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Sweet Memories of an Enduring 'Love Story'

Movies: The weepy Ryan O'Neal-Ali MacGraw classic gets a reunion screening at the Egyptian.

April 09, 2001|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You never have to say you're sorry if you admit you love "Love Story."

In fact, since its release in 1970, audiences have wept buckets when Ali MacGraw's feisty Radcliffe graduate, Jenny, dies in the arms of her beloved Harvard-preppie husband, Oliver Barrett IV, played by the boyishly handsome Ryan O'Neal.

"Love Story" captured the hearts of moviegoers and became a cultural phenomenon. Fans returned over and over again to see the sentimental tale of a poor Italian girl with the mouth of a stevedore who falls madly in love with a rich, handsome WASP. The soundtrack album was a huge hit, the posters were hot sellers, O'Neal became a sex symbol, and Macraw became a role model for young women. Even the knit-wool caps that MacGraw sported in the film became a fashion trend.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards--including best film, actor, actress, director (Arthur Hiller), screenplay (Erich Segal) and supporting actor (John Marley)--"Love Story" won one, for Francis Lai's score.

It's time to get out your handkerchiefs again. On Wednesday, American Cinematheque is holding a reunion screening of "Love Story," with guests Hiller and O'Neal. And on April 24, Paramount Home Video is releasing a DVD ($30) with commentary from Hiller and a featurette.

"I myself am astonished at the longevity of people's memories of 'Love Story,' " Segal says via fax from England, where he is writing a new novel, "No Love Lost."

Director Agreed to a Lower Salary

Hiller says it was producer Howard Minsky who midwifed the movie. Minsky had encountered the script as an agent with William Morris and left to get it made. He got the script to MacGraw's agent and, once she committed to the project, made a deal with Paramount, whose head of production, Robert Evans, just happened to be married to MacGraw at the time.

Hiller says he signed on to direct at a quarter of the fee he could have collected on another project--and then, after he'd started, the studio "asked if I could drop my salary another $25,000.

"That was when Paramount was going under and they didn't have any money," he explains. "They said, 'We'll give you points.' I must say, my agent made a good points deal."

Hiller had to swear, though, that he would not go over the $2-million budget. He didn't. But after filming was completed, he asked for some extra money to shoot a few more scenes in the Boston area to flesh out the relationship between Oliver and Jenny.

The production then encountered what he called the worst snowstorm in 20 years. "They were calling it a day because of the bad weather," Hiller recalls, "and I said, 'No. Take the actors to lunch and I'll go to Harvard.' I told them where to meet me there and said I would think of something."

What he came up with was the lyrical, romantic montage of the two frolicking and making angels in the snow.

O'Neal was appearing on the ABC prime-time soap "Peyton Place" when he auditioned with MacGraw. He says there were 40 actors trying out for the part. Each had to do three scenes from the movie, including a love scene.

"The scenes went smoothly," O'Neal remembers. "By the way, she's interesting--mature, smart and something sensual about her. When we kissed, she kissed me so hard and so deep that I thought, 'Yes, I have got this part. I've got it.' "

'What About the Kiss?'

A friend of O'Neal's who worked at Paramount had access to all 40 audition tapes. "He said [to me], 'I thought you were good.' I said, 'What about the kiss?' He said, 'What do you mean? She kissed everybody that way.'

"But as it turned out," O'Neal adds, "I got the part and I got to really kiss her then."

It's hard to envision "Love Story" without the haunting score by Lai. But the composer of such films as "A Man and a Woman" and "Live for Life" originally turned down the assignment. "I had various important reasons," he says via fax from Paris.

"First of all, I would have had to take the plane, and I hate planes. Also, I was already working on a Claude Lelouch film. Finally, summer vacation was approaching, and I wanted to spend it with my family, as my kids were still young and it was important to them.

"When I refused a second time, [actor] Alain Delon, who was in Los Angeles with Bob Evans, called me and insisted that I see the film. When I reminded him of my dislike of airplanes, he and Bob Evans flew to Paris and showed me the film on Alain Delon's screening room at his house in Paris. I came out of the screening incredibly moved. I went straight home, sat at my keyboard and wrote that theme that very night."

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