By Rosalie Tirella
We were hooked, in love with the 1970 movie LOVE STORY. It was the film’s heart-rending, classical-sounding piano score. It was long-legged model Ali MacGraw acting, looking gorgeous in the snow despite dying of cancer in the movie. It was her co-star Ryan O’Neal looking adorable and sexy despite losing the love of his life. It was “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” despite no one really knowing what the phrase meant back then. Or today.
And who were they kidding? Love ALWAYS means having to say you’re sorry!!! Again and again!!
And my three cousins, all cancer survivors, looked positively shriveled when they had the Big C: their hair thinned and turned gray within weeks. Their breasts, ovaries and uterus were removed: they were shriveled shells of their former selves. You looked at them, then looked away.
Still, the movie LOVE STORY was THE love story of the 1970s. I, my cousin (who looked a little like MacGraw and, after seeing the film, wore her long dark hair the Ali way – parted in the middle and topped with that infamous MacGraw crocheted knit hat), and the world watched the flick – and sobbed. And wept seeing it at Webster Square cinema for the second time. We pulled out the Kleenix from the bottom of our pocket books. Men cried over the ending, too – all that white privilege: POOF! Gone! Jenny dies at 25! Oliver is alone, forsaken, heart broken!
They lived in Cambridge! They slummed it in a three-decker! They moved to New York City – to a terrific apartment building on their way to nouveau riche SUCCESS. Oliver graduated third from Harvard Law School …!
Oliver’s law career was just taking off! And Jenny looked like a model in her tight white jeans and tight black tee shirt!
The film’s music won an Academy Award! The lead actors were nominated for the gold statuette! The screen-play’s author – Erich Segal – saw he could make big bucks from this heaping bowl of platitudes and wrote his slim novel AS he wrote his screen play. We all bought the novel! I did! … Segal became rich and famous, for a while.
Sure, the film was very late 1960s: naked sex scenes, swear words, an independent female who speaks her mind, a romantic relationship that leaps over socio-economic walls … Jenny is her elementary school students’ pal – tells one boy: “Don’t bul*sh*t me, Paul!” and they call her “Jenny.”
But the movie was very old school, too, very reassuring during America’s tumultuous times of drugs, Vietnam War, Civil Rights murders, MLK, JFK, RFK assassinations, and the pill. LOVE STORY had: Marriage. Kisses in the rain, snow and sleet. College. Trust funds. … Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) and Jenny (Ali MacGraw). They were so young! So white! So brilliant! So good looking! So full of promise! So deeply and truly in love! And they uttered such deep thoughts: For instance, Jenny didn’t give a fig about heaven. “How could heaven compete with earth?” she says to Oliver: “What could be better than Bach, Mozart and you?”
“I’m up there with Bach?” Oliver asks Jenny, incredulous. Jenny says, “And the Beatles.”
Wow. This love affair is for real!
She’s a poor but gifted music major (piano) on full scholarship at Radcliffe. Oliver is dumbfounded: the beautiful and brilliant Jenny Cavilleri chooses him?! And he’s right up there with the Beatles?! They kiss! The LOVE SONG theme music begins! Their first kiss on the Harvard campus, in the rain … and that LOVE STORY theme song swoops in … again. We tear up! We can’t help ourselves!
And Jenny and Oliver’s wedding! More KLEENEX, please!!
They write their own wedding vows! Like everybody did in the 1960s and ’70s! They tell Jenny’s dad, when they drive down to Cranston, Rhode Island, to visit him: We don’t believe in God (too limiting), the church (too patriarchal and hierarchical), or the Bible (all that dogma!). Like my cousin, “Laura,” a WPI grad who “created” her and her husband’s own wedding ceremony in 1976 under some weird dome in the woods (they carved their wedding wings out of a light wood, they wrote their own loopy vows. I was there.), Jenny tells her dad she’s gonna write her own wedding vows and so is Oliver.
Her wedding day words are … very poetic, rife with translucent wings beating to heaven and filled with “golden orbs.”
They sound nonsensical, today.
Oliver’s turn! He faces his beautiful young bride and says: ” … I give you my love, more precious than money.”
When the kids drive to Cranston to explain it all to Jenny’s dad, an Italian immigrant, a working-class baker with his own humble bakery, Jenny tells her incredulous, conservative Catholic dad: “It’s a new world, Phillip!” Yep. She breaks her father’s heart about not marrying in church – and calls him by his first name. Not Dad or Daddy or Father or Papa, or even “Phil.” That’s what half of us Baby Boomers did when we were 19 years old – called our parents Susan or Beth or John or Phillip. Very egalitarian. Our folks swallowed our obnoxiousness.
And for us Baby Boomer New Englanders the movie was a keeper because it was also Oliver’s Harvard University and Jenny’s blue collar Cranston, Rhode Island, originally from Fall River, Massachusetts – even worse than Cranston! They drive through Boston and Jenny says: SLOW DOWN! Oliver says: THIS IS BOSTON, Jenny! All to prove the point LOVE TRANSCENDS everything, even Boston drivers.
Absolutely untrue about love being transcendent … Studies show you are most likely to marry someone with matching religion, socio-economic background, formal education and world view. We knew it back then; but we didn’t care. It was LOVE STORY!!! It was Ali MacGraw in her crocheted hat!!
The movie’s plot is kinda Romeo and Juliet: ultra rich trust-fund Harvard boy Oliver meets ethnic, feisty, working-class but brilliant Radcliffe girl Jenny. After a few clumsy, swear-laced flirtations, Jenny and Oliver fall into bed, fall in love, try to reconcile their differences – learn from them! ultimately love each other more FOR them! – and marry. Oliver’s stuffy, rich father is condescending and disapproves of the union. Maybe, at some point, he tells Oliver, he will give the relationship “the time of day.” Oliver is enraged. He and his arrogant father part ways. “Father, you don’t know the time of day!” Oliver says as he zooms off in his fancy sports car (paid for by Daddy-o).
The movie’s ending is a tear-jerker: Lying in her hospital bed, in the cancer ward, Jenny says to Oliver: “Screw Paris! Screw music! And all that stuff you think you stole from me! I don’t care! … and get the he*l out of here! I don’t want you at my go*dam#* death bed!” Then, her bravado, evaporated: “Please hold me. I mean rally hold me. Lie next to me!”
Oliver climbs into her sliver of a twin hospital bed. Kisses her like lovers do. Tenderly. Then he lies right by his wife’s side, holding her head … kissing her pale cheek.
Now I am crying, the tears are rolling down my cheeks! Just like in the ’70s!
Jenny dies in Oliver’s arms. We do not see this scene. It is played off camera.
That is why I am now sobbing.
Oliver’s estranged rich dad is at the hospital. He has found out…rushes up to his son, tries to make amends with Oliver. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Oliver, wiser now, says: “LOVE MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOUR SORRY.”
The last bit of dialog of movie.
Now he’s alone.
Where’s the freakin’ KLEENEX?!!
I still love LOVE STORY!