Oliver’s Story (1978)
Written by: Erich Segal & John Korty
Directed by: John Korty
Starring: Ryan O’Neal, Candice Bergen, Ray Milland, Ed Binns
With the popular and critical success of Arthur Hiller’s 1970 Love Story (it grossed over $100,000,000 at the box office), and perhaps taking some inspiration from Universal Studios’ tendency to make “let’s squeeze a property for all it’s worth” with the dreadful Airport franchise, the executives at Paramount Pictures (led now by Barry Diller) were probably humming Francis Lai’s Theme from Love Story while having visions of dancing dollar signs when Erich Segal approached them with a screenplay for a sequel.
Segal, who had risen from almost near-obscurity with the phenomenal success of both the novelized version of his Love Story screenplay and Hiller’s movie, had written a novel about Oliver Barrett IV’s post-Jenny life titled (what else?) Oliver’s Story in response to the wild success of both versions of his story about a rich law student who falls in love with a working-class music major, marries her, then loses her to a fatal illness.
Whether or not Segal had also figured he’d make a killing by writing Love Story II: The Story Continues at a time when very few dramas spun off sequels it’s not certain, but since the guy was a screenwriter as well as a college professor, it wouldn’t be terribly shocking to hear that he had indeed written a script before the novel yet again.
Unfortunately, Oliver’s Story, which reunites Ryan O’Neal and Ray Milland in their respective roles as the young lawyer and his blue-blood father, is a movie so unremarkable, so forgettable, and so insufferable that it bombed at the box office when it was released in 1978.
The problems with Oliver’s Story – and there are quite a few – begin with its raisson d’etre – it was made purely for financial gain. The source film’s storyline, after all, is simple, straightforward and doesn’t have any bits of extraneous business that needed to be explored, unlike, say, Star Wars, which has Darth Vader getting away to live and chase down Luke Skywalker & Co. in The Empire Strikes Back.
Set roughly 18 months after the events in Love Story, the film paints a pathetic portrait of Oliver Barrett IV, still in mourning over his lost Jenny but now a practicing lawyer and making a pretty decent – some would say extremely good – living despite a perpetual “woe is me, I lost my wife” attitude. His family, including his patrician father, would like for Ollie IV to buck up, get through the Seven Stages of Grief, and move on, but it’s no use. Nice digs, expensive cars, tennis matches, and all the comforts of the Yuppie lifestyle can’t seem to lift Oliver out of his perpetual state of gloominess.
Eventually, Oliver meets and falls for the attractive, wealthy, and recent divorcee Marcie Bonwit (Murphy Brown’s Candice Bergen), who also has emotional wounds of her own but at least wants to make a brand-new start of it with Oliver.
If only co-writer (and director) John Korty and Segal had studied what made the original Love Story tick (its mismatched couple, its Sixties-era celebration of “amor vincit omnia” and its emotional openness), then perhaps Oliver’s Story might have been at least a watchable sequel. But unfortunately, what we get here is a totally depressing, lifeless, strictly-by-the-numbers exploitative sequel that is thematically the opposite to its precursor.
Equally as lifeless here are O’Neal and Bergen. Not only does Oliver’s “gloomy Gus” attitude last too long, but the quality of O’Neal’s performance practically screams “I’m doing this for the paycheck!” Bergen, while she does look gorgeous, is only a bit warmer than Lois Chiles’ frosty-as-the-Arctic Bond Girl from Moonraker, and the fact that she’s also a wealthy person like Oliver doesn’t earn her any sympathy from the audience.
And here is the rub: why should we care about these people? Sure, people with money have feelings, too, but moviegoers liked Ali McGraw’s Jenny Cavialeri not just because she was attractive, spirited, generous smart, compassionate, and talented, but because she was someone most viewers could relate to in some fashion. Bergen’s Marcie is good-looking, smart and – in her own way – compassionate as well, but she’s hardly anyone most of us will ever know.
Another problem I have is with the way that Jenny’s father is portrayed in Oliver’s Story. In the original Love Story, Phil Cavalieri is a likeable widower, warm and wise about human nature, and its easy to see where Jenny got much of her personality from. Here, he’s played by another actor (Ed Binns), and he’s almost like an alien in Phil’s body, a boozing, bar- and bed-hopping Lothario who’s not very pleasant to watch.
So if you happen to be browsing through the discount bins at Wal-Mart or are searching through Netflix for a watchable romantic movie, don’t choose this turkey. There are far, far better movies than this anti-Love Story.