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Monday, October 3, 2016

Arthur Hiller : The Maker of 'Love Story'

Arthur Hiller, who served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1993 to 1997 and yet remained stubbornly ‘un-Hollywood’ in character, died on August 17, aged 92.

Arthur Hiller was born on November 13, 1923, in Edmonton, Alberta to Rose and Harry Hiller, Jewish immigrants from Poland, who ran a Yiddish school and theater in Edmonton. This prolific director of over 30 movies of every genre began his career immediately after World War II as a television director with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Hiller, known as “the kind of director who gets pictures done on time, on budget, without troubling or threatening anyone”, is said to have preferred his scripts to contain “good moral values”, a liking which he claims to have acquired “from [his] parents and [his] upbringing”. He claimed that “even in [his] smaller, lesser films, at least there is an affirmation of the human spirit.” And this philosophy well reflects in almost all the films that he made, notable among them being:  The Americanization of Emily (1964), The Out-of-Towners (1970), Love Story (1970), Plaza Suit (1971), and that story about a man, The Man in the Glass Booth (1975)—a survivor of the Holocaust trying to deal with questions of self-identity and guilt, Silver Streak (1976), The In-Laws (1979) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).

Hiller’s greatest commercial success was however to materialize out of Love Story, a film that he had made based on a screenplay written by Erich Segal, a Yale University professor, portraying the tragic love of a wealthy Harvard Law student, Oliver Barrett and a Radcliffe music major, Jennifer Cavilleri, the product of a working-class Italian-American family but with tons of love for Mozart, Bach and Beatles too.  Incidentally, Segal had simultaneously released it as a novel of the same name in 1970 which turned out to be a bestselling novel—around five million copies were sold.

The movie’s storyline is pretty simple though melodramatic, and even maudlin. It was set in tony Harvard University campus with Oliver Barrett IV, a scion of a well-to-do family, “a rather impulsive, impatient and quick to action” type meeting Jennifer Cavilleri, “the beautiful, brilliant, bespectacled mouse type” in the Radcliffe’s library. Jennifer was pretty smart and a wise-cracking working-class girl, and if you wanna have a confirmation, please run through this very first conversation of her with Oliver in the library:  

Oliver     :      “Do you have The Waning of the Middle Ages!”
Jennifer :      “Do you have your own library?”
Oliver     :      “Listen, Harvard is allowed to use the Radcliffe library.”
Jennifer :      “I am not taking legality, Preppie, I am talking ethics. You guys …” 
Oliver     :      “What makes you so sure I went to prep school?”
Jennifer :      “You look stupid and rich” ...
Oliver     :      “What makes you so smart?”
Jennifer :      “I wouldn’t go for coffee with you.”
Oliver     :      “Yeah well I wouldn’t ask you.” ...
Jennifer :      “Well, that’s what makes you stupid.”

Having thus entered into his life, Jennifer “gave new meaning to this empty world of” Oliver. Despite their opposing background and cultural gap—Oliver had always wanted to employ ‘Sonovabitch’ while referring to his progenitor which is a pure and straight contradiction to Jennie’s “atavistic Italian-Mediterranean notion of papa-loves-bambinos”—Oliver, “a preppie millionaire” and Jennifer, “a social zero” begin their romance on the campus—she attending his hockey games, he watching her in concerts, studying together, frolicking in the snow, and so on purely driven by their sheer chemistry.

To let you appreciate this ‘chemistry’ stuff, I may take you round a romantic scene: once as Oliver kisses her lightly on her forehead, Jenni questions him: “Did I say you could kiss me?” And as the boy confesses, “Sorry, I was carried away”, Jenni replies, “I wasn’t”. Perhaps, encouraged by it, and as they were pretty much all alone, that too, as it was dark, he kisses her again, of course, this time round not on the forehead, and not lightly. And Jenni’s reaction was, “I don’t like it” and as Oliver blurts out, “What?” her reply was, “The fact that I like it”. That is her witticism and that is their chemistry which so strongly cements their love for each other.

