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Cinema: The Love Bug

7 minute read
Stefan Kanfer

Fran Tarkenton was apoplectic. Sportswriter Dick Schaap had given the New York Giants’ quarterback a slim volume to pass the time on the New York-Boston jet. Tarkenton flipped the first few pages and wept through the last three chapters. Now, the night before the big game, the whole damn team was reading the thing with identical results. “Listen!” he telephoned Schaap. “This book is destroying the Giants just when we’re supposed to be psyched up for the Patriots!”

Diagnosis: Love Story. There’s a lot of it going around. Nearly 418,000 hardcover copies, for one thing. Plus 4,350,000 copies of a 95¢ version−the largest paperback first edition in history.* Plus the film, wrapped in glittering Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal, just in time for holiday giving.

Harvard Graustark. Like the book, the movie takes the trite and true prescription and flips it: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Harvard Jock Oliver Barrett IV digs Rhode Island Social Zero Jennifer Cavilled. His family disapproves. He defies them and marries her anyway. Whereupon fate−that inconstant jade−does the couple in. There has not been such a wrong-side-of-the-tracks meet since Holiday (1938), in which Gary Grant announced that he had worked his way through college, causing Katharine Hepburn’s jillionaire father to harrumph mightily.

And yet … and yet … the counterrevolution had to happen. In an era of sexual license and X-rated sprees, it was inevitable that the hottest sentence in the hottest bestseller could have come from La Boheme: “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” You can say that her movie, though soapy, is better than her silly book. You can say that Director Arthur Hiller (Popi) has managed to provide an amalgam of Harvard and Graustark−an enchanted campus where all the people look like movie stars, and all the movie stars try to look like people.

You can say further that Ali MacGraw promises to become the closest thing to a movie star of the ’40s. She calls her lover/husband “Preppie” about 900 times too often; she sometimes seems case-hardened enough to scratch a diamond. But she is genuinely touching when she wishes aloud that her name was Wendy Wasp. And she is in a part as actor-proof as Camille. When a Radcliffe girl chooses to die onscreen, the Academy Awards can be heard softly rustling like Kleenexes in the background.

You can also say that Ryan O’Neal gives the character of the neon scion a warmth and vulnerability entirely missing from the bestseller. His part is chock-full of negative benefits. He does not have to parrot book lines like: “Paine Hall? (Ironic goddamn name!)” Or refer to himself in SJ. Perelmanese as “Yours truly: Law Review, All-Ivy, Harvard. Hordes of people were fighting to get my name and numeral onto their stationery.”

Though the film has dozens of tertiary characters, only two other actors are worth billing: Ray Milland as Oliver Barrett III, the meanest skinflint since the Grinch who stole Christmas. And John Marley as Mr. Cavilled (“Call me Phil”), an ingratiating performer and a good man around a hospital corridor. Women above a certain age are less likely to weep at Jennifer’s plight than at Milland’s scalp−for the first time he plays sans toupee. Others who have taken bathos antitoxin may be tempted to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s epigram on Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”

In retrospect, the making of Love Story makes The Selling of the President look like a pushcart operation. Picture Erich Segal, a ripe 31 back in 1968, asking himself “What hath Roth wrought?” The answer was an award winner, Goodbye, Columbus, and nearly a million bucks. Before Portnoy’s Complaint was published, no less. And what hath Segal? Well, he was associate professor of classics at Yale (the student paper described his classes as “presented with the intensity of Marlon Brando and the finesse of Julia Child”). The showman had to emerge somewhere. Segal tried writing off-Broadway−and bombed. He became the last rewrite man on the highly animated and rather charmless Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine. But was this any way for a Harvard salutatorian (’58) to end?

Brush Strokes. He recalled a girl he had squired years before−and combined her with a story he had been told by one of his graduate students. Result: the film script of Love Story. His agents, William Morris Agency, held it at arm’s length. A story about two college kids who get married? You know what’s grossing them out at the nabes, Erich? I Am Curious, I, A Woman, Sexual Practices in Sweden, for God’s sake.

Movie companies gave the super-sanitary scenario the William Morris treatment−until an old Segal acquaintance from her Wellesley days, Ali MacGraw, dipped into the script and came up wet. After Goodbye, Columbus, she was bankable. Robert Evans, Paramount’s production chief, was romantically interested in Ali (they are now Mr. and Mrs.), so Paramount abruptly got interested in Love Story. The property was perfect, Erich, they intimated. Except for maybe a brush stroke here and there. Thirty rewrites later, Jenny had been transformed from a Brooklyn Jewish girl with two parents to a Rhode Island Italian-American with one parent. Characters were excised and added, relationships bolstered, scenes slashed and rebuilt. Directors were hired and let go.

Yale Folk Hero. You’ve read the novel, now see the movie, was the pitch in the ’40s. Today, the tale wags the dog, and someone is usually assigned to turn the film into a paperback book. Evans persuaded Segal to give the book version a try himself, “instead of having some hack do it.” The editor at Harper & Row. Jean Young, called the book, with astonishing accuracy, “a reaction against Future Shock.” The sentences were terse. Crisp. Self-sealed. It was pure. Four-letter words and all. Erich’s mama, in fact, gave the ultimate accolade: “Thank God you wrote a nice book, not like Philip Roth.”

Paramount had paid 75 Gs for the script. Segal kicked back ten of them to the movie company. For promotion. Paramount kicked in ten more. It paid off. The scenarist scrambled 100,000 miles across country. Selling, pushing. Merchandising. He appeared on Cavett, Carson. “I’m kind of a folk hero at Yale,” he liked to say. “The closest thing to a Beatle.” Fraternities called him up en masse; Middle America wrote in; most important, publishing houses and film companies used Love Story as a new shibboleth. The escape hatch had been opened. Erich was in.

In addition to Love Story, Segal has written a number of scripts, including the execrable The Games and R.P.M. He can go on dropping bombs as long as he likes. “I called my accountant last week to ask him whether I was a millionaire yet,” says Segal modestly. “He said yes.”

Back in the Depression-haunted ’30s, Hollywood was grinding out musicals; Ginger Rogers, dressed in coins, sang We’re in the Money and Fred Astaire sang A Fine Romance. The ’70s’ Longuettes, bottoming Dow Jones, and massive strikes seem reflections of that epoch. So does Love Story, a bit of leftover tinsel that glows like gold. And who knows? A little Love Story might be good for you. As it happens, the lachrymose Giants won that game 16-0.

* Booksellers’ orders were so frantic that within 24 hours a second edition of 650,000 copies was.ordered.

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