The Shittiest Films Ever Made No. 15: Love Story
This one’s gonna catch me some shit. Love Story, which I’m about to describe at length as one of the shittiest films ever made, is treasured by people all over the world, for all sorts of reasons. Among those people is Ashley, my love, who has been hurt and offended more than once by my fierce rejection of this movie and everything it stands for. So to her — but not to the rest of you fucking Love Story-lovers, sappy shits what you are — I apologize. It’s not you, darlin’. It’s the movie.
Love Story is certainly the most fascinating of all the films I’ve considered for this feature these last four years. When I decided I wanted to write occasionally about my least favorite films for this blog, I made a list of what those films might be. Most were obvious — the pre-Dark Knight Batman franchise, evangelical fare like The Omega Code or Tribulation. Some came from my own idiosyncrasies — though they aren’t exactly well loved, you won’t find Star Trek: Nemesis or Star Wars: Attack of the Clones on many other Worst Films lists. But Love Story . . . Love Story almost warrants its own recurring feature. I could write a book’s worth of essays on the how’s and why’s of its vast, epic awfulness.
And that would only be half the story. The other thing that makes Love Story such an intriguing study is that so many people think of it as a great movie. See for yourself: It pulls a 6.8/10 rating at the Internet Movie Database, with almost 2,000 users voting it a perfect 10. It has 12 positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes — not strong enough to be certified Fresh, but still worth a 57%. Its average customer rating at Amazon.com is 4 stars out of 5, and of the 99 listed reviews, 53 give it the full 5 stars. It was nominated for seven awards at the 1970 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay, and won for Francis Lai’s original score. It also won Best Film (Drama), Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score at the Golden Globes that year.
Most amazing of all from where I sit, Roger Ebert gave the film four stars:
The story by now is so well-known that there’s no point in summarizing it for you. I would like to consider, however, the implications of Love Story as a three-, four-or five-handkerchief movie, a movie that wants viewers to cry at the end. Is this an unworthy purpose? Does the movie become unworthy, as Newsweek thought it did, simply because it has been mechanically contrived to tell us a beautiful, tragic tale? I don’t think so. There’s nothing contemptible about being moved to joy by a musical, to terror by a thriller, to excitement by a Western. Why shouldn’t we get a little misty during a story about young lovers separated by death?
With so many people — from ordinary movie-watchin’ folks, to seasoned industry insiders, to the greatest of all film critics — calling it a good, or even a great movie, how can Love Story possibly be as bad as I’m insisting it is?
I’ll take that quote from Ebert’s review as a start. He defends the film as a tearjerker, arguing that it’s wrong to criticize it simply because it wants to make you cry, when we accept movies that seek to manipulate us in other ways. He’s right. There is nothing contemptible about being moved to joy by a musical, or to terror by a thriller, or to excitement by a western — but it takes a good musical, thriller or western to evoke that reaction. One of the best definitions of a good movie is a movie that succeeds in making you feel how its makers want you to feel. Love Story doesn’t fail because it’s a tearjerker; it fails because it’s cloying, phony, calculated, and terribly written and acted. It’s the furthest thing possible from a beautiful, tragic tale.
An amateur critic like me argues with Roger Ebert at his own peril, but come on — “why shouldn’t I get a little misty at a story about young lovers separated by death?” Because Love Story gives me no reason to care. Oliver Barrett (Ryan O’Neal) and Jenny Cavelleri (Ali McGraw) aren’t people. They’re components. They fall in love because the story demands it, not because they have chemistry, or common interests, or any trace of rapport. They get together because that’s just the way it is. There are scenes between them where the actors seem barely aware of each other, as though they’re just reciting their memorized lines with no sense of context or connection. Ali McGraw in particular acts as though she’s never had a conversation with anyone about anything before. Ryan O’Neal manages a little better, but his Oliver has two modes: bland, and earnest to the point of nervous breakdown. The guy is either Mitt Romney on a quaalude or Wes Bentley watching the tape of that fucking plastic bag in American Beauty.
Not that it’s entirely the actors’ fault. They aren’t given much to work with. As Jenny, McGraw has to speak some of the most tin-eared dialogue ever heard outside of the Star Wars franchise. In an effort to contrast Jenny’s working class background with Oliver’s old Massachusetts money, her lines are sprinkled with mild profanity, seemingly inserted by Erich Segal at random intervals after the screenplay was finished. There’s no telling where a “goddamn” or “bullshit” will crop up, like a dandelion on a sidewalk. (Eh . . . no, way more out of place than that. It’s more like a dandelion on a sidewalk on the surface of one of the moons of Jupiter.) All you assholes should know how much I fucking hate goddamn gratuitous profanity by now, for fuck’s sake.
