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Oliver Barrett IV, the heir of an American upper-class East Coast family, is attending Harvard College where he plays ice hockey. He meets Jennifer "Jenny" Cavilleri, a quick-witted, working-class Radcliffe College student of classical music; they quickly fall in love despite their differences.
When Jenny reveals her plans to study in Paris, Oliver is upset that he does not figure in those plans. He proposes, she accepts, and they travel to the Barrett mansion so that she can meet Oliver's parents, who are judgmental and unimpressed with her. Later Oliver's father tells him that he will cut him off financially if he marries Jenny. After graduation Oliver and Jenny marry nonetheless.
Without his father's financial support, the couple struggle to pay Oliver's way through Harvard Law School; Jenny works as a teacher. Oliver graduates third in his class and takes a position at a respectable New York City law firm. They are ready to start a family, but fail to conceive. After many tests Oliver is told that Jenny is terminally ill.
Oliver attempts to live a "normal life" without telling Jenny of her condition, but she finds out after confronting her doctor. Oliver buys tickets to Paris, but she declines to go, wanting only to spend time with him. To pay for Jenny's cancer therapy, Oliver seeks money from his estranged father, who asks him if he has "gotten a girl in trouble." Oliver simply says yes, and his father writes a check.
From her hospital bed, Jenny makes funeral arrangements with her father, then asks for Oliver. She tells him to not blame himself, insisting that he never held her back from music and it was worth it for the love they shared. Jenny's last wish is made when she asks him to embrace her tightly before she dies. As a grief-stricken Oliver leaves the hospital, he sees his father outside, having rushed to New York City from Massachusetts as soon as he heard the news about Jenny and wanting to offer his help. Oliver tells him, "Jenny's dead," and his father says "I'm sorry," to which Oliver responds, "Love– Love means never having to say you're sorry", something that Jenny had said to him earlier. Oliver walks back alone to the outdoor ice rink, where Jenny had watched him skate the day she was hospitalized.
Erich Segal originally wrote the screenplay and sold it to Paramount Pictures. While the film was being produced, Paramount wanted Segal to write a novel based on it, to be published on Valentine's Day to help pre-publicize the release of the film. When the novel came out, it became a bestseller on its own in advance of the film.
The original director was Larry Peerce. He backed out and was replaced by Anthony Harvey. Harvey dropped out and was replaced by Arthur Hiller. Jimmy Webb wrote a score for the film that was not used.
Filming Love Storyon location caused significant damage to the Harvard campus. This experience, followed by a similar experience with the film A Small Circle of Friends (1980), caused the university administration to deny most subsequent requests for filming on location.
Overall, Love Story has received generally positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected reviews from 25 critics and gave the film a score of 68% "Fresh." The critical consensus reads: "Earnest and determined to make audiences swoon, Love Story is an unabashed tearjerker that will capture hearts when it isn't inducing eye rolls."
Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and called it "infinitely better than the book," adding, "because Hiller makes the lovers into individuals, of course we're moved by the film's conclusion. Why not?"Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times was also positive, writing that although "the plot-line has been honored many times ... It's the telling that matters: the surfaces and the textures and the charm of the actors. And it is hard to see how these quantities could have been significantly improved upon in Love Story."
Newsweek, however, felt the film was contrived and film critic Judith Crist called Love Story "Camille with bullshit."Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "I can't remember any movie of such comparable high-style kitsch since Leo McCarey's 'Love Affair' (1939) and his 1957 remake, 'An Affair to Remember.' The only really depressing thing about 'Love Story' is the thought of all the terrible imitations that will inevitably follow it."Gene Siskel gave the film two stars out of four and wrote that "whereas the novel has a built-in excuse for being spare (it is told strictly as the boy's reminiscence), the film does not. Seeing the characters in the movie ... makes us want to know something about them. We get precious little, and love by fiat doesn't work well in film." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, "I found this one of the most thoroughly resistible sentimental movies I've ever seen. There is scarcely a character or situation or line in the story that rings true, that suggests real simplicity or generosity of feeling, a sentiment or emotion honestly experienced and expressed." Writer Harlan Ellison wrote in The Other Glass Teat, his book of collected criticism, that it was "shit." John Simon wrote that Love Story was so bad that it never once moved him.
The film was ranked number 9 on the AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions list, which recognizes the top 100 love stories in American cinema. The film also spawned a trove of imitations, parodies, and homages in countless films, having re-energized melodrama on the silver screen, as well as helping to set the template for the modern "chick flick".
The film was an instant box office smash. It opened in two theatres in New York City, Loew's State I and Tower East grossing $128,022 in its first week. It is among the highest-grossing films in the United States and Canada, grossing $106,397,186. It grossed an additional $30 million in international film markets. At the time of release, it was the 6th highest-grossing film of all time in U.S and Canada gross only. Adjusted for inflation, the film remains one of the top 50 domestic grosses of all time.
The film was first broadcast on ABC television on October 1, 1972 and became the most watched film on television surpassing Ben-Hur with 27 million homes watching, a Nielsen rating of 42.3 and an audience share of 62%. The rating was equalled the following year by Airport and then surpassed in 1976 by Gone with the Wind.