The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

The ’60s didn’t change everything. Maybe they didn’t change anything. That might be the great lesson of Love Story, the ultra-conventional romantic weepie that bulldozed everything else at the 1970 box office. Love Story came after a whole procession of late-’60s blockbusters that challenged conventional assumptions about film audiences: Bonnie And Clyde, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy. And on the surface, maybe Love Story seemed like it belonged in that class; it was, after all, a story of two idealistic and shaggy-haired young people who rebel against expectations and make their own way in the world. But Love Story was about as traditional as a movie romance could be, right down to the contrived tragic ending.

Three years before Love Story, The Graduate had told the story of two post-collegiate young people falling in love and taking off together over the objections of one set of parents. And as with Love Story, The Graduate had only barely reflected the chaos of the times; only a few spare lines of dialogue even nodded toward the idea that there was any kind of nationwide youth protest movement happening. But The Graduate made its hero numb and stupid and morally indefensible, and it at least gave some indication that its love story might not be as beautiful as the two people involved seemed to think. Love Story never does anything like that. Instead, Love Story holds its central couple up as beautiful shining paragons of passion.

And maybe that’s why it did so well. Love Story is about as old-fashioned as it gets. It’s a rich guy and a poor girl, a tale as old as time. It’s a story of two strivers, young Ivy League professional types, who might bump up against their parents’ values but who ultimately want to succeed according to their parents’ metrics. When one of them gets sick and dies, the movie never even attempts to present the ugly realities of illness; it simply has her beaming and beautiful and then gone. Maybe all the young people who bought tickets to Love Story were signaling that they didn’t mind older stories, as long as they were presented in new ways. Or maybe the boomers, once they’d torn down the myths of the previous generation, just wanted to start putting together myths of their own.

Love Story screenwriter Erich Segal wasn’t an outsider. He was a classical literature professor at Yale. On the side, he’d worked on the screenplay for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine cartoon, and he’d punched up some other people’s movie scripts. He wrote the Love Story script on his own, and when he showed it to a literary agent, she suggested that he turn it into a novel. So Segal quickly knocked out a slim novella, which became a huge word-of-mouth sensation, finishing 1970 as the year’s best-selling work of fiction. Critics hated the book, but that didn’t slow it down at all. Love Story was valuable intellectual property. And when the Love Story movie came out just before Christmas, it had the biggest opening weekend of any film ever at the time.

Segal later said that he based the Oliver Barrett character at least in part on Al Gore—something that Gore, depending on who you ask, may or may not have played up when he was running for president in 2000. In any case, Segal knew Gore when they were both at Harvard. But Segal also claimed that some of the inspiration for Barrett came from Tommy Lee Jones, Gore’s college roommate. And through some strange twist of fate, Jones ended up making his debut in the Love Story movie, playing a small role as Barrett’s college friend and looking impossibly young but somehow still leathery.

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Robert Evans, the young and glamorous ex-actor who’d somehow talked his way into becoming Paramount’s executive vice president, threw himself into getting Love Story made. A year earlier, he’d gotten to know Ali MacGraw when he’d had her cast in the surprise-hit Philip Roth adaptation Goodbye, Columbus. In 1969, Evans married her. (It ended badly a couple of years later, when MacGraw left Evans for Steve McQueen, her co-star in The Getaway.)

MacGraw was still a new face, and so was Ryan O’Neal, who was mostly known at that point for Peyton Place, the prime-time soap opera that had helped launch Mia Farrow a couple of years earlier. O’Neal got the job after virtually every young leading-man type in Hollywood turned it down. Director Arthur Hiller, mostly a veteran of studio comedies, took the job while waiting for the financing of his next movie to come through. To hear Evans tell it—something he does very entertainingly in his self-aggrandizing and ridiculous memoir The Kid Stays In The Picture—nobody but him realized that a Love Story movie would be a big deal, even after the book sold what it did.

In any case, Hiller knew what he was doing. Love Story is a strikingly well-made movie. It gets the most out of its locations, especially the snowy antiquity of the Harvard grounds. Hiller films everything to look clean and naturalistic. He wastes no time with any introductory setup, going straight into the meet-cute where MacGraw and O’Neal verbally spar in a Radcliffe campus library. (Later on, O’Neal huffs that “verbal volleyball is not my idea of a relationship,” even though the best parts of the movie, up to then, had all been verbal volleyball.) All through the movie, she calls him “preppie,” like he’s Zack Morris and she’s AC Slater. It’s fun!

From the opening seconds of Love Story, we know exactly how it’s going to end. The voiceover is kind enough to tell us: “What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” The certainty of Ali MacGraw’s death hangs over the entire film, giving it a sense of dramatic urgency that probably would’ve otherwise been missing. Since the whole thing is told in flashback, the structure—a loose amble over a few years, with a whole lot of montages—feels like the pieces of memory that might bubble up during a hard moment. Francis Lai’s soft-focus piano music adds to that effect, lending a dreamy, out-of-time feeling to just about every interaction. (Love Story was nominated for seven Oscars, including most of the big ones, but Lai was the only winner. He deserved it. The film lost out on Best Picture to Patton, a pretty good military biopic that was also a huge hit.) But when Hiller needs to make things visceral, as in the surprisingly kinetic hockey scenes, he succeeds. And there are little moments that just sing—like the shot of MacGraw’s fingers, as she plays harpsichord, while we see O’Neal reacting.

