Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw starring in the 'unabashedly sentimental' 'Love Story' in 1970. (Paramount Pictures)
Fifty years ago, a simple but tragic love story became a global sensation that stunned the entertainment industry. Love Story, the romantic tearjerker starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, broke box office records and the book it was based on was a bestseller that was translated into more than 30 languages.
"What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who dies?" So begins the novel and screenplay, both written by Erich Segal.
In December, 1970, in the midst of the Vietnam War and the continuing fight for Civil Rights—along came an "unabashedly sentimental" story "about the power of love," says Segal's daughter, writer Francesca Segal. It was "genuine and earnest and I think it just struck a chord," she says. The 50th anniversary edition of the novelLove Story includes an introduction by Francesca.
Erich Segal was 30 years old and a professor at Yale when he wrote the 131-page Love Story. The idea came when he learned that one of his former students was just 25 when he lost his wife to cancer. Oliver Barrett IV, played by Ryan O'Neal in the movie, is a sensitive, rich kid and a Harvard hockey player. The inspiration for Oliver has been the source of intrigue and even controversy. Segal said Oliver was partly modeled after Al Gore, but mostly after Tommy Lee Jones (who also has a part in the movie). Segal got to know both men when they were all students at Harvard together. Some years later, Segal said he modeled Oliver after Watergate investigator Terry Lenzner.
Jenny, played by MacGraw, is a sassy, working-class baker's daughter who goes to Radcliffe and works in the library. In 1970, Segal told The New York Times Jenny was modeled after a woman he dated while he was a student at Harvard.
"Ollie, you're a preppie millionaire, and I'm a social zero," Jenny teases.
They were gorgeous to look at as they frolic in the snow, argue, fall deeply in love and marry, despite the disapproval of Oliver's father. Just as they start a new life together, Jenny learns she has a fatal blood disease and dies. (Only in the book is the disease identified as leukemia.)
"It was cliché, but it worked," says Ali MacGraw. "And everybody was completely flabbergasted when it had the reception that it had, which was right away," she remembers.
People flocked to see Love Story when it was released widely on Christmas Day, with numerous accounts of people waiting in long lines at the box office. Movie attendance had been down in 1970. The Los Angeles Times called Love Story a "phenomenon" that was a "boon" to the "embattled" studio Paramount and "evidence people ... still want to go to the movies in vast numbers." The film, directed by Arthur Hiller, was nominated for seven Oscars, winning one for Francis Lai's original score. It won five Golden Globes, including Best Drama and Best Actress and Actor for MacGraw and O'Neal respectively. MacGraw quickly became a fashion icon.
Bestselling romance writer Susan Elizabeth Phillips says just about everyone she knew saw the movie after first reading the book.
Phillips, who was in her early 20s when the book and movie came out, also recalls the sobs. "Love Story was an ugly cry," she says.
"I remember when I read it, of course dissolving in tears," says Phillips. "I read it to my boyfriend at the time, read it out loud to him, sobbing through the whole thing. We've now been married for 50 years." Phillips says her husband doesn't remember any of this. "So that's a blessing," she jokes.
As for Love Story's very famous, oft-ridiculed line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry," even MacGraw says she didn't know what it meant at the time. But now, years later, she finds truth in it: "Saying sorry isn't what it's about. It's about really feeling badly for the hurt ... and then absolutely trying never to do it again. So there's a lot of work more than, 'Gee, I'm sorry,' and then scooting outside to get on your bike and ride into the fall leaves or whatever."
Still, MacGraw wishes she'd asked about the meaning 50 years ago during filming: "It's an insane line. But I said it. And I live with it!"
MacGraw also lives with the many parodies Love Story inspired. Her personal favorite is by Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. "Fabulous," says MacGraw. In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer and Marge are big fans of the movie and force their kids to watch it. They don't get it at all. When Bart hears the opening line, "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who dies," he blurts out, "I say bury her before she starts to smell!" Homer and Marge are appalled.
Many a Simpson writer attended Harvard where Love Story was filmed and where it is still lampooned to this day. The school's Crimson Key Society puts on an annual, Rocky Horror-style screening for first-year students (this year's was canceled due to the pandemic). Older students dress up like hippies and heckle the screen from beginning to end. Junior Davis Bailey, president of the Crimson Key Society, says they make fun of everything about it. "Basically every ten seconds or so we have a line that, collectively or individually, some of us will shout out at the screen or we do something that we act out," says Bailey. "Because the movie is definitely very sappy."
"Sappy" is how some critics felt about Love Story way back in 1970. "Phony," "cliché," "contrived" were some of the words they used.
And here's where Erich Segal's best-known work becomes an example of what happens when popular culture and academia collide.
Segal, the son of a rabbi, grew up in New York. While Love Story was embraced by the masses, Segal also wrote scholarly works on Plato and Plautus and his lectures at Yale were hugely popular. "Electrifying" is how one of his students, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, described him. But in 1972, Segal was denied tenure at Yale. "It wasn't fair," Trudeau told the Yale Alumni Magazine in 2010, shortly after Segal's death, "but you can't dress up in tight leather pants to chat with starlets on Johnny Carson Friday night and expect to be taken seriously in a classroom Monday morning." Yale denies that the popular and commercial success of Segal's Love Story's had anything to do with its decision.
Francesca Segal says her father was, "for a long time, completely and absolutely devastated and heartbroken that he didn't make tenure at Yale." She believes one of the reasons Love Story touched so many people is because her father "didn't have a cynical bone in his body," and that he wrote from his heart.
Romance fiction writer Susan Elizabeth Phillips says critics back in 1970 had an aversion to just about anything that was embraced by the masses. "The fact that a work of art, which that book is, evokes this strong emotion was something that the literati at the time looked down on," says Phillips. "The experience was supposed to be cerebral. It wasn't supposed to be emotional."
If nothing else, Love Story is definitely emotional. Reviewing the film, Roger Ebert called it a "a three-, four-or five-handkerchief movie." Le Monde wrote it was the novel that "no one dared to write, but everyone was waiting to read."
At a time when people could use a good cry, Ali MacGraw wonders if today's audiences have the patience for a simple story about love and loss.
"The terrifying thing about this ever more automaton world that we're walking into," she says, is "that we're functioning as opposed to feeling. And I think there's a big difference."
Still, MacGraw says, to this day, she hears from people who remember being deeply moved by Love Story. "Always somebody comes up and says, 'Oh, you were in that movie, why aren't you guys making another one?' Of course, the fact that I'm dead and considerably older probably hasn't computed," she laughs.