Nov 14, 2011

Love Story

A capsule review on fragility and loss in Love Story (1970) with a special nod to love in libraries.
Ryan O'Neil and Allie McGraw in Arther Hiller's Love Story (1970) 



Yes, I must say, love that begins in a library is a trope we find in Music Man or in the fantasy of bookish nerds, so we naturally equate it with Cinderella syndrome -- the woman patiently waiting for her man to appear from behind the stacks. In the 1970 Arthur Hiller film, Love Story, Allie McGraw and Ryan O’Neil butt heads at a library circulation desk; hardly the madame librarian named Marianne, or some ethereal intellectual fantasy. Ryan O’Neil, a Harvard jock, deemed “preppie” by his inimical counterpart, the black-haired brilliant musician sprung from humble Bostonian roots. The two make for a nice compare and contrast (as far as romances go). In the scene, shot in the interior of the library at Radcliffe, O’Neil attempts to check out the The Waning of the Middle Ages. “Do you have your own library?” she asks, goading him, revealing the difference (at least to the viewer) between the sexes at ivy league American schools. Harvard is gendered as male: more books, more knowledge, more opportunity. Why should a man march into a woman’s space demanding their knowledge when he has his own, and more? The two argue. She wants to play. He just wants a book. The heart and spunk of the intellectual romantic comedy is born. The tropes are obvious. And we see the two soon-to-be-lovers as distinct yet compatible. The jock likes the girl’s toughness and rebellious approach. She likes his body, as she playfully says, and perhaps notices he is not put-off by her intellectual affronts. The psychology is laid out in pieces in the movie. He comes from privileged New England wealth but disdains his background. She has pulled herself up by her bootstraps and wears her intellectual and musical acumen like a badge. 


Allie McGraw projects beauty in this movie and the ability to engage in playful rapporté -- not quite a femme fatale, however, since beneath her brilliance lies a fragility that marks the film and gestures towards its intrinsic theme, namely the fragile nature of relationships thwarted by circumstances often beyond our control. Despite their outward differences, the two come together because of a shared sameness. The movie takes turn portraying Ryan O’Neil’s character as vulnerable, for example when his father shows up unexpectedly at a Harvard hockey match and Allie McGraw’s character is there to support him, to hold him up. On the way to visit his parents, Ryan O’Neil eases her apprehensions about the visit. Of course the movie is set up to be about the oscillation between loneliness and fragility. The opening shot, if I recall, is the former Harvard jock looking out onto an empty ice skating rink in Central Park. We as viewers do not know the significance of this scene until much later, when we learn that our intractable, confident heroine has contracted leukemia. Preppie skates the rink in solitude while she looks on from the bleachers, both aware of the fragility of their soon to be broken apart bond. The editors chose to superimpose Allie McGraw’s image over that of Ryan O’Neil as he skates. For me this was unnecessary for I think it dismisses the impact of the loss to come. We are reminded of the playful moments of their relationship earlier in the film: for example when both make snow angels and build a snow fort at Harvard. Director Arthur Hiller mentions in a documentary on the film, that this scene was serendipitous in that there was a record snow fall that day, but he decided to film anyway. Since he had made it clear he wanted Allie McGraw and Ryan O’Neil to portray what lovers do when they are new in love, he just had them play naturally in the snow. Here we see the two without words, without intellectual sparring, or agonizing over class difference. It is in other scenes that we see the intellectual difference between the two. She is graceful and brilliant in music and he is stalwart in achieving success cut off from the breast milk of his rich upbringing. The movie would be mediocre if we knew from the outset that our heroine will die. We only know this later; and we can then feel for their loss. We are meant to project our own emotions and our own memories of love and love lost onto our formal lovers on screen. Perhaps this is why the movie was so popular, nominated for seven academy awards -- not to forget the original score that is transcendent in its tonal representation of love and loss. I don’t think Love Story is a great film, but I do feel it would have been a lesser film if not for the work of our two stars who truly embody on screen the give and take of living with one another, the give and take, ease and struggle, life and loss, separation and link of conversation and togetherness.


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