Viewer Guide: Love Story and Reign Over Me

December 20, 2019 | Richard Peña


Love Story (1970)

This week’s classic is Love Story, the 1970 romantic drama written by Erich Segal and directed by Arthur Hiller.

Released in late 1970, in its own subtle way Love Story signaled the beginnings of a cultural shift from the turbulent 60s into the start of an uncertain new decade. To be sure, there was still much tempestuous news making headlines, with more uproar to come, but America’s national mood seemed to be mellowing, weary of the anger and violence of the revolutionary years that had resulted in so many seismic social changes. After all that commotion, what was so wrong with a good old-fashioned cry about something that nothing to do with Vietnam, civil rights or political assassinations?

Ryan O’Neal stars as Oliver Barrett IV, an independent-minded Harvard student representing the current generation of a wealthy family with longstanding ties to the school. Although he’s reluctant to admit it, the College’s “Barrett Hall” is courtesy of his great-grandfather. So rather than enjoying the perks of his family connections, Oliver is frankly embarrassed by them, and actively in rebellion against the straitlaced expectations of his father, Oliver Barrett III, played by veteran Hollywood star Ray Milland. One day while trying to borrow a book from the Radcliffe College library, Oliver encounters Jenny Cavilleri, a feisty working class student played by Ali MacGraw. Jenny is initially hostile toward Oliver’s “preppy” pedigree—but not so much so as to prevent the start of a sly flirtation between the two. And it isn’t long before the couple’s growing attachment puts them both in conflict with Oliver’s family, ultimately forcing them to learn that “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” even in the face of the most dire of circumstances. Also be on the lookout for Tommy Lee Jones, himself at that moment a recent Harvard graduate, in his first film role as one of Oliver’s roommates.

With Love Story marking only her third film, Ali MacGraw proved to be the key player in making the production a reality. While searching for a suitable new starring vehicle for herself, it was MacGraw who read Erich Segal’s much passed over script and got it to the top of the pile of “projects to consider” kept by her future husband, Paramount Studios chief Robert Evans. Initially unenthusiastic, Evans ultimately greenlit the project in large part due to his growing relationship with MacGraw. Screenwriter Segal was himself a Harvard grad, and at Paramount’s encouragement he published a novelized version of his script on Valentine’s Day, some ten months prior to the film’s release, which soon became a massive best-seller. Upon the movie’s debut in December of 1970, Segal’s story was just as huge at the box office, going on to inspire many a stand-up comic’s routine on the true meaning of “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” In addition, composer Francis Lai’s theme song soon topped the “Easy-Listening” charts, with crooner Andy Williams scoring a major hit with a lyricized version. In 1997, Segal confirmed comments by Al Gore that the character of Oliver Barrett was partly inspired by Gore as well as Tommy Lee Jones, who in addition to having a cameo role in the film was also Gore’s actual Harvard roommate. However, the character of Jenny was not inspired by Tipper Gore, but rather by one of Segal’s students along with a woman he had once dated. In 1978, Ryan O’Neal reprised his role in Oliver’s Story, with Candice Bergen as his new romantic interest, but the sequel failed to rekindle the box office passion of the original.


Reign Over Me

Reign Over Me (2007)

This week’s indie is Reign Over Me, a 2007 drama directed by Mike Binder.

Don Cheadle plays Alan Johnson, a Park Avenue dentist catering to an upscale clientele, whose successful practice allows him to enjoy all the perks of a high-end Manhattan lifestyle. Living in a deluxe apartment with his beautiful wife Janeane, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, along with his two young daughters, Alan would be  a guy who has it all—and yet, there’s sometimes a faraway look in his eyes, as if he were searching for something he can never quite see. One day sitting in his Volvo at a stop sign, Alan’s restless gaze focuses on an unexpected familiar sight in the form of Charlie Fineman, Alan’s college roommate and fellow dentistry colleague. Except, as portrayed by Adam Sandler, Charlie now looks like he’s one step away from being a bag man, trudging down the street and oblivious to the world under his headphones. Clearly, Alan has been out of touch with Charlie for a long time. Later, when Alan’s daughter asks him if Charlie is “the one whose family was on the plane?” we immediately know what she really means: Charlie is one of the walking dead of 9/11, a man whose injuries from that terrible day weren’t physical but were no less devastating. With his old friend obviously in need of help, Alan finds himself increasingly involved in Charlie’s strange life, a sort of adolescent regression mainly occupied by playing video games, a never-ending kitchen renovation, and zooming around town on his motorized scooter. And in the process of trying to persuade Charlie to finally accept the help he needs, Alan starts to realize what might be missing from his life despite all his outward appearances of success.

Also featured in supporting roles are Liv Tyler as a sympathetic analyst, Melinda Dillon and Robert Klein as Charlie’s estranged in-laws, and Saffron Burrows as one of Alan’s patients with a lot more than improving her smile on her mind. And in cameo appearances, Donald Sutherland plays a stern courtroom judge with director Mike Binder as Charlie’s domineering business manager.

Joining Saturday Night Live in 1990 as a writer and then becoming an SNL cast member a year later, Adam Sandler quickly established himself as an audience favorite with his boyishly goofy persona and his trademark specialty of comical songs, including perhaps most famously “The Chanukah Song,” which ultimately went on to be certified as a Gold Record. Needing a serious re-boot after reaching a low ebb in the mid-90s, SNL abruptly dropped Sandler from the series in 1995 along with his friend and fellow cast-mate Chris Farley. But later that year, Sandler’s movie career kicked into high gear with the release of Billy Madison, a box office hit followed by a string of successful comedies. In 2002, Sandler starred in Punch-Drunk Love, an offbeat change of pace written and directed Paul Thomas Anderson that expanded Sandler’s range into deeper dramatic material. Reign Over Me further showcases Sandler’s career evolution from comedy to drama with its gentle but stark depiction of a man struggling to cope with unimaginable loss. There’s always a hint of something dark inside the goofy exterior of the over-grown man-child.

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