Upon graduation, Oliver asks the senior Barret, “Father you haven’t said a word about Jennifer.” His father asks him to “wait a while”; and on being insisted to define the ‘while’ he says, “Finish law school. If this is real, it can stand the test of time.” But, Oliver, in his anxiety to let not his father anymore control his life, tells him, “why … arbitrary test?” And obviously, the dialog ends with the senior Barret whispering bitingly, “Marry her now, and I’ll not give you the time of day” and Oliver walking out of his life saying, “Father, you don’t know the time of day”.

Disowning his father’s fortune, Oliver finally marries Jennifer—to borrow Jennifer’s father’s words—in a ‘do-it-yourself wedding’ style with Jennifer reciting a poem, “When our two souls stand up erect and strong...”, followed by Oliver reciting Walt Whitman’s song, “…I give you my hand / I give you my love more precious than money / … / Shall we stick by each other as long as we live”, whereupon, the college Unitarian Chaplain declares them as wife and husband.

After the marriage, they set up their home in a modest wood-frame house at Oxford Street, Cambridge, near the Harvard campus, and, the couple, of course, cheerfully put up a struggle—the struggle, which Oliver describes in a single word thus: ‘scrounge’—to find a way through Harvard Law School for Oli with Jenny working as a private school teacher.  The only precious moment that Oliver could recall from that ‘scrounge’ was his act of carrying Jenni over the threshold of their new home—a compliance with Jenni’s sentiments, perhaps.   

IIn the course of their journey, Jenni, on receiving an invitation from senior Barret for a celebration in connection with his 60th birthday, tries to reconcile the Brett men, by calling the senior on phone to convey greetings. She indeed pleads with Oliver to say hello to his father, “For me, Oliver. I’ve never asked you for anything, Please”, but to no avail, for Oliver proved to be—to borrow Jennie’s words—“a heartless bastard”. As Jennie however manages to conclude her conversation with the Senior Barret saying, “Oliver loves you very much”, Oliver, in a split second, perhaps driven by insanity of being not able to forgive himself for what he did, snatching the phone off her hand and hurling it across the room yells: “God damn You, Jenny! Why don’t you get the hell out of my life”!  Regaining his senses, as he turns to look at Jenni, she has already stormed out of the apartment in tears. He runs around the Harvard campus in search of her but could not find anywhere. In that numbness, he returns home and seeing someone sitting on the top of the stairway, wonders if it was the trick played by his eyes. Finally, reaching the sobbing Jenni out there in cold night on the steps without her keys, Oliver whispers in a tone of regret, “Jenny, I’m sorry”. “Stop”, cutting him off thus, Jennie quietly utters—the phrase that became, in today’s language, viral all over America of 1970s—“Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry”.

IInterestingly, as Oliver runs all over Cambridge for Jennifer, Lai offers a memorable background score by combining the Love Theme on harpsichord (perhaps to reflect Jenny’s love of Mozart) and a rock rhythm (indicating Oliver’s love for Beatles) that runs for about three minutes. While talking about Lai’s memorable music we must also appreciate the versatile genius of Hiller, the director, who reported to have sent a long letter to the French speaking Lai as to what kind of music he wanted and where he wanted it.  And, its contribution for the ultimate beauty of the score is just palpable.

Returning to the story line, Oliver, graduating third in his class at Harvard Law, takes a position at a New York law firm for a fat salary. They happily shift to a new address looking forward to building up their life towards its natural end of having a child. But fate had other plans: they come to know that Jane is suffering from a serious malady and will soon die. As advised by doctor, Oliver, without telling the truth to Jennie, attempts to lead a ‘normal life’. But discovering the truth by confronting the doctor, Jenni makes Oliver promise that he will carry on in good form.

Finally, one cold winter night, as the Piano theme of Love Story rises in the background and as the camera pulls back high over the couple, a weakened Jenny walks with halting steps in Ollie’s arms through the snow to the Sinai hospital. As she is put on an expensive course of treatment, Oliver in desperation seeks financial relief from his father.

