Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ali MacGraw's Disease

Film critic Roger Ebert coined the term, "Ali MacGraw's Disease," and described it as a "movie illness in which the only symptom is that the sufferer grows more beautiful as death approaches." Ebert would never have been talking about such a thing if it weren't for this guy:


He was the most intellectual of men, teaching classical literature at Yale, and fluently speaking German, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He held undergraduate and graduate degrees from Harvard, and published well-regarded examinations of Euripides and Plautus before his career took a decidedly populist turn. Though he had written screenplays before (he shares credit on The Beatles' cartoon classic Yellow Submarine), nothing could compare with the phenomenon he created with Love Story. While the movie was in pre-production, Segal was asked to crank out a novelization to be published before the film hit the screens; Love Story the paperback enjoyed the largest print order in the history of publishing, and earned a nomination for the National Book Award (judges were so shocked at the nomination that several threatened to resign, claiming its mere inclusion would diminish other, more substantial works of literature).

But Segal didn't need his puny National Book Award once Love Story the movie was released. It was a smash hit both financially and culturally, signalling a return of old-fashioned melodrama to film, and creating the outline for what would become known as "the chick flick" decades later. The movie made temporary superstars out of its young leads, Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw, both of whom, incredibly, received Oscar nominations for their work. O'Neal had been a television soap stud (he appeared in TV's first primetime soap, Peyton Place, opposite Mia Farrow), and MacGraw had a bit of a modeling career before making the smartest career move she could ever have made: she married Robert Evans, the head of production at Paramount. Soon after, she replaced a pregnant Lesley Ann Warren in Goodbye, Columbus, and was tapped to play the dying heroine of Love Story.

If you didn't live through the period of Love Story, it's hard to describe the cultural phenomenon it was. O'Neal and MacGraw became sensations. Ali landed on the cover of Time and Mr. Blackwell's Worst Dressed List, and Ryan began a film career which remained healthy for several years. Despite a severe lack of enthusiasm for Love Story from the critics (Judith Crist called it "Camille with bullshit"), the movie garnered 7 Oscar nominations, including the top categories of Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor (John Marley, above), and Original Screenplay for our boy Segal. But the only award which the film won was probably the only one it actually deserved, for Francis Lai's original score.
Lai also contributed an original song which became so popular, even today it can be identified by its first five notes. The composer's original recording of the Theme from Love Story reached #39 on the US charts, and Henry Mancini's version hit # 13. The song was everywhere in 1970; a lyricist (Carl Sigman) quickly penned some words, and the tune became Where Do I Begin? It took on a second life, becoming THE romantic melody of a generation. Countless vocalists covered the song, with Andy Williams's version topping the charts for four weeks.

Erich Segal became a bit of a jetsetter with his success, appearing on Johnny Carson's show four times in a single month, judging the Cannes Film Festival, and partying hard in Paris and London. He continued his teaching at Yale, where attendance to his lectures jumped into the hundreds. His academic peers were not amused (or were jealous), and, despite his scholarly publications and his doctorate earned at Harvard, they denied him tenure in 1972.

Segal ultimately settled in England, becoming a teacher at Oxford, after having furnished a sequel to Love Story called Oliver's Story, which could not repeat the success of the original tearjerker. He continued to publish both scholarly work and popular entertainment, and has gone on record that Love Story is NOT based on the courtship of his good friends from college, Al and Tipper Gore (here's a fun fact: Al Gore's roommate in college was Tommy Lee Jones, whose very first film appearance was in, you guessed it, Love Story).
Erich Segal was a devoted runner for many years, a passion which diminished as his Parkinson's disease became more advanced. He was a linguist and an academic, but will always be best remembered as the creator of one of the most famous, and most parodied, lines of dialogue to appear in any American film:
"Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Segal died this week after suffering a heart attack.