By Lynn Venhaus
Where do I begin
To tell the story of how great a love can be
— Carl Sigman and Francis Lai, “(Where Do I Begin?) The theme from ‘Love Story’”
We all wanted to be Ali MacGraw.
She was the ‘It’ girl of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, a model-turned-actress appearing in TV commercials – among them the Polaroid Swinger instant camera. In 1969, she won the Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer after the movie “Goodbye, Columbus,” an adaptation of a National Book Award-winning Philip Roth novella.
Then she was cast in the role of a lifetime in the movie “Love Story.” As Jenny Cavilleri, the sassy working-class music major who falls head over heels for a rich Harvard hunk, Oliver Barrett IV, she and handsome lead Ryan O’Neal had instant chemistry.
Teenage girls were swept away by this Radcliffe college girl and her “Preppie.” O’Neal was best known for playing the popular kid Rodney Harrington on the scandalous nighttime soap opera “Peyton Place” from 1964 to 1969.
The movie, set for a Dec. 16, 1970 premiere, was destined to be a box office smash because a book version had come out first and whetted appetites for the doomed romance.
At Paramount’s suggestion, author Erich Segal had turned his screenplay into a novel, which came out on Valentine’s Day, 1970, and became the top book of the year, spending 41 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. A portion of it had been published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, gaining even more interest.
“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach? The Beatles? And me?”
The book opened with those memorable words, setting the stage for the tragic tearjerker. Wintry New England never looked so good — on Ivy League campuses and New York City, the romance about a couple from two different worlds falling in love just struck a nerve. Director Arthur Hiller gave us good-looking people in cutesy situations. Oh we fell hard.
At a time when you had to stand in line for tickets, the movie showtimes sold out, girlfriends had event outings, and many tears were shed. I was a junior in high school. You can bet we were in line at the Stadium Cinema 1 downtown St. Louis more than once. Locally, we Belleville kids had to come to St. Louis for the first-run movie because that’s the way cinema was back then.
This film was a template for future “chick flicks.” It was also at a time there was a wave of fresh young talent — “The Graduate,” “Easy Rider,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Summer of ’42.” Baby Boomers were making their presence known.
MacGraw’s timeless fashions created multiple trends, and this classic preppie style is still popular – cashmere coats, chunky knits and those hats! We all had a version of her knit hat those subsequent winters.
For this romantic phenomenon, MacGraw won the Golden Globe the following year and was nominated for an Academy Award as the dying heroine. She also launched thousands of baby namesakes in the 1970s and 1980s – for 14 years, Jennifer was the no. 1 female name.
The movie eventually earned $136.4 million at the box office, garnered seven Academy Award nominations – winning for music score, and take its place as the defining romance of its era.
It is #9 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list.
When it made its network television debut on a Sunday night Oct. 1, 1972, two floors of my all-female dormitory at Illinois State University crammed into a lounge to watch the mounted TV set, and the sniffles echoed through the crowd as Jenny succumbed to leukemia.
It became the most watched film on television, surpassing Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” with a Nielsen rating of 42.3 and an audience share of 62 percent.
In the ensuing years, it would be mocked and parodied relentlessly.
Fifty years later, the movie hasn’t exactly aged well.Today it’s sappy, with such iconic lines as “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” a head-scratcher.
But O’Neal and MacGraw’s chemistry is still there.
If you remember what a cultural touchstone it was, and how they made you feel about doomed but intense and true young love, you can see it on the big screen again.
Fathom Events is hosting two screenings of the film on Sunday, Feb. 9 at 1 p.m. and on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at 7 p.m. at various local theatres (check listings).
Ali would divorce second husband, producer Robert Evans, with whom she had a son, Josh Evans, and go on to marry macho action superstar Steve McQueen, her co-star in 1972’s “The Getaway,” and take a hiatus from film during her five-year marriage. Her 2003 yoga exercise video is credited with a surge in yoga popularity, Ali MacGraw – Yoga Mind and Body, now available on DVD. She wrote an autobiography, “Moving Pictures.”
O’Neal would have a tempestuous romance and a son, Redmond, with actress Farrah Fawcett, who died in 2009.
His daughter, Tatum O’Neal, still holds the record for youngest Oscar winner, Best Supporting Actress in “Paper Moon,” which she starred in with her dad, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who had a hot streak in the 1970s with movies often starring O’Neal in comedic roles.
Elizabeth Alice MacGraw is now 80, lives in New Mexico, and hasn’t made a movie since 1999. Charles Patrick Ryan O’Neal is 78 and had a recurring role on the TV show “Bones” in 2016-2017. Long estranged for over 25 years, he and Tatum attempted to reconcile on a docu-drama on the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2011, “Ryan and Tatum: The O’Neals,” which lasted nine episodes.
Forever linked to their iconic roles, MacGraw and O’Neal reunited on state in 2016 in A.R. Gurney’s play, “Love Letters.”
Neither would surpass this all-American romance.But they earned their place in pop culture history.
For more information on the Fathom event, visit this website:
Here is the “Love Story” trailer for the Fathom Event:
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.