Love Story gets a makeover just in time for Valentine's Day, but like even the best plastic surgery, a brand new 4K restoration can't hide the faults lurking beneath this shamelessly sentimental film's pristine veneer. Vapid characters, artificial dialogue, and clichés galore sabotage this once beloved portrait of a fairy tale romance cut short by cancer. A remastered transfer improves upon the 2012 Blu-ray rendering, and fancy packaging and a couple of new supplements sweeten the deal, but despite such enticements, this new edition of Love Story is strictly for fans only.
"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?"
In a nutshell, that's all you need to know about Love Story, the grandaddy of all romantic tearjerkers that became a cultural phenomenon and box office sensation upon its premiere in 1970. Despite a hackneyed story, artificial dialogue, and a shamelessly manipulative presentation that would become a blueprint for dozens of disease-of-the-week TV movies, audiences couldn't get enough of director Arthur Hiller's adaptation of Erich Segal's blockbuster novel (which was written after the screenplay as a clever marketing ploy to hype the upcoming film). Moviegoers, especially women, went back for repeat viewings again and again and again and again, and their maniacal devotion made the lachrymose Love Story the year's highest grossing motion picture and almost certainly helped it garner seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
The timeworn tale is about as wispy as a Weeping Willow tree and has trouble sustaining itself over the movie's relatively brief 100-minute running time. During their senior year at Harvard, rebellious, cocky rich kid Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neal), a star player on the hockey team, falls head-over-heels in love with Jenny Cavilleri (Ali MacGraw), a sassy, smart music scholarship student from the wrong side of the tracks. Oliver's stuffy, reserved parents (Ray Milland and Katharine Balfour) summarily reject Jenny, while her magnanimous working class dad (John Marley) embraces Oliver like the son he never had.
Jenny gives up her music and a year abroad in Paris to marry and support Oliver, who thumbs his nose at his parents - and their millions - just before he enters law school. Despite the usual newlywed struggles and misunderstandings, the couple carves out a blissful Yuppie existence in the Big Apple (he works at a top law firm and plays racquetball to unwind while she acts the part of the perfect wife, blissfully preparing meals for her hunky hubby in their cozy apartment) until a routine fertility examination reveals Jenny has cancer, and well...you know the rest.
For decades, if you craved a good cry, Love Story was your go-to movie. Unabashedly and unapologetically sentimental, it tugs the heartstrings as relentlessly as a farmer milks his cow. Yet by trying so hard to provoke a torrent of tears, the film ends up cheapening the themes and emotions that fuel it. Maybe a half century of slow-growing cynicism and scads of copycat dramas have tarnished this innocuous fairy tale, but the truth is Love Story was already an amalgam of sappy clichés and the epitome of romantic drivel at the time of its release. You could argue the film was a salve for the wounds inflicted by the turbulent 1960s and ongoing Vietnam War, and that allowed beleaguered audiences to forgive Love Story's glaring faults, but let's face it, right now American society teeters on the brink as we cope with a global pandemic, racial injustice, political division, and economic despair. If anything could supply some much-needed catharsis today, it's Love Story, right? Ironically, though, when I watched the film for the first time in a couple of decades the other night alone in my home theater (where I could freely blubber without embarrassment), my eyes never once teared up. Instead, they rolled on more than a few occasions.
As the movie's mega-popular theme song so plaintively asks, "Where do I begin?" Well, first off, Love Story remains very much a glossy Hollywood vision of what love and death look like...and that means it's populated by uber-attractive, cardboard stereotypes who don't espouse a single original thought or convey even a semblance of raw emotion. They also move robotically through a carefully orchestrated plot devoid of realism. The classic rich boy-poor girl conflict, parental disapproval, gooey montages that telegraph romantic bliss, strife, and anguish, and the requisite "mystery illness" that cuts short a young life...Love Story lays bare every stale plot element and directorial trick. "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?" Sadly, after watching this movie, the answer is not a whole helluva lot.
The doctor doesn't tell Oliver what's killing Jenny (although we can surmise it's leukemia), because the ugliness of the word "cancer" and the suffering it implies would stain this beautiful, pristine movie. Adding insult to injury, as Jenny lies on her deathbed, she looks almost as glamorous as she does during the movie's first scenes. When Oliver walks out of her hospital room moments later and tells her father she died, I was so shocked I almost thought he euthanized her.
Earlier, Jenny praises one of her doctors for leveling with her about her fate. "He didn't bullshit me and that's what I wanted," she says. If only Erich Segal had taken that line to heart...and Arthur Hiller, too. Smackdab in the middle of a revolutionary era of cinema that gave us such groundbreaking films as Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, The French Connection, Badlands, Mean Streets, and so many others, Love Story - for all its good intentions - smacks of bullshit and sticks out like a sore thumb. Some might call the film a nostalgic throwback to the four-handkerchief weepies of Hollywood's Golden Age, but it also pales when compared to such enduring classics as Love Affair, Wuthering Heights, Now, Voyager, and Portrait of Jennie. A Place in the Sun? Now that's a love story!
The often atrocious dialogue is comprised of superficial and increasingly annoying banter that MacGraw delivers with an omnipresent, self-satisfied smirk. Jenny constantly calls Oliver "Preppy" - it's cute at first, but quickly wears thin - and he calls her "Cavilleri," except for one memorable time when he correctly labels her a "conceited Radcliffe bitch." I can't believe I'm writing this, but even George Lucas could craft better dialogue than Erich Segal...and that includes the movie's iconic line "Love means never having to say you're sorry." The statement doesn't ring true the first time it's uttered by Jenny, but it's downright ludicrous when Oliver repeats it to his father at the end of the film. It's a sour note upon which to end a supremely saccharine story.
MacGraw and O'Neal try their darnedest to elevate the maudlin material, but good looks, watery eyes, and toothy grins can only do so much. Somehow both nabbed Oscar nods (and rightfully lost to Glenda Jackson in Women in Love and George C. Scott in Patton), as did the deserving Marley as Jenny's warm-hearted, blue-collar dad, but it's Milland - appearing on screen for the first time without his hair piece - who really impresses in a thankless part. Milland has very few lines, but makes the most of them, and all of his reaction shots reflect a depth the film as a whole lacks. Also of note, 24-year-old Tommy Lee Jones (billed here as Tom Lee Jones) makes his film debut as one of Oliver's Harvard roommates.
Despite its braggadocious box office take and devoted fan following, Love Story is only a so-so love story. Never for a minute do Hiller and Segal let us forget we're watching a movie, so it's almost impossible to invest ourselves in this slick, shallow tale that brims with artifice and seems meticulously constructed for maximum commercial gain. I love a good Hollywood romance, but without substantive themes, raw emotion, and relatable, realistic situations complementing the passion, the film is an empty shell. Love Story walks the walk, but rarely talks the talk, and that's why - with apologies to Casablanca - the problems of Oliver and Jenny aren't worth a hill of beans, especially in today's very crazy world.
For a more sympathetic take on Love Story, please read my colleague M. Enois Duarte's excellent review of the 2012 Blu-ray release by clicking here.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Paramount Presents edition of Love Story arrives packaged in a standard clear case inside a sleeve with a top flap that opens to reveal a two-panel vertical reproduction of the movie's original poster art. A leaflet with a digital copy code is tucked inside the case's front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. (The film's restored original mono track, presented in Dolby Digital, is also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K remaster yields a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's as attractive as the movie's two stars. I don't own the 2012 Blu-ray but my HDD colleague M. Enois Duarte cited "several unsightly age spots" in his review of that transfer. Thankfully, technicians have erased all those blemishes without ruining the picture's lovely film-like feel. Excellent contrast and clarity enhance depth and detail levels, and the film's grain structure, which provides essential texture and warmth, remains intact. Vivid colors punctuate the otherwise surprisingly drab palette, although reds still look like they're on the verge of bleeding. Rich blacks anchor the image and whites remain stable throughout...quite a feat, considering all the snowy scenes. Flesh tones look natural and razor-sharp close-ups showcase MacGraw's silky olive complexion and O'Neal's tousled blond locks and sporadic scruff. Some scenes still flaunt a slightly softer and grainier appearance than others, but the overall presentation is fairly consistent. Cinematography was never Love Story's strong suit, but this transfer faithfully renders Dick Kratina's work and makes the movie look about as good as it can until a UHD upgrade comes along. It's just a shame Paramount didn't see fit to include that upgrade in this edition.
The exact same DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track that graced the 2012 Blu-ray release is included here. Here's what my colleague, M. Enois Duarte wrote about it nine years ago:
"If the story itself isn't enough to pull at the heartstrings, then Francis Lai's timeless score should finish the job on this DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. The music plays an important role in the narrative and makes great uses of the lossless codec. It fills the entire soundstage with excellent clarity and an outstanding mid-range, differentiating between each individual key of the piano and the rest of the score's orchestration. With a healthy low-end that adds an appreciable depth, it even bleeds very subtly into the rear speakers and pulls viewers into those tender on-screen moments. There are also a few discrete effects for ambience, which extend the soundfield some though they really don't belong. Dialogue reproduction is superb, delivering even the whispered conversations with exceptional intelligibility. It won't give your system a great workout, but it still makes for a very good high-rez track."
In addition to the extras ported over from the 2012 Blu-ray (audio commentary by director Arthur Hiller, the Love Story: A Classic Remembered featurette, and the film's original theatrical trailer, reviews of which can be accessed by clicking here), Paramount has added two new supplements to this newest entry in its Paramount Presents series.
Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on Love Story (HD, 6 minutes) - Maltin puts the film in its historical and social context, praises Hiller's versatility and exciting hockey photography, and briefly discusses the contributions of producer Evans, composer Lai, writer Segal, and MacGraw and O'Neal.
TCM Introduction by Ben Mankiewicz (HD, 3 minutes) - The chief host of Turner Classic Movies provides a brief introduction to the film that covers casting, the evolution of the script, and the Midas touch of Paramount executive Robert Evans, who revitalized the studio in the late 1960s.
Love means never having to say you're sorry, but Paramount should apologize to Love Story fans for not taking this opportunity to release the classic romance in 4K UHD. That really would have made this new edition of the iconic tearjerker worthy of an upgrade. The remastered 1080p transfer definitely improves upon the 2012 Blu-ray, but the same audio track, only a couple of new (and not very interesting) extras, and some fancy packaging aren't enough to get anyone terribly excited about this latest entry in the Paramount Presents line, which is strictly for fans only.