This movie came out when I was two, but it was such a sensation that the paperback novel was always laying around my house, and the soundtrack LP was in my family’s stack, and it was sometimes discussed, or watched when on TV. So, curious about the whole phenomenon, and whether it might be delightful to watch a big weepy 70s melodrama, I decided to confront the film for myself. It turned out to be far worse than I imagined.
We begin with the familiar theme, the one whose song goes “Where do I begin…” as we see Ryan O’Neal sitting alone in a snowy Central Park, and a voice-over says “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” We then flash back, to him meeting her in a library. There is some socio-economic tension as he is from Harvard and she is at Radcliffe [I think], and she keeps calling him “preppie” and throwing multiple other lines of snot and derision at him, making him of course fall for her. You see, THIS is why I’m single: because when someone is a hateful asshole to me, I assume they don’t like me. And Jenny, that’s Ali McGraw’s name here, is completely snide, affected, superior and generally insufferable for the first 20 minutes here, so naturally O’Neal’s Ollie falls for her.
So it would seem that Ollie is from the Barrett family, as in Barrett Hall, a place on campus. His family is hyper-rich, but Ollie, human equivalent of a big, stupid St. Bernard that he is, just wants to follow his heart and play hockey. His father, played by Ray Milland, the bargain John Houseman, wants him to go to Harvard Law and become a lawyer, but Ollie doesn’t want to go there—because they have no hockey team! And it’s one of these impasses where Dad needs to recognize that hockey is just as valid as Harvard Law, and you can guess about how quickly that’s about to happen. Dad was also a big academic star when he was in school and never says anything nice! I would ask if Ollie needs some cheese to go with that whine, but as we’ll see, the last thing this movie is hurting for is cheese.
So Ollie and Jenny are falling in love, depicted via methods such as panning around campus and zooming in on a dorm window while we hear them flirt in voice-over. Then they’re talking one day and Ollie calls Jenny on her superior, affected attitude, and she thankfully [mostly] drops it, and not a second too soon, because I was really ready to step into the film and offer her some much-needed 2X4 therapy to her face and thoracic region. Then they go back to the dorm and do the scrumpy. Then she wakes and says “What could be better than Bach and Mozart? And the Beatles?”
Then there's this montage where he hear this musical sub-theme with a voice doing "Oooh's," and THAT'S when I remembered that the soundtrack album for this movie received a fair amount of play in my childhood home. Oh dear. In there we have started to notice various transitions between scenes that seem to carry through from the previous scene, for example when Jenny first tells Ollie she loves him, he then falls backward into the snow, as though reacting, but it's actually the next scene—where they are seriously making snow angels. She then lets him know that she's got a scholarship in Paris the next year, which makes him freak and propose marriage. He takes her to meet his parents, and here is where you start to notice that although Ollie claims not to want to stand out of campus due to his wealthy lineage, he drives around town in a freshly-polished 1930's roadster. I suppose this is supposed to be one of those "quirky" things [and I suppose THIS movie is one of the originators of the "quirky" character detail that has become a necessity of romances since], but it falls flat, because they can't just casually play it off, like this is the ONLY car Ollie's wealthy family had to spare or something. You would have to go out specifically looking for THIS car, and you'd have to be an asshole to use this museum piece for daily use. Ollie IS that asshole. Anyway, so they get to Ollie's house, where Jenny freaks upon seeing that his parents' house includes acres and acres of GROUNDS, and she realizes how truly rich they are. Then they meet the parents, and Jenny tells them that her father owns and runs a bakery in Cranston, R.I., which doesn't fit with the image of the person Ollie's parents had in mind, causing Ollie to want to leave nearly as soon has they've arrived. On their way home, Ollie speculates that his father will not be satisfied until he actually cuts Ollie's balls off.
SPOILERS > > >
So then Ollie meets his Dad for dinner, Dad expresses some slight reservations, and Ollie blows his stalk and walks, getting disinherited in the process. He then discovers that without the promise of Dad's millions coming in, Harvard Law isn't really that inclined to give Ollie a full scholarship. This strikes Ollie as a sign of how very unfair the world is, although it seems to me he needs to wake up and smell some coffee. Then they go to meet Jenny's Dad, explaining to him that they're getting married, but they're "kind of negative" on having a traditional ceremony, and are also "kind of negative" on church and God. Which is amazing—can you imagine any sympathetic character in any mainstream movie nowadays being an atheist? Or even "negative" on God? Anyway, Jenny's Dad can't believe the nontraditional kids today and their blasphemous ways, mother rolling in grave, etc.
So they have their non-traditional marriage ceremony, in which Jenny reads some poem, and he makes a big sincere dumb dog speech. So now they're a young, financially struggling married [but not really] couple. This is an hour in, and this movie only has forty minutes to go, causing me to think: "Hi? Is she going to get cancer now?" Then his parents have invited them for Thanksgiving or something and he won't go, causing to Jenny to make a huge speech in favor of the father, and finally to call and tell the father that in his own way, Ollie loves him. This causes Ollie to freak, and them to break up!
Then Ollie wanders every square inch of town looking for her, and we enjoy his quest in what seems like real time. Better get used to this, as the film has been quite leisurely with its pacing, and now slows down even FURTHER, since it has very little content to offer. For example, Ollie then takes a job selling Christmas trees, and we watch a woman pick out a tree, solicit Ollie's help, buy it, and him load it in the car, all in one interminable take that offers you, the viewer, well, nothing, I'm afraid. It's called dramatic compression, guys. And as I was fast-forwarding through some of these incredibly protracted scenes, I was thinking "Christ! Is someone going to get cancer here, or what?!" Anyway, way back when Ollie finally finds Jenny after searching for her all day, she says this film's big line: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." And… I have to say I don't even understand what they mean by that. If you're in love you need never apologize for anything? I don't get it.
