What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles…and me?
The Fault in Our Stars is a damn good movie.
Not only does the film help strengthen the assertion that Shailene Woodley is one of our most captivating young stars, Josh Boone’s adaptation of John Green’s hit YA novel is an amazing example of how a picture doesn’t need to include superheroes, vampires, wizards or blue people to become a box office success. Some might call it “counter-programming” (as it did go head-to-head with an over-loved Tom Cruise summer sci-fi vehicle), but a more appropriate title to place on Fault would be an “inattention-remedy.” It’s a movie that remembers surviving cancer (not to mention one’s first love) can be more inspiring than being champion of the Hunger Games. These days, too few pieces of mainstream entertainment present a young woman grappling with bona fide life experiences that don’t involve the fantastical, and we’re all the better for its success.
Yet the template for stories like The Fault in Our Stars was laid out nearly half a century before the novel’s inception, when Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal played doomed lovers from opposite sides of the Ivy League tracks in Arthur Hiller’s Love Story. Made for a mere $2.2 million, the romantic tearjerker became the number one movie at the US Box Office in 1970, raking in over $106 million in receipts. Beating out the likes of Airport, Patton and M*A*S*H, it was another piece of “counter-programming” that became a smash sensation by knowing there was more to cinema than old fashioned disaster movies, male power fantasies, and political satire. Softness counts for something too, and Erich Segal’s Academy Award-nominated original screenplay* presents the audience with a woman meant to be remembered for the rest of not only Oliver Barrett’s days, but theirs as well.
Oliver (O’Neal) is a Harvard** student with a name to live up to. He’s a hockey star, heir to the Barrett fortune, and seemingly destined to study law. Jenny (MacGraw) is his antithesis; a blue collar Radcliffe girl with a quick tongue who has to work for every opportunity she gets. The two meet at a library, and Jenny is quick to rib Oliver for being a “preppy” and a “jock”. But there’s also chemistry – puppy love that quickly morphs into dutiful companionship. Only Oliver’s mother (Katharine Balfour) and father (Ray Milland) don’t see it that way. Their boy’s too good to be slumming it with a filly from an inferior stable. If he doesn’t stop seeing her immediately, his inheritance goes out the window, along with their acknowledgement of Oliver as their son. To crib from Celine Dion: “tale as old as time.”
Of course, Oliver is not going to be told what to do and marries Jenny anyway. His parents follow through on their promise, and the newly married couple struggle through life together, scraping together enough money for Oliver to attend Harvard Law. Fate has other plans, though (you could almost say there’s a “fault in their—“, sorry couldn’t help it). Jenny is diagnosed with leukemia (it seems, as the official diagnosis is never actually given), with only a short time to live. So Oliver is forced to watch the love of his life wither away, her dying wish that he hold her as she slips into the beyond, leaving him with precious memories of their love.
Forty years on, sitting through Love Story proves to be something of a chore (disclaimer: it took this writer two separate attempts to plow through its scant 100 minutes). However, the picture’s sluggishness has nothing to do with the formulaic aspects of its amorous set up. In fact, the basic bitch conceit actually makes you feel slightly sorry for the movie’s somewhat sincere intentions, however exploited by capitalism they may be. By 1970, America was enduring one of the most chaotic periods in its history. The Vietnam War would claim another 6100 US soldiers that year alone. The Manson Family had already committed their mass murders. Nixon had just been embroiled in a scandal that led to his resignation from office. The Beatles broke up. New Hollywood was peaking its head around the pop culture corner with Easy Rider, letting the American culture know that even their local theaters were going to be invaded by dope-smoking longhairs, questioning the authority of The Man. In short, even cinemas weren’t offering anything that resembled escapism from the revulsions of the “Love Era”.
As is his typical fashion, Paramount mega mogul Robert Evans saw an opportunity and snatched it, pitching “normcore” before “normcore” was even a thing. What better way to reconnect the American public to their inner, bland white people than by producing an archetypical romance that doesn’t even see the point in giving itself a title as much as it simply dons a neon billboard telling every ticket-buyer exactly what the fuck they’re going to get. Even John Wayne once commented on the movie’s success, saying, “The American public wanted to see a little romantic story”. Francis Lai’s now-iconic score was simply the knot that tied this obvious safety net in place, allowing it to catch all those who were grieving their country’s televised demise with a pillowed palm. Instead of a competitor, Evans, Hiller and Segal created a piece of “counter-programming” that ran against the grain of the current culture itself.
If you ever want definitive proof of how full of shit the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is, you need look no further than the fact that Arthur Hiller would eventually head the Oscar-gifting group. Hiller isn’t so much an awful director as he is a completely pedestrian one – from Dick Kratina’s prosaic photography to the smug, self-satisfied performances (drink every time Jenny says “shit” or Oliver calls her a “bitch” and you’ll be dead of liver failure by the end). Love Story takes the very idea of commercial cinema and embraces in a fashion that almost seems subversive (to be clear: it’s not), never once even pretending to present a shred of subtext. It doesn’t help that Segal’s script basically asks MacGraw and O’Neal to shout the movie’s already telegraphed themes at one another, creating a piece mega-theater that becomes downright Seinfeldian in how it’s basically about nothing. There are half-baked assumptions about class and privilege peppered into this cinematic smoke bomb that’s then hurled at the audience, creating a haze of saccharinity that could’ve only been affecting to the most emotionally wounded members of its audience. It’s time bound in the most literal sense, as Love Story is a picture that only operates within the context of the era in which it was released. There’s a reason nobody talks about it in 2015 as one of the “classics” outside of bullshit AFI lists. It just doesn’t work; no different than those expired Xanax you stole from your mom at fifteen, sloshing around in your belly while you lounge on the sofa, desperately hoping anything about this bum pill will get you high.
Both MacGraw and O’Neal would go on to deliver work throughout the ensuing decade that almost acts as a deliberate flip-off to the movie that catapulted them to iconic statuses (though this theory doesn’t entirely hold water when talking about O’Neal, as he would return for the sequel, Oliver’s Story, in 1978). MacGraw’s very next film would see her starring alongside husband Steve McQueen in Sam Peckinpah’s compromised masterwork (weren’t they all?), The Getaway, where she smoldered as the abused but loyal wife to Doc McCoy. O’Neal would also get to redefine his golden boy good looks with Walter Hill in The Driver (not to mention Stanley Kubrick’s incredible epic, Barry Lyndon). But the most obvious recognition of Love Story’s ridiculousness came in O’Neal’s 1972 co-starring role in What’s Up, Doc?, where Babs herself mutters the romance’s ridiculous tag line “love means never having to say you’re sorry”, only to have the actor retort “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard”. Winking self-parody? For sure. Yet it also seems to be a rather crude acknowledgement of the generic monster he and MacGraw helped manufacture. Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson may have gone out of their way to distance themselves from the Twilight sensation they helped create via roles in Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg pictures, but Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw were the old school Hollywood Mafiosi of throwing shade at their own teen idol images.
The best part about templates is that they can be improved upon. For all of the qualms presented above, it’s incredibly troubling that the entirety of Love Story revolves around a young woman’s death being utilized as something of a narrative teaching tool for its male lead. Watching Hiller’s film makes you appreciate The Fault In Our Stars more, as that cancer survivor tale is uniquely a young woman’s, told from her point of view and letting us know what she felt when she had to be faced with losing her first love. Yet without Love Story, we never would have gotten movies like Boone’s. Hell, we might not have authors like Nicholas Sparks and John Green (for better or worse). It’s easy after forty-five years to watch Hiller’s massive success and view it as a cliché-riddled minefield of schmaltz. Yet clichés have to be born somewhere, and Love Story is undoubtedly a mother of romantic prototype.
*A screenplay that actually gave birth to Segal’s best-selling novel, which was published first in February 1970, after the script was sold to Paramount (thus, making it still eligible for an Original Screenplay statue).
**Side Note: It’s a ritual for Harvard freshmen to take in a screening of the movie, during which they’re encouraged to heckle.