Oliver Barrett IV (Ryan O'Neal) is a Harvard pre-law student and varsity hockey player from an old money WASP family. When he needs to borrow a law book from the Radcliffe College library, he meets Radcliffe music major Jenny Cavalleri (Ali MacGraw), who is from a working-class Italian Catholic background and is employed by the library in a work study capacity. She initially needles Oliver for being a child of privilege and refuses to let him have the book unless he takes her out for coffee. The ice between them thaws very quickly, and they begin a romantic relationship. However, their romance does not sit well with Oliver's father (Ray Milland), who cuts off his financial support when Oliver and Jenny announce their plans to marry after graduation. They go ahead with the wedding, after which Jenny has to take a job as a private school teacher to pay Oliver's tuition to Harvard Law School. He graduates third in his class and gets a job at a prestigious New York law firm; she resists his suggestion that she audition for the Juilliard School in favour of trying to have a child. But when they struggle to conceive and seek medical advice, they receive a devastating diagnosis: Jenny is terminally ill.
The book and film were followed by a sequel, Oliver's Story, in 1977 (book) and 1978 (film), in which Oliver tries to lose himself in his work to get over Jenny's death. However, his political views are at odds with those of his senior partners, while a promising relationship with heiress Marcie Bonwit founders as he struggles to move past his memories of his life with Jenny. The film is known for starring a pre-Murphy Brown Candice Bergen.
In February 2021, a series was reported to be in development for Paramount+.
This film provides examples of:
- 555: When Jenny goes to call Oliver's parents, he gives her a real-sounding phone number, followed by her dialing 555-5555.
- Authoritative in Public, Docile in Private: The protagonist Oliver is a successful lawyer, and his wife Jennifer is a housewife... and yet, he is the usual target of her sarcastic quips. Moreover, when he finds out that Jenny is terminally ill, it is she who comforts him rather than the other way round.
- Award-Bait Song: "Love Story," especially the Andy Williams version.
- Book Ends: The movie starts and ends with the male protagonist at Central Park during winter.
- Boy Meets Girl
- Bridal Carry: Oliver to Jenny when they move into their first house, then again when they move into the much nicer place they get after he starts work as a lawyer.
- Calling Parents by Their Name: Jenny calls her father Phil.
- Chick Flick
- Dating What Daddy Hates: Jenny suggests that part of the reason Oliver is dating her is because he knew it would annoy his father.
- Deadpan Snarker: Jennifer. And how!
- Downer Beginning: The page quote are the first words of the film.
- Downer Ending: Jenny dies and Oliver is left heartbroken.
- Expository Theme TuneWhere do I begin
To tell the story of how great a love can be?
The sweet love story that is older than the sea?
The simple truth about the love she brings to me?
Where do I start?
- Face Death with Dignity: Jenny retains her trademark sarcastic wit even in the last moments of her life.
- Foregone Conclusion: The opening narration basically tells you Jennifer is going to die.
- Foreshadowing: When Oliver carries Jenny into their new apartment building, the doorman asks if she's okay. They laugh it off, but it's soon after that they learn she's ill.
- Gilligan Cut: After both Oliver and Jennifer firmly declare their unwillingness to go on a date with each other, the next scene shows them on a date.
- Heroic BSoD: Oliver walks the streets of New York in one of these upon learning about Jenny's diagnosis, to the point that all the sights and sounds around him are a blur.
- How We Got Here: The film opens with Oliver sitting in Central Park after Jenny has already died. The rest of the film is an extended flashback to their relationship and marriage.
- Irony: Oliver and his father have an incredibly tense relationship that only worsens when he marries Jenny. Her death leads to them reconciling, as the sequel indicates that things have improved.
- "It" Is Dehumanizing: When Oliver goes to his father to ask for money for Jenny's treatment, he asks, "Doesn't she work?", obviously wondering why they're in need of financial support. Oliver icily tells him, "Don't call her "she"."
- Jerkass Has a Point: In Oliver's Story, when Oliver's new girlfriend Marcy accuses him of secretly wanting her to be an awful person so that he won't have to let go of Jenny, he promptly proves her point by blasting her for bringing up his wife. And the final line of the book indicates that he'll never be truly happy without her, strongly implying that Marcy was right.
- Locked Out of the Loop: The doctor tells Oliver how sick Jenny is, but not her. Oliver decides to keep it from her for quite a while, but she eventually finds out. She takes it surprisingly well.
- Loony Librarian: Jenny, who has a part-time job as a Radcliffe library assistant, seasons this with Hot Librarian. When Oliver asks her for a book, she flatly refuses and instead answers to his request with sarcastic quips; in the end, to get the book, he has to take her out on a date, and this is how their romance starts. Part of it can be attributed to her Belligerent Sexual Tension with Oliver, but given her Deadpan Snarker personality, it's more than likely that it was her typical manner of communication with library patrons.Oliver: Do you have The Waning of the Middle Ages?
Jenny: Do you have your own library?
Oliver: Listen, Harvard is allowed to use the Radcliffe library.
Jenny: I'm not talking legality, Preppie, I'm talking ethics. You guys have five million books. We have a few lousy thousand.
Oliver: Listen, I need that goddamn book.
Jenny: Wouldja please watch your profanity, Preppie?
- Loving a Shadow: Oliver's new girlfriend in the sequel accuses him of this in regards to Jenny, suggesting that deep down he probably wants her to turn out to be a bad person so that he can dump her and continue to hang on to his memories of Jenny.
- Manly Tears: The final line of the novel has Oliver crying in his father's arms.
- Mistaken for Cheating:
- Jenny teasingly accuses Oliver of this when he becomes extra-attentive to her (he has of course been completely faithful to her and is acting this way because he just found out about her cancer diagnosis).
- When Oliver goes to his father to ask for money for Jenny's treatment, his father assumes that Oliver has gotten some other girl pregnant and needs the money either to pay for an abortion or to get her to keep her mouth shut.
- Early in the film, Oliver hears Jenny on the phone telling someone, "I love you, Phil". He bristles, but Jenny tells him she was talking to her father.
- Oh, and X Dies: The opening sentence tells us that Jenny died.
- Parental Marriage Veto: Oliver's father cuts all ties with his son for choosing to marry below his class, not that Oliver helps matters any. Luckily, he changes his mind at the end when he finds out Jenny is ill and that Oliver needs to pay for her treatment. They make up at the end.
- The Pollyanna: Jennifer morally supports Oliver even when she's dying, and retains her trademark sharp wit.
- Riches to Rags: Oliver's father cuts him off when he marries Jenny, forcing the couple to get by on Jenny's teaching salary until he graduates from law school and gets a well-paying job.
- Romantic Ribbing: Jenny ironically calls Oliver "Preppie", and constantly teases him with sarcastic quips. He soon learns to retaliate, but she still has the upper hand every time:'Damn,' I replied, 'why can't I ever quit when I'm ahead?''Because, Preppie,' said my loving wife, 'you never are.'
- Secretly Dying: Inverted: when the doctor finds out that Jenny is terminally ill, he tells Oliver, but not her. Oliver does his best to keep it a secret, but eventually she finds out nonetheless.
- Security Cling: Jenny's last request to Oliver before she dies.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: Jenny and Oliver's first interaction.
- Snow Means Death: Jenny dies during a typical frigid and snowy New York winter.
- Soap Opera Disease: Jenny's illness is never named, and the doctors only allude to treatments involving platelets and medication that slows down cell destruction.
- Spoiler Opening: "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?"
- Stepford Smiler: Oliver is implied to be this at the end of the sequel, as even as he describes his ostensibly happy life—thriving career, improved relationship with his father, possible new relationship—he admits that he's dead inside without Jenny.
- Unexpected Positive: Stymied by their failure to conceive, Jenny and Oliver visit a doctor who recommends complete physicals. This how her cancer is discovered.
- Uptown Girl: Wealthy WASP Oliver is a gender-inversion to working class Catholic Jenny.