Oh, so then Ollie gets a cushy law job, and then you think "Okay, someone's finally going to get cancer soon," since now things are looking up for them and it looks like they're all set, and cancer at this time would be, like, SO ironic. They move to New York City, which makes it even more ludicrous that Ollie is going to drive his priceless 30s roadster around. Anyway, Ollie goes in to find out why they can't have a baby, and the doctor tells him that Jenny doesn't have long to live. Oddly, he doesn't say WHAT she has, and Ollie doesn't ask. The doctor tells them that Ollie should keep the news from her, and act as normal as possible. Hmm, would a doctor ever really tell a husband this? Ask him to just keep this big secret? If there was nothing they could do, shouldn't they NOT tell the husband? And—are doctors all about keeping crucial health care information from their patients? BUT, this approach does wring maximum emotion out of its audience, as we have another LOOOONG walk through the city as Ollie is all devastated, a real-time walk through his lobby, and tear-inducing scene of him trying to act normal as she is all chipper and more charming than ever.
Now the maudlin content shoots into the red, especially when Ollie comes home with surprise tickets to Paris, where Jenny always wanted to go, and she lets him know that the doctor told her what the deal is. WHAT is with these weird mind games these doctors are playing with these people? Putting the double mind-fuck on Ollie—first he has to act normal around his wife who he knows is dying, because the doctor told him not to tell her—then the DOCTOR turns around and tells her? Making Ollie look like the chump. Nice. So now's where it all gets especially nauseating. First Ollie is holding her, and she says he'll be "a merry widower," and he says he won't be merry, and she says she wants him to be. Then they go ice skating, and she says perkily that she wants to go somewhere, and when he eagerly asks where, says "the hospital." Then they have to walk for minutes, in real time, through the highly symbolic snow. But at least she's finally going to die soon.
So Ollie tells the doctors to spare no expense to save her [I thought there was no way to save her, which is why Ollie has to just stay silent?], because he's a billionaire. Then he goes to his Dad and asks for $5,000, but gets all furious when his father refers to Jenny as "she" [how DARE he?], and refuses to say what the money is for. I SO wanted Dad to say "Uh, do you KNOW what the word 'disinherited' means?" but no, he plays the softy and writes the check. For his trouble, Ollie tosses him a lot of attitude, and finally offers a quite grudging "Thank you, Father," on the way out. That check can be cancelled, you know, boy. When he gets to the hospital, it's more maudlin madness as Jenny says she feels like she's falling off a cliff, and he says he knows, and she said "You never fell off a cliff in your whole life," and he responds "Yes I did—when I met you." Please keep a sickness receptacle nearby. Then they argue about whether he's allowed to seem sad or not, and she says "Will you hold me? I mean, REALLY hold me." Then—thank God—she finally dies.
Who should be walking into the hospital the moment Ollie is walking out, but Dad! He says he's sorry, and Ollie says "Love means never having to say you're sorry," and walks off. Dad makes faces like he's having some sort of emotional catharsis, but I prefer to believe that he's pondering the "sorry" line and wondering: "What the fuck is THAT supposed to mean?" Ollie goes and wanders into Central Park, exactly like he was at the beginning, and the camera slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly zooms out, giving us all a few extra minutes to sob into our handkerchiefs as the "Love Story" theme plays, and finally it's all over.
< < < SPOILERS END
It's perfectly dreadful. This is just emotional porn, especially given that you know she's going to die from the first minutes of the movie. Which means that the majority of the "enjoyment" is the movie is watching her, knowing she is going to die. "Oh, she's so vivacious—too bad she's going to die." Oh, he loves her so much… Oh, she's so young… Oh, they were just on the verge of success… it's all about the thrill you can work up over anticipating her death, which, to me, makes the entire thing a bit macabre, when you think about it. And once the news is out, the film is just one thing after another calculated to wring maximum emotion and tears out of its audience. Although I suppose it could have been even worse—it IS a mercifully short arc between when she finds out she's doomed and when she finally kicks the bucket, and there were no mudslides, tornadoes, plagues of locusts or miscarriages, so I suppose this should be heralded as a beacon of restraint. Although I would TOTALLY have seen it before now if there was an earthquake or something. Or sharks. What about sharks?
The trailer is also on the disc, and is a sequence of still photos from the film as the theme plays. It builds to a climax and then the title appears, and would have been okay had it ended right there, but no, it continues for over a full minute. I would have torn out my hair if I'd had to sit through that in a theater. There is a director commentary that I didn't listen to, and an interview with some guy—obviously the only one they could get on camera—and I listened for a sec or two before getting bored. He just talks about casting and whatnot. Anyway, it's kind of what you think it is—a tearjerker from the 70s with no reason to exist except to make you cry. Oh God—I just saw that there's a sequel to this film from 1978, and they got O'Neal and Milland back. I think I'll skip it. [A particulalry pithy review from the IMDb says of the sequel: "It's not an unwatchable film. It is just a pointless movie that should have never been made."] I was all set to watch all these 70s weepy melodramas, like You Light Up My Life and Ice Castles and all that, but you know, I think now I'll just skip them.
I wouldn't, unless you want to cry at the idea of a young woman dying.