Here's an example of one of our longer write-ups in the book. These start with "Now Showing" information, a seventy-character "Preview" (always exactly seventy characters), a "Fine Line" (a quote from the movie), and a "Close-Up" on a specific scene. Then come the essay's title and a 900-word discussion, followed by an "Added Attraction" that supplements the main movie with an extra list or further analysis.
NOW SHOWING: Love Story (December 1970)
Director: Arthur Hiller
Stars: Ali MacGraw, Ryan O'Neal, Ray Milland
Academy Awards: One win (Best Music), plus six more nominations (Best Picture; Best Actress-Ali MacGraw; Best Actor-Ryan O'Neal; Best Supporting Actor-John Marley; Best Director; Best Writing)
PREVIEW: Two students meet, marry, and are struggling for success when one of them gets sick.
FINE LINE: "Would you please do something for me, Ollie? Would you please hold me? No, I mean really hold me. Next to me." (Jenny's last words.)
CLOSE-UP: Twenty-seven minutes into the movie, Oliver drives Jenny onto the magnificent grounds of his family's 160-acre estate. Audiences may recall seeing this imposing home before. These are the Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island, New York, built by the heir to the U.S. Steel fortune and used as a location in many movies. Six minutes into North by Northwest (1959), Cary Grant's character is abducted, driven here, and forced by his captors to get drunk.
"FOUL-MOUTH ANGEL-FACE": Love Story
What can you say about a movie that opens with the question, "What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?" Literally one sentence into Love Story (1970), we already know the ending, which is a daring way to start any movie. But that's what is surprising about this straightforward tear-jerker. Love Story cleverly blends the traditional and the unconventional.
Perhaps the most unconventional thing about Love Story is its phenomenal success. Romantic movies about two young people, unless they are Jack and Rose in Titanic (1997), typically don't top year-end box-office charts, but Love Story did, surpassing epics like Airport and Patton as 1970's most popular movie. Additionally, it received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture; its elegant instrumental theme, and the subsequent version with lyrics and a new title -- "(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story" -- became hit records; and many important critics lauded it as terrific entertainment. Note also that Love Story was parodied on both The Carol Burnett Show and in MAD magazine, which only happens for movies that are prominent and significant. So why all the love for Love Story?
Some historical context might help. In 1970, the complex, exhausting Vietnam War was a constant topic, and radical new movies were shifting Hollywood toward the gritty counter-culture themes sparked by two 1969 hits, Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy. Love Story's jam-packed theaters suggested that many people were looking for a life-line back to the simpler, more traditional "good old days" represented by 1950s melodramas. What's more, movie violence was surging back then; following the leads of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969), even some of 1970's high-profile comedies -- M*A*S*H, Catch-22 -- were gory. Compared to all these, Love Story was a perfectly timed throwback to a safe, romantic, nonviolent hit from 1957, An Affair to Remember. Finally, Love Story the movie was based on Love Story the book, which had been published earlier that year and was 1970's top-selling novel; there's nothing like ten months of advance publicity to get audiences excited about a movie's upcoming release.
True to form, Love Story's affair to remember is indeed conventional, with a plot so thin that if it were an icy pond viewers would fall right through. In ten words or less, boy meets girl, boy and girl get married, girl dies. In some ways the presentation is also orthodox, starting with a bland male lead who evokes the 1950s' Troy Donahue. Unlike the nontraditional anti-heroes who were becoming popular (Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman), Love Story stars the unadventurous Ryan O'Neal, who beat out edgier options like Christopher Walken and Jon Voight. O'Neal is Oliver Barrett IV, a rich Harvard student who falls for Jenny, a "smart and poor" Radcliffe student played by the striking Ali MacGraw, who in late 1970 was known more for a Vogue magazine cover (March 1970) than her one previous movie credit (1969's Goodbye, Columbus).
Jenny is the movie's most daring ingredient, its biggest departure from romantic stereotypes. As MAD magazine well illustrated (October 1971), she casually and profusely swears -- to Oliver, to her father, to children -- something Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Deborah Kerr, and similar Hollywood heroines never did. In addition, for much of their courtship she doesn't seem to like Oliver, much less love him. Relentlessly sarcastic, Jenny disdainfully calls him "preppie" nine times (even on her deathbed) and "stupid" three times (again, on her deathbed). After they're married she still addresses him by his last name. Before he's used to her, Oliver confronts her and calls her "the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass." One of his friends labels her "foul-mouth angel-face."
Oliver is so smitten he woos her anyway, even though it outrages his formal, intolerant father (Ray Milland, for once without a hairpiece). Oliver calls his father "sir," whereas Jenny lovingly calls hers "Phil," his first name. The family and religious differences are reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, with star-crossed lovers Oliver and Jenny determined to get married on their own terms (pre-marital sex, an impromptu proposal, an informal wedding, creative vows) and live without outside help (while he's in law school she abandons her musical dreams and supports them both by teaching). There's a beguiling sweetness and purity to their efforts that makes it easy for audiences to root for them. By the time Jenny, looking more radiant than ever, dies of an unnamed disease (clearly leukemia in the book), she has won over the teary audience with hard work and sacrifice. Triumphing in the role, MacGraw ascended from unknown to icon with an immediate Time magazine cover (January 11, 1971) under the tagline, "The Return to Romance."
Not all viewers get choked up, however. Love Story is one of the most polarizing movies of the decade, generating equal amounts of unabashed adoration and derisive scorn. Is this uncomplicated movie direct, or simple-minded? Moving, or mawkish? Classic, or calculating? Do these attractive young stars truly have chemistry together, or are they in over their heads, smirking instead of sizzling? Is the dialogue natural and memorable, or artificial and clichéd? The movie's famous "Love means never having to say you're sorry" quote, which is spoken twice, is it meaningful or insipid? There are strong convictions on both sides. Millions of fans, and Oscar voters, found it to be engrossing and fashionable, though today's newcomers may think there's less to this pretty picture than meets the eye.
ADDED ATTRACTION: Star Debuts
Six minutes into Love Story, Tommy Lee Jones, a future Oscar winner, makes his big-screen debut as Oliver's poker-playing neighbor. Here are ten other movie stars and the 1970-1974 movies in which they debuted.
• F. Murray Abraham: They Might Be Giants (1971)
• Kathy Bates: Taking Off (1971)
• Jodie Foster: Napoleon and Samantha (1972)
• Jeff Goldblum: Death Wish (1974)
• Samuel L. Jackson: Together for Days (1973)
• Diane Keaton: Lovers and Other Strangers (1970)
• Madeline Kahn: What's Up, Doc? (1972)
• Susan Sarandon: Joe (1970)
• Sissy Spacek: Prime Cut (1972)
• Arnold Schwarzenegger: Hercules in New York (1970)
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