Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
That of course was the most famous line from Love Story, the biggest box office hit of 1970. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and Best Actor and Best Actress for the movie’s two stars Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, and a Best Director nod for the Canadian-born Arthur Hiller. Competing alongside M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces, Airport, and Patton, it lost to Patton,and the Best Actor trophy went to Patton’s star George C. Scott, who famously refused the award. MacGraw would be beaten out for Best Actress by Glenda Jackson for her role in Women in Love. Jackson would later be elected to the British House of Commons as a Labour MP and I would become acquainted with her during my time in London. But that’s another story for another day.
Love Story marked the pinnacle of both O’Neal and MacGraw’s careers. While O’Neal would star in other critically acclaimed films such as Paper Moon (featuring an Oscar-winning performance by his then 8-year old daughter Tatum O’Neal) and Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, O’Neal would become better known for his tumultuous relationship with Farrah Fawcett (Farrah Tap, as Monty Python dubbed her) until her death from cancer in 2009 as well as his estranged relationship with his daughter than for his acting. O’Neal, 74, has also faced a myriad of health problems, being diagnosed with leukemia and prostate cancer. Despite this, he has soldiered on and younger fans might know him from his occasional appearances as Emily Deschanel’s father on the long running TV series Bones. As for MacGraw, she would go on to co-star in The Getaway with Steve McQueen whom she would marry and divorce. By the mid-’80s, MacGraw, 76, had virtually withdrawn from Hollywood and has spent much of that time involved in animal rights activism and yoga.
A couple of months ago, I saw Love Story on TV for the very first time. Honestly, the plot is the sort one would expect to see on the Hallmark or Lifetime Movie Channels. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy’s family disapproves of girl, girl gives up aspirations to marry boy, boy becomes an attorney only for girl to die of mysterious disease. But the performances of O’Neal and MacGraw as well as those of Ray Milland and John Marley (who two years later would be stuck in bed with the head of a severed horse in The Godfather) elevate the film above Erich Segal’s mawkish material.
There are other amusing aspects of Love Story. For one, it marks the film debut of Tommy Lee Jones. For another, much of the film is shot in Cambridge, Massachusetts where O’Neal’s Oliver Barrett IV, an aristocratic, WASP Harvard Law student and MacGraw’s working-class, Roman Catholic Radcliffe College undergrad Jennifer Cavalleri meet. Much of the movie was shot at Harvard University, one of the few instances in which the Ivy League institution permitted a film crew to come on campus. Recently, I made a point of walking on Oxford Street near the Cambridge-Somerville town boundary where Oliver and Jenny’s house in the film is situated.
If Love Story were released in 2016, Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett-Smith would go ballistic. There isn’t a black face to be found. Those were the days before campus diversity and affirmative action. Notwithstanding Jenny Cavalleri’s working-class roots or her propensity for using the word “bulls–t” (or “preppy”) in nearly every scene she’s in, I have no doubt the feminists would be outraged at her giving up her dreams of pursuing music in Paris to marry the rich white kid. Not surprisingly, it has become a rite of passage for Harvard freshmen to view Love Story and to mock it mercilessly. However, I suspect the Harvard student body gave O’Neal and MacGraw a far kinder reception when they returned last week to Harvard Yard in a red MG convertible similar to one used in the movie.
O’Neal and MacGraw were in Boston for an eight-show engagement at the Shubert Theatre where they were performing in Love Letters. Written by A.M. Mosher, it debuted on Broadway in 1989 featuring Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst and then a variety of other actors and actresses in the two roles during its three-month run. The show was revived on Broadway last summer with the reunion of O’Neal and MacGraw and is now touring the country with stops scheduled in Hartford, Fort Myers, Dallas, Detroit, Buffalo. and Baltimore.
My roommate Christopher Kain and I had the opportunity to see Love Letters over the weekend. We were both struck by the sparseness of the crowd as were others who suggested that the show had been poorly advertised. But I knew nearly a year ago that the show was coming and there’s been plenty of advertising for it on the MBTA over the past few weeks. One would have thought that the pairing of O’Neal and MacGraw after all this time would have drawn a bigger crowd on the nostalgia factor alone. But memories fade and perhaps too much time has passed. Yet those who were in attendance did not leave disappointed.
The set was very simple. It consisted only of a table with two chairs and two notebooks (not of the electronic variety) from which O’Neal and MacGraw would read. The play is a favorite for actors because it does not require memorization of lines. When O’Neal and MacGraw came out on stage, O’Neal pulled out MacGraw’s chair so she could sit down first. I later told Christopher, “Chivalry isn’t dead, but it is on life support.” The same could be said for letter writing. In an era of instant messaging, could you imagine Millennials having the patience to wait days, if not weeks, between hearing from their friends? Like OMG.
O’Neal and MacGraw play Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, two childhood friends from wealthy families who embark upon a half century worth of correspondence with each other. While Ladd loves the act of letter writing, Gardner doesn’t care much for it, preferring to talk over the phone. Nevertheless, she remains a faithful, if reluctant pen pal through boarding schools, university, careers, and marriages which end up in very different directions. Ladd becomes a successful attorney who gets married, has three sons, and is elected first to the state legislature and then to the Senate as a liberal Republican. Meanwhile Gardner is married and divorced several times, and is not allowed to see to her children because of a combination of alcohol and drug abuse and mental health problems. Gardner does try to make a name for herself as a visual artist but her shows are universally panned, beginning yet another cycle of despair.
Despite a sound system that was at times sketchy, both O’Neal and MacGraw’s voices were rich and resonant. Given O’Neal’s time in the tabloids and MacGraw’s relative obscurity, it is easy to forget the enormous talent they both possess. Their talent is augmented by their chemistry, which has not diminished with the passage of nearly half a century since Love Story. Notwithstanding the disappointment and despair, O’Neal and MacGraw make Ladd and Gardner’s banter light and full of sexual tension. When Ladd says he’s a diamond in the rough who will do his best to make himself smoother, Gardner replies that she likes his rough parts.
Eventually, Ladd and Gardner do become lovers, pouring out 50 years’ worth of passion in one night. But Ladd is still married and is up for re-election. Their correspondence becomes more frenetic until Ladd says over and over again, “The election!!! The election!!! The election!!!” before a lengthy pause signifying a halt in communication. Teaming up with O’Neal is pretty bad for MacGraw’s health or at least the health of the characters she plays opposite him. Like Jenny Cavalleri, Melissa Gardner has a doomed fate. Andrew Makepeace Ladd III is left with as big a void as was Oliver Barrett IV. But O’Neal and MacGraw are still with us. They would embrace and leave the stage arm in arm fittingly accompanied by The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.”
Love Letters will be on tour through June. If you have a chance to see Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw, please do. You won’t be sorry.