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MacGraw gets a plenty of chances to shine. She seems fully alive and engaged all through the movie, even when she’s supposed to be dying. The film presents her Jennifer Cavalleri as a perfect, magical human being, a funny and smart and sharp-tongued and beautiful young woman who is happy to give up her promising music career to put her young husband through law school. MacGraw almost immediately became a huge movie star on the strength of Love Story, and it’s not hard to tell why.

Ryan O’Neal’s Oliver Barrett is more of a sad-eyed lug. I like O’Neal when he’s doing weird things in movies—grumping all through Paper Moon, say, or maintaining a beatific silence through the great car-chase flick The Driver. But in Love Story, I find him pretty insufferable, all eyebrows and frustrated brow-furrows and wounded harrumphs. Maybe the problem isn’t really O’Neal. Maybe it’s that his character is so flat and underwritten.

Oliver Barrett is, quite simply, a real dickhead. He spends his first date with Jennifer going over the textbooks in her bag and judging her, out loud. He proposes marriage mid-argument. He never even considers the possibility of letting MacGraw go off to take the scholarship she’s been offered in Paris, or of going with her. When his absurdly rich father cuts him off, he goes to his law school dean to ask for a scholarship, then he has the temerity to act all pissed when the dean—quite rightly but too gently—rebuffs him. Even when they’re broke and Jennifer has to work as a teacher, Oliver still drives a goofy-ass roadster, a Mr. Monopoly car. When he’s working menial jobs, he acts like life is doing him some ultimate indignity. And then he doesn’t tell his wife that she’s dying. I hate this fucking guy.

The end of the movie is just weird! All throughout, there’s plenty of movie-bullshit logic at work. We have to accept, for instance, that Barrett’s uptight rich-guy father would disown him completely for marrying an Italian Catholic girl, which seems pretty low on the rebellion scale. But the final scenes push it into sheer fever-dream unreality. A doctor tells Oliver that his wife is dying. She’s only got a few weeks left. She has no idea. She doesn’t seem sick at all. She doesn’t even cough. She just goes about her business, and Oliver plays sad racquetball with his asshole college buddy until her doctor finally tells her what’s happening. On her deathbed, she’s still sharp and beautiful, and she seems happy and energetic. And then she’s just dead. It’s mind-boggling.

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The other truly strange thing about Love Story is its one famous line: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” It’s both incomprehensible and wrong. Nobody would ever say that in an argument. That line seems to exist just so that O’Neal will have something to mournfully reference in the movie’s last scene. By 1972, O’Neal himself was making fun of the line in the Peter Bogdanovich screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?

In a lot of ways, Love Story seems to go out of its way to not capture the zeitgeist. There’s no folk-rock montage, practically a requirement in the movies of that era. The Beatles come up a couple of times in the script, but it’s mostly supposed to be a fun character quirk that a serious music student like Jennifer would love them—this, at a time when basically every human being on earth loved the Beatles. There’s no reference to the Vietnam War in the movie and no people of color with speaking parts. Jennifer carries herself as a feminist, but she still settles in to get married rather than pursuing any kind of career for herself. And when Oliver is trying to convince his father that she’s a suitable mate, he protests, “I mean, she’s not some crazy hippie!” By the end of the movie, Oliver is a big-money lawyer in Manhattan. And if I didn’t know he had some Al Gore in his DNA, I’d swear that he would go on to vote for Reagan.

None of that mattered to the people who paid to see Love Story. Or maybe it made the movie more appealing. With a few decades of hindsight, it’s pretty clear that the baby boomer generation did not radically change society. And Love Story, an old-timey melodrama dressed up in early-’70s clothes, might’ve been an early warning to anyone paying attention. Those baby boomer kids just wanted to fall in love, get married, make money, and have babies. And they wanted to see nice stories on movie screens, just like everybody else. Love Story, for all its regressive qualities and all its absurdity, is a pretty nice one.

The contender: Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock captures a huge phenomenon: a rain-soaked clusterfuck of a music festival that became a generational signifier. And the film remains a huge phenomenon itself. As far as I can tell, Woodstock is the only documentary that’s ever been one of the 10 biggest movies in the year it came out. And the film has endured, to the point where it defines just about every artist who performs in it. Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, Joe Cocker, Richie Havens, Crosby, Stills & Nash—for the most part, the images of them that we see in Woodstock are the images that we remember.

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Michael Lang, the angel-faced promoter who spends the movie riding a motorcycle and saying gnomic things to interviewers, managed to make a career out of his appearances in the movie—one that lasted right up until last month’s Woodstock 50 festival fell apart so spectacularly. But all those images resonated for a reason. The film immortalizes a massive perfect-storm cultural moment, a generational upheaval in the form of a mass gathering that would be impossible to repeat. As sheer spectacle, it’s far beyond anything that a Hollywood studio could conjure. And like Love Story, it’s a sign of what happened when the baby boomers started telling their own mythic stories about themselves.

Next time: Billy Jack, a drive-in exploitation flick about a Native American martial-arts pacifist asskicker and his quest to protect an alternative hippie school from angry rednecks, somehow outgrosses every big studio movie of 1971.