Love Story ★★★½

It feels like an eternity since I last caught Love Story randomly on midday television (I recall recognising John Marley from The Godfather, so it must have been mid-teens), and whilst the alarm bells of a more seasoned film watcher were no doubt chiming something fierce this time around, this does little to diminish the enduring, undiluted affection of a charming enough iconic trendsetter. Even if the acting, script, story, characters and themes are all a little pedestrian, the competent execution and keen understanding of what the audience craves lead to it becoming a runaway cultural success and systematising a genre template seldom rivaled in its day.

In order to understand the reputation of Love Story, it helps to understand the particulars of its initial release. Firstly, it is a bestseller bonanza, buoyed by a film-tie in that became the year's top bestseller in the lead-up to release and therefore sent hype soaring. Couple this with the simple, soppy ambition of the film, and the manner in which it put bums on seats (one of the highest grossing films of all time on release, and still in the top 40 adjusted for inflation), not to mention it was nominated in all the major award categories that year (Best Actor & Actress at the Oscars included!), including winning Best Drama at the Golden Globes, then it becomes clear why Love Story is that rare contentious flashpoint that is easily worthy of love and derision, with equal gusto (although I imagine most of us fall in the middle, recognising it the oversaturated but nevertheless pleasant entertainment it is). If two people claim this as their favourite and most hated film respectively, you can fully understand such forceful reactions, as soppy and unfair as they are respectively. After all, as zeitgeist Love Story would have been an agonising period for detractors to live through, particularly those folks highly allergic to soap, tissues, widower swoon and a concoction of unsubtle yearning topicality and prickly, on-the-nose, preppy banter mixed with the classicism of opposites attract illness tearjerker. The latter certainly attempts to rile up the old firm of "romantics", whilst secretly winning their hearts (just don't tell the kids).

Ryan O'Neal has always been an endearing screen presence in spite (or partly because) of his TV throb limitations and ever futile attempts at acting naturalism. It helps to perceive Love Story as a transitory pre-Hallmark step between the small screen and big screen for such an actor, and it is a type of career which has helped framed pathways for later actors of a similar mold (a comparison I would make is Ryan Kwanten, although he appears to be more comically adept). McGraw barely registers here as his counterpart, but does little to detract from what the film asks. Rather, it is the beneficial supporting father performances of Ray Milland and John Marley that provide the security blanket, popping up whenever the relationship bubble threatens to become staid. Love Story also gets by on the simple framing of a broadly relatable, emotionally compelling story about youth, life, career, parents, love, partners, priorities and death, and enables fetishes for winter clothing and university town ambience (as someone who calls Canberra home, I am certainly someone who can watch a fashionably rugged up and tragically wrought Ryan O'Neal skating on ice for several hours very contentedly, with subsequent calls for hot chocolate as orgasmic as anything you'll find anywhere else).

Love Story also functions as a curious segway between decades of cinema, as it feels like a 70s film whilst also having its feet in the 60s. It was obviously partly a success for standing out a little as a love story for a new generation of audiences. It is perhaps fitting that one of the climatic exchanges includes a rejection of Paris dreaming, a lustre that had certainly peaked by the time the more introspective and conflicted 70s arrived. Thematically, Love Story clearly nods to the perennial rebellions of young adults grappling with parental pressures, finding themselves and going places, and engages with the direct thirsts of the reliable postwar cinema-goer demographic of teenagers and young adults (people who don't want to spend their evenings indoors watching television). Whilst the former is often clumsily expressed, you can feel a younger version of your self being swept up in it all. As a production, Love Story remains a compelling industry story, tapping into a verse so effectively that would be captured once again in the form of Titanic, which triggered much the same response, but with an even higher degree of magnitude. Love Story remains a simple but effective youth-oriented tearjerker template. It has inspired many wannabes, constantly to this day, but rarely have they triggered the pop culture imagination as powerfully as Love Story.

If you stumble upon Love Story unknowingly as a modern, impressionable youth, you might find a satisfying treasure with familiar beats. Then when you stumble upon its success and resultant reputation online, you'll feel uncool for doing so...or you might not.