Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 39 min.
Release Date: December 16th, 1970 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Arthur Hiller Actors: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland, Russell Nype, Katherine Balfour, Sydney Walker, Robert Modica
entle piano music (part of an Oscar-winning score by Francis Lai) presides over a slow zoom on a man sitting alone on an empty, snowy bench as he solemnly reminisces over the loss of his love – a 25 year-old girl who died. It’s somewhat of a peculiar plot spoiler to state the ultimate outcome of the picture before it even begins. This is even odder considering the screenplay was simultaneously turned into a novel (that went on to become a New York Times bestseller) by Erich Segal in 1970, which didn’t predate the film’s release (a little less than a year later) long enough to allow potential audiences to familiarize themselves with the main tragedy of the story. Considering that the death isn’t even hinted at until over an hour in, its impact might have been far more substantial had it been withheld from the opening seconds.
Backtracking to their initial acquainting, which is tinged with insults, contempt, and instantaneous flirtations that lead to a coffee shop date, Jenny Cavelleri (Ali MacGraw) gets to know her new Harvard friend Oliver Barrett (Ryan O’Neal). She calls him “preppy” to signify his stupidity and richness, but he insists that the two are alike in their contrastingly smart and poor upbringings. She’s direct and severe in manner, but it’s an act that conceals her ungovernable attraction toward him. He’s equally drawn to her playful insolence, and proceeds to take her to a hockey game in which he plays against Dartmouth (in a brief scene, a very young Tommy Lee Jones makes an appearance as a college roommate).
“You can dish it out but you sure can’t take it,” he accuses as he corners her in her game of hard-to-get. Breaking down her emotional barriers takes a bit of time, but the two end up madly in love. He despises his millionaire father’s high expectations and insistence on family traditions that dictate his future, while she studies piano and is content with her family’s simple Rhode Island bakery and the pleasures of Mozart, Bach, The Beatles, and … Oliver. Their revelry is confronted by inevitable graduations that will take them down separate paths – until Oliver proposes, to prevent Jenny from accepting a scholarship to train in Paris. But nothing can prepare Jenny for the unimaginable riches of the Barrett family, or ready Oliver for the rejection of affluence and Jenny’s eventual terminal diagnosis.
The dialogue is consistently amusing as the lovers verbally spar in what sounds like a perpetual mental war; but it’s designed merely to hide the sensitiveness that neither wants to openly exhibit. Their romantic volleying hits some poignant, memorable notes as their relationship becomes stronger and sheds light on the possibility of Oliver’s familial rebellion in marrying a woman of a negative social status, and Jenny’s own disquieted father (John Marley in a grand part), disapproving of the lack of spirituality involved in their nontraditional, modern union. Adding purposeful drama gives the story and roles an extra boost of significance and power (and the perceptible, endlessly quotable line “love means never having to say you’re sorry”).
At its heart is a genuinely moving love story with vivid characters in a singularly cinematic romance. Since the development of Oliver and Jenny’s idyllic connection is so aptly designed at the start, the looming catastrophe doesn’t feel contrived or jarring, instead playing second fiddle to outstanding performances and the uncommon method for bringing their tale to a close. A frolicsome montage in the snow, sullener transitions during their financial struggles with independence, clever editing to shuffle around the timeline, and tender interactions and difficult reconciliations during the heartrending finale are embellishments for a touch of artistry to a dreamy, affective, influential, award-winning, instant classic.
– Mike Massie