Writer Segal also gives us such timeless exchanges as this:
Oliver: “You call your father ‘Phil’?”
Jenny: “What do you call your father?”
Oliver: “Son of a bitch.”
Jenny: “To his face?”
Oliver: “I never see his face.”
Jenny: “Why not? Does he wear a mask?”
Oliver: “In a way.”
Compared to most of Love Story, that actually passes for subtlety. But even worse than the screenplay’s ham-fisted blatancy is its stupidity. Maybe it’s that I’m a shitty film critic, maybe it’s that there really is no better way to say it, but this is a stupid, stupid, stupid movie. Not only do our lead characters meet and fall in love for no discernable reason at all, when Segal decides, just as arbitrarily, that one of them has to die, he doesn’t even bother to tell us what’s killing her. It’s apparently leukemia Jenny’s dying from (identified in Segal’s novel, apparently, and confirmed by Oliver in the sequel, the bad-but-not-this-bad Oliver’s Story), but aside from a hint here and there, we’d never know it.
Which is only fair — why should we, as the audience, expect to know anything about the illness killing one of the main characters when she doesn’t even find out until after her doctor has lied to her face about her condition, then had a nice long talk with her husband about how someone really ought to tell her she has a terminal illness . . . you know, eventually.
Finally, I can’t move on from Love Story’s screenplay without taking a few swings at its most famous line of dialogue, the line voted #13 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years . . . 100 Movie Quotes” list, the line Eric Segal liked so much he crammed it into the mouths of both his lead characters, the deathless “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Bull. Shit. Do any of you buy that for a second? If you do, can I ask if you’ve ever been in love? Have you ever felt any sort of love, to any degree, ever? Have you ever had any kind of a relationship with anyone? Because in my experience, love means having to say you’re sorry a fuck of a lot more than you would otherwise. You hurt your lover’s feelings, you say you’re sorry. Not because you doubt your significant other’s infinite capacity for selfless forgiveness, but because you’re not some fucking asshole who refuses to apologize when he fucks up. Life is all about fucking up. Love might be about forgiving someone their fuck-ups, but it’s not about not having to apologize for them. Most cornball clichés have at least the faint echo of reality somewhere within them; “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” seems to have originated in a universe that operates on completely different rules than this one. How such a meaningless, idiotic, empty line not only made it into a major motion picture (not once but twice), but also managed to penetrate our popular culture, is beyond my understanding.
Starting with a script this shitty, with two overmatched mediocrities in the leads, it would take a heroically talented director to pull this fucker up even to the lowly level of, say, Steel Magnolias (a future entry in this series, to be sure). Instead, Love Story has Arthur Hiller, a veteran television director who would eventually serve as the president of both the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Unfortunately, those are his two most impressive credentials. Not all the films he directed were bad (he made Silver Streak and The Out-of-Towners), and none of the others were as terrible as this one, but Love Story was so far in the hole before production even began that it needed more than a reliable hired hand like Hiller could provide.
So, what is it that so many people like about Love Story? I think for many of them, the reasons have little to do with the film itself. In Ashley’s case, her father saw the film during a rough patch early in his relationship with her mother, and it caused him to reevaluate things and realize that she really was someone he wanted to spend his life with. That’s a sweet story. There’s also this, from one of those 5-star reviews at Amazon: “To experience a love so true and so deep is a miracle and to lose it . . . it’s beyond me.”
Or this: “My mother absolutely adores the movie Love Story. It is her all time favorite movie. So, whenever it is her birthday or a special occasion of any sort, we pop it into the VCR and watch it together.”
Or this: “My mother loved it, I loved it, and I’m sure I’ll share it with my children and grandchildren someday.”
For whatever reason, Love Story reminds its fans of their own lives, of the people they love, or the important people in their lives who love the movie, too. It connects its admirers to their own lovers, parents, children, and selves. I will never understand why a film as awful as Love Story inspires such feelings in some people, but I do understand the feelings. It’s the same reason why I think warmly of movies like The NeverEnding Story or The Monster Squad or Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Objectively they’re all huge pieces of shit. But they remind me of my childhood, of sitting on the couch with my parents or grandparents, of those sweet, good old days that I’ll never live through again. I get it.
Love Story might be the worst movie I’ve ever seen. But I can’t blame you if you’re one of those who loves it. I bet you have a good reason.