What do you say about a 70-year-old woman who was in a ridiculous, mega-hit? That she's a "saint," and "barefaced, long-legged, stunning in jeans and a white kurta." Well, for starters:
Starting when I was a teenager, my friends and I (universally single and fancying ourselves jaded) made a Valentine's Day ritual of eating cookies and watching not just Love Story but the sequel, Oliver's Story, howling with laughter at the stilted would-be sophistication of the repartee and marveling at its success. You've all seen it: Brahman preppy meets beautiful working-class girl; he defies name and family for her; she (spoiler!) dies one of the most famously attractive deaths in Hollywood history. All the while they snipe at each other in arch faux-profanity. There's also plenty of rolling around in Harvard Yard. In the sequel, the bereft Oliver courts an equally wooden Candice Bergen, then gets disillusioned by her business practices and...well, it's hardly worth getting into.
Love Story became a phenomenon and saved the studio. It made Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal huge. The films are, for people of my generation, a time capsule, aesthetically and otherwise. We can all appreciate MacGraw's beauty and O'Neal's sheepskin jacket, but I think it's probably hard for us to assimilate what the author describes as a seismic shift from the revolutionary sexual politics of the 60s to a new romanticism that tinged the old-fashioned with a gloss of hipness. (Lord knows its themes were hardly politically groundbreaking.) In that regard MacGraw's appeal is eminently understandable, and her style was undoubtedly on-point. But to those of us not reared to the cult of Erich Seagal, let's just say this puff-piece is squirm-making. A few choice quotes:
On MacGraw and Steve McQueen:
She was a Wellesley-educated aesthete who fantasized about living in Paris and who, as a girl, had checked Nijinsky's biography out of the Pound Ridge, New York, library 16 times.. He was a motorcycle-racing reform-school kid who had worked as a towel boy in a brothel, had spent 41 days in the brig as a Marine, and generally had the kind of street cred Jack Kerouac would have killed for. Theirs was one of the great love affairs of the past century.
And from Candice Bergen: "You fall in love with her; she's always been more alive than most others, so artistic and enchanted, with that refined, intellectual, bohemian glamour and a little bit of the Bedouin." At another point, someone literally describes her as "a saint," which is sort of when things get weird. They stay weird when, discussing The Getaway, the author observes, "MacGraw looks wildly beautiful in the film, especially when, after Carol gets conned out of the suitcase of cash from their bank heist, Doc slaps her."
The beauty benefits of domestic violence aside, the need to venerate the poster-child of an era is understandable; it's rare, after all, that an actress has been so fully identified with a period - or so clearly defined Romance. We might find the movie risible now (and I do, in a way that compels me to watch it at least once a year and quote it constantly while tipping up my chin insolently) but there was something going on there. Love Story's kind of like Valentine's Day itself: inexplicably, wildly popular despite its commercial underpinnings. And maybe with a kernel of something real there. And we can't let it go. That said, Ali MacGraw seems like a very nice lady.
Once In Love With Ali [Vanity Fair]