MF 347 : Summer movie series: Oliver's Story (1978)
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
Why it's ok that Oliver's Story isn't Love Story
It was a movie that took audiences by storm and was talked about for months on end. Articles touted it as the "Romeo and Juliet" for a modern era. Box-office wise, it made the equivalent of $1B (inflation adjusted) worldwide on a relatively modest budget. It was the "Titanic" of the 1970s.
Love Story was part of the cultural zeitgeist of that decade. This was a movie that was audacious enough to name itself after a genre. It came out years before I was born but my parents who had recently immigrated to the US saw it and loved it. Years later, when I was a teenager, it happened to air on TBS and my parents revisited it again. I watched a few scenes and decided to rent it from Blockbuster. While the movie will never mean as much to me as it did to those who fell in love with it in the 1970s, I can appreciate it as a hallmark rom-drama. If you've never seen it, it's a good bet that your parents or grandparents have. You can catch it now on Amazon Prime and while parts of it haven't aged well (a Harvard University student organization regularly screens it for incoming freshman to poke fun at it), its place in cinema history is well cemented.
Love Story was a fairytale for its generation. Oliver Barrett IV, the wealthy son of an industrialist and part of a Harvard legacy, falls in love with Jennifer Cavalieri, a blue collar girl who is working her way through Radcliffe on a music scholarship. They weather the odds, including the disapproval of Oliver's father, and get married. Towards the end, as they start a new life with a bright future, Jenny gets sick and (spoilers) passes away, leaving Oliver heartbroken and despondent. Audiences mourned with Oliver and tissue sales no doubt soared as the movie caught like wildfire.
This week's episode is not about that movie.
Eight years later, a sequel was released. Oliver's Story (1978) continues the journey of Oliver Barrett IV, now a widower, as he tries to pick up the pieces of his life without his soulmate. The movie did not resonate with critics or audiences and is now largely forgotten as a subpar follow-up. When I discovered this film existed, my parents weren't even aware of it, which tells you how poorly it did. I watched it, liked it, and have since revisited it several times over the years. So, today, I'm going to put on my movie-lawyer hat and do my best to defend this underrated and misunderstood film.
While the first movie is ostensibly a romantic fairy tale, the sequel is centered around a less talked about and more uncomfortable topic: grief.
I have the benefit of not having been around when the first film was a cultural hotspot. I think this removed expectations and inoculated me against the disappointment most fans felt when they saw the sequel. Oliver's Story isn't about romance, though there is one in the film. It isn’t filled with lovesick highs and tearful heartbreak. Instead, it’s about the slow, dull, day-to-day pain that becomes your daily existence after you lose someone you love.
The movie picks up immediately after the end of the first film. Lee Holdridge's score perfectly sets the mood with its somber notes, as we hear a priest delivering a final eulogy at a gravesite, right before Jenny's casket is lowered into the ground. Oliver decides to stay and watch the casket lowering, despite pleas from his father-in-law, Phil, played by Edward Binns (taking over from John Marley). This is the only scene in which we hear the famous Love Story theme, composed by Francis Lai. It's a smart decision to revisit the theme once and never again. This along with the return of Ryan O'Neal as Oliver Barrett IV and Ray Milland as his father, Oliver Barrett III, provide familiar throughlines of continuity.
The movie transitions to 18 months later as Oliver wakes up in a smaller NYC apartment than in the last film. He meanders like a zombie, making a single slice of toast while tying his tie, then walks to work where he buries himself in the firm's law library. In the last film, we witnessed his struggles through Harvard Law School, marrying Jenny against the wishes of his father. Now, all the trappings of success are simply distractions from the constant reminder that she is no longer there. Throughout the film, Oliver is in a daze. After work, he meets up with his father-in-law for a double date. While Phil has found his second wind, Oliver has none left. We later see Oliver in several sessions with his therapist, questioning his existence, wrestling with the constant nag of guilt, sadness, and loneliness.
Grief isn't a comfortable subject in our society and it’s not a formula for box office gold. The immediate scenes of loss are what comprise dramatic cinema. There's a reason why Love Story ends immediately after Jenny's death in the hospital and Oliver's soliloquy in Central Park. Fairy Tales are epic and no one wants to stick around for the funeral much less its aftermath. Often, movies and TV shows shy away from grief, relegating it to an episode or a few scenes. Our discomfort and longing for what was, makes us shy away from the grieving process. We're more comfortable watching the melodrama of tears and the shock of immediate loss than we are with the lingering pain that subsists long afterward. And yet this is what makes Oliver's Story so bold and unique: its willingness to dive deep into the later.
There's a part of us that wants to see Oliver move on and find happiness. For a minute we think this might happen. He meets an attractive woman jogging in Central Park, played by a timeless Candice Bergen. She's a complete contrast to Jenny. Marcie Bonwitt is a go-getter, an entrepreneur who heads one of the most successful department stores in New York. She's every bit Oliver's equal and surpasses him in many ways. The tables are turned. Whereas Jenny was intimidated by Oliver's wealth, we now see he is unsure of himself next to this ambitious and highly successful woman. The relationship is fraught with awkward misunderstandings, and frustration, interspersed with sweet and tender moments. All the while, it's clear that Oliver isn't able to reconcile his grief with his growing interest in Marcie. Critics often point to a lack of chemistry between the two lead characters but I disagree. In another time and place, Oliver and Marcie might have been a matchmade but he simply isn't ready for it. Not as long as Jenny's spirit remains a constant, ever looming presence.
By the end of the film, Oliver is still wrestling with his grief. Approximately a year and a half has passed from the start of the film, three from the time of Jenny's death. He's made a breakthrough but it's a small one. It's not nearly the emotional uplift you want and that is precisely why I think this is a good film.
Oliver's Story, whether unintentionally or by design, showcases grief in all its cloudy reality. When you lose someone close to you, there's a long stretch that comes after the shock, extreme sadness, and anger. It’s a dull, draining pain that becomes part of your daily existence. You wake up and stare at the ceiling. You get up, shower, dress, and go to work; not because you feel any drive or purpose but because it's a routine of distraction. You ask rhetorical questions that never have satisfactory answers, you bury yourself in your work, and you shut yourself off from the world because you've become more comfortable with solitude.
Oliver's Story does what few films do. It showcases that dull, aching reality. It’s not always riveting drama but it’s something we all experience at some point in our lives. Grief isn't cured by a magic bullet or even a new romance. It takes time to process and each person has to find their way through it, often slowly and sluggishly. There isn't a neat bow to tie up this chapter and Oliver doesn't get to live happily ever after at the end of the hour and forty minutes. However, he’s taken the first small steps towards dealing with his loss. He's also started healing the rift with his father, and we get to see a human side of Oliver Barrett III that was nonexistent in the first film. This reconciliation is one we didn't know we wanted and a welcome surprise. If anything, this should have been the main focus of the story.
This is not a happy movie. But neither is it a particularly sad one. It's certainly not a perfect one. The film doesn't quite know how to end and inevitably, we're left with a hollow feeling. However, that may be the point. Grief, loss, and reconciliation are not easy topics to chew on and if Oliver's Story fails to deliver a wholly satisfying movie-watching experience, that may be the price to pay for an unabashed and unapologetic exploration of an uncomfortable topic. Perhaps, it was inevitable this movie would not do as well or be as revered as the first. Jenny's absence is as much a part of this sequel as the character was in the first film. Despite this, I'm glad it exists. It doesn't simply repeat the beats of the first movie or gloss over its difficult subject matter.
Solid performances from the main cast.
The movie wisely does not try to replicate its predecessor but expands upon the story established in the first film.
The movie deals with themes such as grief, reconciliation in a way that's rare in most movies.
Excellent score composed by Lee Holdridge.
The poster’s tagline (“It takes someone very special to forget someone very special”) is atrocious and completely misses the point.
Miscasting of several characters that appeared in Love Story, notably:
Edward Binns as Phil Cavalieri whose performance is too disconnected from John Marley in the original.
Meg Mundy as Oliver's mother bears little resemblance to Katherine Balfour from the first film.
Charles Haid as Steve Simpson who is referred to as Oliver‘s former college roommate. This character is presumably "Hank" Simpson who was played by Tommy Lee Jones in Love Story, which creates a continuity wrinkle as Simpson was not Oliver's roommate but his dorm neighbor. His roommate was Ray Stratton played by Walker Daniels who ironically bears more of a resemblance to Charles Haid than Tommy Lee Jones does.
Ray Milland was excellent in both films and should have had a bigger role in this one. The movie would have benefitted by making the reconciliation between Oliver and his father the main plot as opposed to the b-story line.
It's unrealistic that Oliver would be doing 100% pro bono work for a major law firm, as implied in the film. It would have served the plot better if Oliver had left the firm and joined a non-profit.
***1/2 (out of five)
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