As a rule, I can’t stand the 70s. It’s developed into a physical revulsion: there’s a gutteral, instinctive dirtiness I feel from 70s pop culture and paraphernalia, developed, doubtlessly, when shopping at countless garage sales with my mother in my youth, and seeing the aged board games and toys on display. These toys, typically vintage 1975-80, bore not the slightest bit of interest from me, but did feature a layer of grime that felt like handling fireworks, or perhaps a toy that had been well-loved by both a toddler and a dog. Movies and pictures of the era also do nothing to help the dirty feeling: grainy, brownish and cheap Kodachrome (earlier eras are in vivid and beautiful Technicolor®), and everyone has a cigarette in their hand. Also, the fashions of the era are grotesqueries: the women appear to reek of perfume, while for men the fashion statement of the era tended to be, “I’ve let myself go;” their pictures conjure a vivid memory of BO. And all that is to say nothing of the era’s horrendous pop music.
So I can’t remember what made me stick “Love Story” in my Netflix queue. Maybe I’d read an article about it, what a giant blow-the-doors-off-their-hinges success it was, how every teenage girl in America, nee, the World saw it multiple times and cooed over the romantic lead Ryan O’Neil, and yet it went on to be nominated for 7 Oscars. It was, in other words, the 1970 equivalent of Titanic.
Well, finally having watched it, I can say that it slightly exceeded my expectations, but not much more than that. It’s a simplistic melodrama, coldly calculated at milking a teenager’s penchant for us-against-the-world romance. The leads, O’Neil and Ali McGraw, are good looking and talk in a terribly stilted, stagey way, like the cast of Dawson’s Creek. It’s also quite badly dated cinematically, featuring a relentless and soppy piano theme song that seems to insert itself whenever there’s a quiet moment, and plodding, methodical edits that you can practically feel go through the Steenbeck viewer with a click. It felt somehow wrong seeing the film on DVD; the feeling is akin to watching an old educational film on 16mm.
The plot is pretty much a cliché, though I have no way of knowing how cliché it was in 1970: boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl against the wishes of his cold and demanding dad, boy marries girl, girl dies. (That’s not a spoiler, everybody in America knew how this movie ended when it came out, as the book sold 6 Million copies or so.) If that synopsis doesn’t inspire an eye-roll in today’s cynical viewers, I don’t know what will. Despite this, the film does successfully build believable characters and an emotional connection, but it’s a pretty tenuous one. It’s cute, it’s flimsy, it’s not worth making an effort to either see or avoid.
If there’s anything to snark about, it’s the fact that it inspired an insipid sequel (EIGHT YEARS LATER), featuring the widower O’Neil falling in love again. Audiences and critics hated it, despite it featuring Candice Bergen, who I always thought was hotness even in her waning years.
Also worth mentioning is how, despite the film itself being moderately progressive in its day, how sexist the world was in 1970. Audiences apparently thought nothing of a doctor telling a woman’s husband that she’s dying, and keeping it from THE PATIENT HERSELF. The girl’s father is also shocked that they’re having a wedding in which the woman gets to speak. At one point, after having been “saved” from having to work herself, O’Neil asks where McGraw is. “In the kitchen, where I belong,” she jokes back. I don’t know many women who’d be so cheery about being in that position today.
Love Story is a trifle, and really only worth seeing as a yardstick of American pop culture. It looks today how films like The Blind Side will look in 40 years: old and silly.