Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Love Story” revisited April 30, 2014

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I now own a VHS copy of Love Story, purchased from the discard shelf at my local library.

I now own a VHS copy of Love Story, purchased from the discard shelf at my local library.

“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

FORTY-FOUR YEARS AGO, with the release of the film Love Story, those words quickly became a part of pop culture. They rolled off the lips of adolescents like me, a then high school freshman, who could fall easily, blissfully in love with the latest movie star featured in Tiger Beat magazine.

Now, four-plus decades later, I don’t quite believe the “love means” phrase spoken twice in the award-winning Paramount Pictures flick starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. Love does mean asking for forgiveness when you’ve wronged a loved one.

Despite that change in perspective, I still rank Love Story by writer Erich Segal as one of my all-time favorite movies. The plot, on the surface, seems hopelessly simple: Wealthy Harvard student Oliver Barrett IV falls in love with Jennifer Cavelleri, a Radcliffe student from a working-class family. Oliver’s father disapproves of Jenny and a rift develops between father and son. Eventually, Jenny dies of leukemia.

As a dreamy-eyed teen, I failed to see beyond the surface plot. But there’s so much more depth to this film than a romantic story that ends tragically. It just took decades, and numerous times viewing this movie, to figure that out. I had to get past the relationship between Oliver and Jenny, past my sadness over Jenny’s death, to understand.

So the last time I watched Love Story, just weeks ago, I really listened to the dialogue.

“I never see his face,” Oliver says of his father.

“Does he wear a mask?” Jenny asks.

“In a way,” Oliver replies.

That brief exchange speaks volumes to the stiff and formal relationship between Oliver and his father. The elder Barrett expects much of his son. But he does not expect him to marry below his social class.

“I mean she’s not some crazy hippie,” Oliver says of Jenny. I laugh when I hear that now. “Hippie” sounds so dated. But in 1970, when Love Story hit the big screen, rebellious, anti-establishment, free-loving, independent-thinking young people were, indeed, pegged as hippies.

“If you marry her now, I’ll not give you the time of day,” Oliver Barrett III tells his son.

So the line is drawn in the sand. Oliver chooses love over money and marries Jenny, even says in his wedding vows, “I give you my love, more precious than money.”

At this point in the movie, I nearly stand up and cheer, if not for my sadness over the broken relationship between father and son. Life is too short to sever ties with loved ones over differing opinions and expectations. Life is too short to choose money over love.

Surprisingly, I have not wept this time while watching Love Story. I wonder why. Perhaps it is because my approach to the film has been more analytical than emotional. I am also seeing, for the first time, two love stories (or lack thereof)—one between a man and a woman and the other between a father and son.

And I have been caught up in noticing the details—the rotary dial phone, the over-sized dark eyeglasses, the mini-skirts—that denote this as a 1970 film. I am taking in the beautiful winter scenery; the instrumental theme music, the lyrics “How do I begin to tell the story of my love,” replaying in my mind; and the one word in the film, “preppie,” that still irritates me after four decades.

I am regretting, too, that I no longer have the black and white poster of Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw that once hung above my bed, in the lime green room with the candy stripe carpeting.

CLICK HERE TO READ how Love Story connects to a shop in Neenah, Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling