Passions, which recognizes the top 100 love stories in American cinema.
The film, which also spawned many imitations, parodies, and homages, reinvented and made commercial the genre of melodrama on the big screen and helped popularize the sub-genre of “chick flick.”
Reportedly, the name Jennifer was the most popular name for baby girls in the U.S. in the 1970s, caused by the status of the book and movie.
Ali MacGraw: Jennifer Cavelleri-Barrett
Ryan O’Neal: Oliver Barrett IV
John Marley: Phil Cavelleri
Ray Milland: Oliver Barrett III
Russell Nype: Dean Thompson
Katharine Balfour: Mrs. Barrett
Sydney Walker: Dr. Shapely
Robert Modica: Dr. Addison
Walker Daniels: Ray Stratton
Tommy Lee Jones: Hank Simpson
Oscar Nominations: 7
Picture, produced by Howard G. Minsky
Director: Arthur Hiller.
Story and Screenplay (Original): Erich Segal
Actor: Ryan O’Neal
Actress: Ali MacGraw
Supporting Actor: John Marley
Original Song: Francis Lay
Oscar Awards: 1
Original Song
Oscar Context
In 1970, “Love Story” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with the the war movie “Patton,” which won Picture, Best Actor for George C. Scott, and other awards, the schlocky disaster flick “Airport,” which inexplicably received 10 nominations, but won only one (Supporting Actress to veteran Helen Hayes); “Five Easy Pieces,” which was nominated for 4, but didn’t win any Oscar; and “M-A-S-H,” the first Robert Altman to be nominated for the top award.
The three categories in which “Patton” lost were Cinematography, which went to Freddie Young for the David Lean romantic epic, “Ryan’s Daughter;” Score, which honored Francis Lai for “Love Story,” and Special Visual Effects, which was given to the war movie, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”