Directed by: Arthur Hiller
Premise: College students (Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal) from different socioeconomic backgrounds fall in love.
What Works: The success of a movie romance will usually depend on two things. First, the couple must be believable and the viewer must want to see them together. This is where chemistry, as vague a term as any in film criticism, is critical and cinematic romances may be doomed before they even begin because of miscasting. Second, the filmmaker must move the viewer by tapping into the passion that we want to experience but they mustn’t do it so obviously that the machinations of the movie become plain. This is when romance becomes sentimentality and it turns off a viewer like a false note in a familiar piece of music. Love Story is one of the most successful cinematic romances ever made because it succeeds in both of those criterions. The movie presents the viewer with a pair of lovers played by Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal and they are among the most watchable and memorable of on-screen couples. The two are pleasing enough on the eye but they also possess a liveliness that is unusual not only in movies but in real life romances as well. Part of what viewers seek in a romantic story is an idealized version of courtship and partnership and the couple played by MacGraw and O’Neal embody that ideal. They are the couple that viewers would want to double date with and they represent the vibrant relationship that many of us desire. This is partly achieved through the film’s snappy dialogue and MacGraw in particular gets a lot of clever and caustic lines. Yet, as snarky as the characters of Love Story can be, they are not obnoxious and the film does not come across as cynical or too cool for its own good. That is one of the extraordinary elements of the film. Love Story was released in 1970 but the picture is strikingly contemporary and yet many of today’s filmmakers would do well to learn from the subtle successes of this film. The wit of the characters makes them smart but they are not so glib as to be alienating and the filmmakers never give the impression of being above the material. Love Story also comes across as contemporary in its regard for sexuality, romance, and religion but here too the filmmakers demonstrate a great degree of subtlety. The couple is not traditional but the movie does not belittle tradition and it makes an effort to make clear that the couple is in love, not above it. In that respect, Love Story is very much a picture of its time; the film captures the optimism of the counter cultural generation but that optimism crashes headfirst into reality and that tension speaks to viewers of any age.
What Doesn’t: In terms of its filmmaking style, Love Story is clearly a movie of the early 1970s. This was a time of newfound creativity that produced many of Hollywood’s greatest works but it was also a period of transition, particularly in acting as the stagy performances of classic Hollywood movies gave way to the naturalistic style of contemporary films. The movie noticeably shifts between these styles from scene to scene, with the actors sometimes playing it subtly but at other times performing more like they are in a theater. The other element of Love Story that comes across as off-key is the subplot between Ryan O’Neal’s character and his father, played by Ray Milland. The conflict between the two men is sometimes forced and the final moments of the movie pass up an opportunity to give their narrative a satisfying closure.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: Love Story is a nearly perfect movie romance. It provides the viewer with an engaging couple that possess a vibrant affection and the filmmakers put the audience through exactly the kind of emotional wringer that viewers seek from a movie of this kind.
Episode: #478 (February 16, 2014)