A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Friday, 15 October 2010

"Love Story" and How it (almost) Ruined My Love Life

Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw ruined my life. Well, not really.  It was actually the characters they played in "Love Story" which were Oliver Barrett, IV and Jennifer Cavilleri. So, technically it was Oliver and Jenny who did the dastardly deed  (with my post-pubescent permission) of course. "Love Story" was the astronomical box-office tear-jerking chick flick of 1970 which was based on the bestselling novel written by an obscure writer named Erich Segal (who actually penned the screenplay first and then decided to make it a novel). "Love means never having to say you're sorry," the most famous line in the movie became a catch-phrase. It didn't help that it was released during that strange time in life...not a child anymore, not quite a woman either. I was in that gray abyss that is defined by burgeoning hormones and a lot of angst.  The movie wasn't great. Actually, it might have been considered a bit schmaltzy, but when a lot of the great movies that year were riddled with dark themes and violence (French Connection, The Last Picture Show, Five Easy Pieces and Diary of a Mad Housewife  were all nominees),  it was hailed as a breath of fresh air. It was a simple love story with two gorgeous-looking leads. The film was released on Christmas of 1970. I didn't see it till a  year later (the film took some time to get to the outback of Texas.)  By then, the novel had sold millions of copies and so had the paperback. On the first weekend of its release, it grossed more money than any opening of any movie in the cinema till that date. It was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Actor and Actress for O'Neal and McGraw.  It made both stars household names. And yet, it has slipped into obscurity. (Will "Titanic" one day meet this fate? I hope so.)

So, it was with great interest that I read that this week, McGraw and O'Neal were reunited on "Oprah" to talk about that movie that broke the box office and catapulted them into stardom. "Love Story" is now a musical and playing in London.  Forty years have passed (gasp!) and Ms McGraw still looked stunning at the young age of 71. She embraced yoga and natural living decades ago and that's a testament to her enduring health and beauty. O'Neal is still the "preppy" cad (albeit a bit stouter), the enduring charmer and there has been no secret about his hard-drinking, tempestuous life with his (now deceased) wife, Farrah Fawcett. Reading about McGraw and O'Neal, realizing how much time has passed and how their performances so long ago seemed to redefine relationship stirred up memories. The movie was released on the tailgate of the "Woodstock" generation when a whole new crop of impressionable young students were more focused on "boogie nights" and platform shoes.

I saw "Love Story" over six times. This was no small feat since I lived in a tiny town  which  had just managed to bring an old one-screen  theatre back to life. I was also a "tween", not quite at the age to see "R" restricted movies. I would manage to sneak in one way or another. Confidence helped. So did sunglasses.I managed to see it there a few times and then, with (astounding) permission from my parents, I was allowed to venture to the "big city" (population: 20,000) to see it again. I was able to "ride in a car with boys" for the forty miles there and back. Of course, there were two other girls with me, Billie and Debbie, two very popular and very pretty older high school students. One was a junior and one was a senior (I was a lowly freshman) and my mother and father entrusted them with my care. After all, they were "very nice girls" from " very nice  families", so they weren't worried. The three of us dragged our football star boyfriends (poor guys)  with us to see the two hankie movie about an intellectual girl from the wrong side of the tracks (going to Radcliffe) who falls in love with a  Harvard man whose family is quite "blue-blooded" and cannot accept the fact that their son is smitten with an Italian girl of dubious ancestry. At the end of the film, all of  the girls had tears running down their faces. All the boys...well....don't tell anyone, but they were (surprisingly) misty-eyed, too. And they did rib each other about it all the way home. My football star boyfriend (who often came over to see me after he had slopped the hogs on his family's ranch) had to contend with the stars in my eyes for a long time after that. Especially since his hair was shaved down to stubbly short bristles and not at all the lush deep russet blonde waves of the preppy actor.

I ordered the album of the movie from "Lichtenstein's" which was one of the only shops in South Texas that had a book section and sold music (we had no bookstore in town).  Instead of getting the score and music, I ended up with an album that had the actual dialogue of the movie. I didn't send it back.  I played it so much that I knew the dialogue by heart. I was smitten with the aquiline good looks of  Oliver  (O'Neal) who embodied this character that was charming and gallant and expressive. And Jenny (McGraw) with her thick chocolate eyebrows and exquisite bone structure was the fascination of most young girls who read "Seventeen" magazine.She was the quintessential "girl of the 70's"...poker straight hair and absolutely natural unadulterated granola-fed beauty. Never mind that her acting wasn't exactly the Stanislavski method. She was just perfect for this role. McGraw

I applied for one of the Seven Sister schools in New England. It was a sister school to Radcliffe. When one of them expressed an interest, my parents nixed the idea. "That's too far away...we can't let you go that far away."  I was crushed. So, I had to comfort myself with a state school where most of the men were Ag majors and rodeo riders. Not exactly Harvard. It was an all-male military school that had also just recently gone co-ed. It was very academic and rigorous, but it wasn't where a girl went to find a hockey player who wore penny loafers without socks. I looked for Oliver Barrett that first semester. But if he didn't know how to wield a lasso, then I was out of luck. No one wanted to talk about books. They all wanted to talk about barrel racing and cow tipping. Not to mention that at five feet nothing, with blonde hair, I was a far cry from Ali McGraw. However in my second semester, when I thought all was lost and I would be regaled to baling hay in Poteet or Ben Bolt,  I did  finally  met my "Oliver Barrett". It was a Eureka! moment. He was a descendant of a Mayflower family from New England. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, he was as exotic as they came to a cowtown in Texas.  How he ended up there was a great mystery. But there he was in all his tousled-haired, affable glory. And there I was, ridiculously enthralled. And though Henry Mancini music didn't play when we met, it was still the way I ended up eventually in graduate school in Boston. I lived in Cambridge, I played in the snow in Harvard Yard, I walked the streets of Commonwealth Avenue, I rode the Green Line. I spent hours in the bookshops in Harvard Square (it was my version of mecca). I drank coffee in tiny bistros and ate a lot of macrobiotic food. I loved walking the streets in Cambridge through the blazing fiery colours of an oak-riddled autumn or right after a snowfall. It was so quiet, I was convinced that heaven sounded and looked just this beautiful.  Never mind that my Oliver and I didn't have that much in common. Never mind that he didn't really read anything but the Post cereal box. Never mind that when I mentioned metaphysics, his face looked utterly blank. He was, overall, a very nice fellow, the sort of guy you take home to meet the folks.  And as in every fairy tale, eventually, it ended. It was my fault. It was his fault. It was no one's fault. It was just fate. I realized that I didn't know how to be with someone who didn't have a passion of any kind and though lovely in his own right... he was not a deep thinker. And he didn't know how to be with someone who questioned the greater mysteries. It confounded him, actually. We outgrew each other. While I was busy arguing about  politics or discussing quantum mechanics with my Cambridge friends, he would sit quietly disinterested. It made me sad because I knew the way this would end up. We had crossed paths at much too young an age, at an age when you have not been fully formed. When you are still grappling with self-identity. When you are still hungry to explore the world.  We were not really compatible. We should have just remained friends.  Most of all, my archetypal girlhood fantasy was just that...a fantasy.

Over the years, I realized that love does mean having to say you're sorry....over and over, if need be. The world is made up of Oliver Barretts who really don't give a whit about you (not at all like O'Neal's character in the movie.)  I won't spoil the end of the movie for those who have not seen it, but having witnessed men in the same position as Oliver Barrett when faced with the heart-stopping situation that Jenny found herself in, I can report that not all men are as noble. The men I knew headed for the hills, engaged in illicit affairs or just disappeared.  They could not support their wives through their pain.That's real life, unfortunately, it's not like in the movies.

Seeing O'Neal and McGraw together was sweet. They served to remind me of a time that had been stripped of its innocence (a theme in the movie as well) as we marched out of the Vietnam War and into years of a Presidency riddled with hypocrisy and lies. We all had to grow up quickly back then. There was a sense of urgency about moving on with our lives, just in case the door shut in our faces. A nice, uncomplicated love story was just what we needed amidst the shuddering brutality that we saw every night on the evening news.

But, back then, when life had not yet  fully unfurled before me,  for a few hours in a darkened movie theatre, I dreamt of a passionate clever boy with tousled hair and a crumpled  corduroy jacket who would fall in love with a bespectacled girl who liked books too much and didn't mind if she matched him intellectually. Nor would he be bothered that she was passionate about most things. Alas, the ghost of Oliver Barrett IV saunters on,  in his penny loafers with his quick radiant smile ... in the mind of a once young girl who is dreaming still.

Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal today