Fran Tarkenton was apoplectic. Sportswriter Dick Schaap had given the New York Giants' quarterback a slim volume to pass the time on the New York-Boston jet. Tarkenton flipped the first few pages and wept through the last three chapters. Now, the night before the big game, the whole damn team was reading the thing with identical results. "Listen!" he telephoned Schaap. "This book is destroying the Giants just when we're supposed to be psyched up for the Patriots!"
Diagnosis: Love Story. There's a lot of it going around. Nearly 418,000 hardcover copies, for one thing. Plus 4,350,000 copies of a 95¢ version−the largest paperback first edition in history.* Plus the film, wrapped in glittering Ali MacGraw and Ryan O'Neal, just in time for holiday giving.
Harvard Graustark. Like the book, the movie takes the trite and true prescription and flips it: boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. Harvard Jock Oliver Barrett IV digs Rhode Island Social Zero Jennifer Cavilled. His family disapproves. He defies them and marries her anyway. Whereupon fate−that inconstant jade−does the couple in. There has not been such a wrong-side-of-the-tracks meet since Holiday (1938), in which Gary Grant announced that he had worked his way through college, causing Katharine Hepburn's jillionaire father to harrumph mightily.
And yet ... and yet ... the counterrevolution had to happen. In an era of sexual license and X-rated sprees, it was inevitable that the hottest sentence in the hottest bestseller could have come from La Boheme: "What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?" You can say that her movie, though soapy, is better than her silly book. You can say that Director Arthur Hiller (Popi) has managed to provide an amalgam of Harvard and Graustark−an enchanted campus where all the people look like movie stars, and all the movie stars try to look like people.
You can say further that Ali MacGraw promises to become the closest thing to a movie star of the '40s. She calls her lover/husband "Preppie" about 900 times too often; she sometimes seems case-hardened enough to scratch a diamond. But she is genuinely touching when she wishes aloud that her name was Wendy Wasp. And she is in a part as actor-proof as Camille. When a Radcliffe girl chooses to die onscreen, the Academy Awards can be heard softly rustling like Kleenexes in the background.
You can also say that Ryan O'Neal gives the character of the neon scion a warmth and vulnerability entirely missing from the bestseller. His part is chock-full of negative benefits. He does not have to parrot book lines like: "Paine Hall? (Ironic goddamn name!)" Or refer to himself in SJ. Perelmanese as "Yours truly: Law Review, All-Ivy, Harvard. Hordes of people were fighting to get my name and numeral onto their stationery."