As the end is fast approaching, Jenni, in a one-to-one conversation with her father from the hospital bed, decides upon her funeral arrangements, and then calling in Oliver, says: “I told him he could have a Catholic service, you’d say okay. Okay?” And then, in her anxiety to buck him up, Jenni, looking into his eyes, in an angry voice, albeit softly tells, “Listen, Oliver!  Oliver, you have got to stop being sick!” Lastly, as she asks him to do a favour of holding her very tight, Oliver gets into her bed and carefully avoiding tubes and things, puts his arms around her. Whispering, “Thanks Ollie”, she slips away. 

Afterwards, Oliver, coming out of the room, comforting Phil for a while in the hallway, walks out of the hospital in a daze. At this moment, his father makes his presence, saying urgently, “Oliver, I want to help”. Staring at him, Oliver says, “Jenny’s dead”. Shocked, his father whispers: “I’m sorry”. Stopping him at it, Oliver, with tears in his eyes, uttering what Jenni once told him: “Love means not ever having to say sorry”, walks across the street to the snow-covered Central Park. While the Love Story piano theme plays in the background, he, sitting on a bench …..  staring into the ice rink …contemplates life without Jenni…..perhaps….

For a film, this appears to be a great end, as indeed many critics have acclaimed it. But the novel ends in a different tone: it ends with the protagonist saying, “And then I did what I had never done in his presence, much less in his arms. I cried”, which I loved so much when I first read the novel. But then, certain acts sound more appealing when perceived through words rather than in real terms, perhaps. And that might have prompted Hiller to deviate from the novel, which, of course, made a lasting impact of the tragedy—tragedy of their innocent love ending in a cold winter’s night—on the audience. And the soulful score of Liar has only enhanced it—indeed, it is his piano “what gives color, gives emotion” to the film.

Indeed, film critic, Roger Ebert has gone to the extent of saying, “The film of Love Story is infinitely better than the book... it has something to do with the quiet taste of Arthur Hiller ... who has put in all the things that (author Erich) Segal thought he was being clever to leave out. Things like color, character, personality, detail and background.” True, the novel, being more in the form of a film script, perhaps enjoyed little scope for getting the protagonists stuffed with zest of life, which Hiller could obviously accomplish through Ali MacGrow and Ryan O’Neal on screen.

No doubt, Hiller’s emphatic but straightforward direction brought home the themes of class and generational reconciliation embedded in the plot quite effectively. Obviously, the film caught on like wild fire, for the then America desperately wanted relief from the social and political turmoil it was roiled in more as a consequence of Vietnam War.  Indeed, one critic said it in so many words: It is “a Vietnam film in which Vietnam remains off screen.” Some critics have however dismissed it as a mere tear-jerking romantic escape. But the audience loved it. And its influence endures, perhaps, forever.

This movie was produced with a meager budget of $2 mn but grossed a whopping $106 mn. The film had indeed saved Paramount Studios from financial ruin. Aside of the money, the film earned Hiller his sole Oscar nomination for best director, plus six other Academy Award nominations, including for best actor and best actress. It however won only one Oscar for the hugely popular score of Francis Lai that squeezed every last drop from the tear ducts of audience. The film had however earned Golden Globe awards in five categories: Best Motion Picture—Drama, Best Director for Hiller, Best Score for Lai, Best Screenplay for Erich Segal and Best Actress for Ali McGraw.

Hiller, who aimed at making his audience see his art of “story telling … see [it] not with their eyes, but with their gut”, however claimed that the MGM-produced anti-war comedy, The Americanization of Emily, as his personal favourite. Intriguingly, much against the already established trend of colour production, he produced it in black and white to retain the feel of the war scenes that are sourced through newsreels and newspapers and interspersed in the narration of the tentative love affair between a young war widow (Julie Andrews) and an American naval officer (James Garner), a cowardly sailor whose commanding officer plans for him a hero’s death on D-Day  set in wartime London with a theme: “Don’t make war seem so wonderful that kids want to be heroes”.

Gentle and self-effacing Hiller, the prolific director of ‘quiet taste’, whom the Academy, recognizing as a generous and talented man, honoured in 2002 with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, will however remain etched in the minds of romanticists forever by that catchphrase from his film, Love Story: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”.

Portrait of Hiller: Courtesy Sri Sattiraju Sankaranarayana garu.


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