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Love Story

Love Story

by William H. Benson

December 17, 2015

     “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful. And brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. And the Beatles. And me.” So begins Oliver Barrett IV in Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story.

     Oliver is a rich, white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, pre-law student at Harvard who plays ice hockey for the Crimson. Jennifer Cavilleri is an Italian-American Radcliffe student, who plays music. She is from Cranston, Rhode Island, where her father, makes pastries. She works in Radcliffe’s library, where she and Oliver first meet. She calls him “Preppy,” and teases him, but he is so in love he wants to marry her. Against Oliver Barrett III’s wishes, the IV and Jennifer marry.

     In the late 1960’s, all of Hollywood’s studios rejected Erich Segal’s semi-autobiographical script. No one saw the script’s potential until Paramount’s head, Robert Evans, read it, liked it, bought it, and cast Ali McGraw to play Jenny. A New York City model who wore a wide headband, Ali looked the part of a flower child, and, he thought, a near-perfect Jenny.

     Finding Oliver was tougher. In Evans’s biography, The Kid Stays in the Picture, he says, “Michael Douglas, Michael York, Michael Sarrazin, Jon Voight, Beau Bridges, Jeff Bridges, Peter Fonda, and Keith Carradine all turned it down.” He finally tested Ryan O’Neal, who had appeared for five seasons on television’s soap opera, Peyton Place, and cast him as Oliver.

     In the summer of 1969, Robert Evans fell in love with Ali McGraw. He so loved her crooked-tooth smile that he married her on October 24, 1969, his third marriage, her second.

     Evans contacted Erich Segal and told him to transform his movie script into a book. “Erich,” Evans said, “everyone thinks it’s fluff. Write a novel. I’ll get it published. It shouldn’t take you longer than a week.” It took him a month. Segal’s novel appeared in bookstores on Valentine’s Day 1970, made the best-seller list in May that year, and stayed there until Valentine’s Day 1971.

     Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw became Oliver Barrett IV and Jennifer Cavilleri on Harvard’s campus in the cold snowy winter of 1969-1970, when filming began. 

     One scene stands out. As newlyweds do, Oliver and Jenny have an argument, and he storms out. She tries to follow him, but she locks the door behind her and leaves her key inside. In the cold on the porch, she cries, but can only wait for him. He returns, sees her sitting there, and begins to apologize. She stops him and says, “Love never means having to say you’re sorry.”

     The director insisted that Ali get it right. “Ali,” he said. “don’t rush it. Be a little more halting. Take two.” Robert Evans was there that day, watching Ali, his wife, capture that scene. “She did it again, then again,” Evans said, “Take after take. Every time the tears were real. Every time she was more convincing.” The director shouted, “Cut! That’s it. We’ve got it. Wonderful, Ali. You had me in tears.”   

     Nearly a year passed. In November 1970, Evans received word from Paramount’s owners, a New York City oil and gas company Gulf + Western, that the company’s board of directors wanted to shut down Paramount Pictures. The studio was costing them too much money. One director said, “It’s girls, parties, premieres, movies; that’s the business they think we’re in.”

     Evans flew to New York and begged the board to let him finish two movies, Love Story and Godfather. He said, “One thing I promise you. Christmas of 1970 will be very special throughout the world. Paramount’s gift, Love Story, will make it that. It’s what life and love and Christmas is all about.” With much reluctance, the board agreed.

     Evans wrote, “On December 16, 1970, Love Story had its world premiere in New York, opening nine days later on Christmas Day to spread love to every city in America.” In the theater, at the premiere, Evans said, “All I could see was white. Kleenex! By the time the end credits began to roll the entire theater was one white flag of surrender.”

     After the film concluded, Ali grabbed her husband’s arm, and said, “I’m starting to hemorrhage, Evans,” but she was only seven months pregnant. “A night of triumph had turned into a night of terror.” Doctors stopped Ali’s labor, but a month later, on January 16, after Christmas, she gave birth to her first and only child, a boy she and Robert named Joshua Evans.

     People loved Robert Evans’s movie. “Love Story,” he said, “didn’t open. It exploded.” That single movie saved Paramount from the auction block, and Robert Evans from unemployment. It was nominated for seven academy awards and won one.

     Evans’s movie succeeded, but his marriage failed. Robert and Ali divorced in 1973. She married Steve McQueen for a short while, but that marriage also ended in divorce in 1978. Since 1994, she has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has never remarried. She is seventy-six, a grown-up flower child.

     Robert Evans still lives in Beverly Hills, and he too remarried, four times more, but those marriages also failed. He is now eighty-five years old, a grown-up studio executive.

     A love story at Christmas 1970. “Love means never having to say you are sorry.”