Wednesday, December 20, 2023

RIP Ryan O’Neal, influential romantic lead touchstone from Love Story

I mostly remembered hearing about Ryan O’Neal because I’m a lifelong tennis fan and his daughter, Tatum O’Neal, was married to John McEnroe. It always sounded like the O’Neal household was a hot mess. And it mostly was, but I then realized I didn't actually have a very educated opinion on the matter because I had never even seen any of Ryan O’Neal's movies So I dove in last night and watched 1970’s top-grossing movie Love Story.

The film is somewhat slow-moving by today’s standards, but it still is powerfully sad (as well as powerfully sentimental), with several innovative elements. Aly MacGraw was certainly a mesmerizing presence. And O’Neal, who was 29 at the time and was finally about to become a next-level movie star after a decade dwelling on various TV shows, is a suitable equal to her. If not for MacGraw’s urging, the part would have surely gone to others in the running like Jon Voigt and Beau Bridges. But the part really helped define the story of O’Neal, who died this month at age 82.

O’Neal would go on to have a son with Farrah Fawcett, and later got busted for drugs with that son and for assaulting another son. Tatum, who would herself become a massive star with The Bad News Bears series of movies, later said her dad physically abused her as a child.

All that aside, Love Story remains worth a watch for a variety of reasons. The non-linear storytelling works well in showing how deep their characters are falling in love, and remaining in love, through some pretty bleak challenges.

The music, by Francis Lai, is unforgettable and often emotionally swells while it seems like almost nothing is happening, creating what seems like the sounds and thoughts in MacGraw and O'Neal's heads.

Perhaps the most famous line in the movie was "Love means never having to say you're sorry" and was taken to heart by millions as a relationship motto in the 1970s and beyond.

Social topics were explored throughout Love Story in ways that never really had been in movies, with O'Neal (his character's name is Oliver) and MacGraw (Jenny) coming from the wealthy class and the working class respectively. Oliver's relationship with his father is an interesting study on formal coldness as well. And how to deal with illness is touchingly and somewhat - for the time - unusually explored.

Of course, the chemistry of the two leads - not to mention the picturesque backgrounds and highly influential fashion of MacGraw - is the most memorable element and was trendsetting for how romances would play out going forward in movie history.

Love Story: 4 out of 5 stars

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