Before Angelina, Jennifer or Beyoncé, there was another "it" girl in Hollywood: Ali MacGraw.
In December 1970, a little movie called Love Story made a big splash at the box office. People lined up to see the top-grossing film of the year, and millions fell for Ali, the film's raven-haired, smart-mouthed star.
"At the time, every woman wanted to be Ali—even I did," Oprah says. "And every man wanted to date her."
Love Story, which was based on Erich Segal's best-selling novel, went on to earn seven Oscar® nominations, including Best Picture. But, before Love Story's lead actress stole the hearts of fans and critics alike, Ali was best known for her cover shoots and commercials.
After graduating from Wellesley College, Ali moved to New York and landed a coveted job in fashion as an assistant to Harper's Bazaar and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. But it wasn't long before Ali was coaxed into stepping in front of the camera. She began acting in commercials and gracing the cover of magazines.
When Ali landed the role as Jenny Cavilleri in Love Story, her life changed in a flash—but fame came with a price. Ali's relationships made tabloid headlines. She began dating Hollywood bad boy Steve McQueen and their tumultuous love affair, known for its alcohol-fueled battles and passionate breakups and makeups, ended in a bitter public divorce.
No longer Hollywood's reigning "it girl," Ali virtually disappeared from the public eye.
Ali tried to reignite her acting career, but her performances earned a series of scathing reviews. Then, at a 1985 charity event called The Night of 100 Stars, Ali says she realized she was no longer the toast of Hollywood. "It was actually 300 stars," Ali says. "ABC did it, and they featured people we know and love: Linda Evans, Joan Collins, Angie Dickinson."
All of the actresses were given beautiful dresses to wear, and Ali says they were told to walk across the Radio City Music Hall stage in a specific order. "At the point that I was given the worst dress, and I was number 299 walking across Radio City—I got it," she says.
Ali admits her pride got the best of her, and she felt like a loser. "So I got really loaded that night and woke up next to somebody I hadn't planned to spend the night with, if you want to know," she says. "It was total ego."
At her lowest point, Ali says she retreated into a fog of alcoholism and depression. "I [drank] out of total fear," she says. "I learned to drink holding a glass because I thought: 'Now I'm cool. They won't know I'm poor, where we live, all this ridiculous junk.'"
After spending a month at the Betty Ford Center, Ali says she began to make peace with herself. "I've been taking my recovery very seriously for 24 years," she says. "I don't miss the hangovers. I don't miss the lying. I don't miss the self-obsession."
In 1993, Ali made another life-changing decision. After a devastating wildfire burned her Los Angeles home to the ground and destroyed almost all of her belongings, Ali and her pets, which escaped unharmed, left Hollywood behind. "I thought, 'I'm going through this experience for a reason,'" she says. "I know this sounds like Pollyanna, but it's the truth—I felt, 'There's something I'm supposed to be doing because of this.' And it was, for me, getting out of L.A. If you are a big pop star, as I was in an industry, you're defined by, 'Hi, you look great' or 'Are you going to have a facelift?' or 'What are you doing now?' or 'Who are you sleeping with now?' And I wanted my life to be about more than just that micro-job."
Ali moved into a small adobe home in the New Mexico mountains where she now enjoys an intensely private life, works as an animal activist and is an avid student of yoga. "I have this amazing life," she says. "I'm learning how to live in the present and be grateful for what's working rather than look for the 'what's not working' piece."
It's hard to believe, but Ali is 71 years old—and she's not afraid to say it. There was a time, however, when she didn't feel so confident. While working on a television series, she says she went under the knife and had plastic surgery on her neck. "I did [the surgery] a long time ago because it's relentlessly terrifying to look at yourself on that monster screen, especially if people are fantasizing about you at 28," she says.
Ali says she's not against plastic surgery when it's done for the right reasons, but she thinks some people in the entertainment industry have crossed a line. "I think we live in a time where people are just insane on the subject of how they look," she says.
The message Hollywood sends women in their 30s and 40s is one of fear, Ali says. "I don't want to think that I should roll over and check out because 40 years ago I had a hit movie and now I'm living with my cat and dog in the mountains in Santa Fe—as if that's a step down," Ali says. "We just get to choose different things."
"Everybody's trying to hold onto what was instead of being present for what is," Oprah says.
It's been 40 years since Love Story debuted and Ali uttered the immortal words: "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Over the past four decades, people have been moved—and baffled—by this line.
Ali: What does that mean, by the way?
Oprah: I was just going ask you! What does that mean? At the time I was in the 11th grade when I went to see that for the first time, and I was thinking: "God, love means never having to say you're sorry? Really, does it?"
Ali: You know, a really great actor would have said: "Excuse me, what does this mean? I can't say it." And there would have been two or three hours of rewriting this moment. It makes no sense, and I apologize.
Oprah: I'm so happy to hear you say that. It makes no sense!
Love Story is credited for creating the chick flick film genre and is still thought of as one of the most romantic movies in history. But, without Ali's persistence, this story might not have been told. In the late '60s, no major Hollywood studio would even consider the screenplay written by Erich Segal, a 33-year-old Yale professor at the time.
Ali was so enamored with the script, she says she asked for a meeting with the head of Paramount Pictures, Robert Evans. Ali charmed him into greenlighting the project, and she was cast as the sharp-tongued Jenny. The role of Oliver, the Harvard prep, was turned down by well-known actors like Jon Voight, Michael Douglas and Peter Fonda before Ryan O'Neal, a rising star, nabbed the part. "He was it," Ali says. "He walked in, and that was the end of that."
For the first time in almost a decade, Ali and Ryan reunite on the Oprah Show stage. Ali says she still remembers Ryan's audition and their instant chemistry. "First of all, he's a great kisser," she says. "It's a combination of somebody who's incredibley sexy but funny. That's just electrifying."
In one 1970 photograph, Ali and Ryan are two young actors, on the verge of becoming household names.
Oprah: What would you say to your young self there, Ryan?
Ryan: What would I say to him? "Lucky boy."
Oprah: What would you say to your young self, knowing what you know now, Ali?
Ali: "Oh, heaven help you."
Although they played the part of one of the most romantic couples in history, Ali and Ryan's real-life love stories weren't always picture perfect. Ali has described her relationship with Steve McQueen as passionate, dramatic, hurtful and ecstatic. "It was a great love affair, without a doubt," she says.
Ali's definition of love, she says, has changed over the years. "There are so many kinds of love, and they're all very intense for me. I've had to learn that there's friendship love, there's ex-lovers' love, there's ex-husbands' love, there's kid love, your animals," Ali says. "Love is enormous."
In the past, Ali says she wasn't a good partner. "I'm on my own now, but I was an atrocious partner," she says. "Most importantly, I never told anybody who I was. I wanted them to read my mind about what I wanted instead of taking a chance."
Ryan's definition of love is simple. "It means never having to say you're sorry," he jokes.
In all seriousness, Ryan says he wasn't always a good partner, but over the years, he improved. "Farrah taught me," he says.
When Love Story first became a pop culture phenomenon, women across the country wanted to be Jenny Cavilleri. What many people don't know, including Ali and Ryan, is a woman named Janet Sussman Gartner says she's the inspiration for this unforgettable character.
"I was born in Brooklyn, and I attended school with Erich Segal," Janet says. "I went off to college, and Erich wrote me love letters."
Despite Erich's romantic overtures, Janet wasn't interested. "I had absolutely no romantic feelings for him," she says. Still, Erich persisted. "He said, 'I predict in 10 years we'll be married.'"
Erich's prediction was wrong—Janet married another man. "I had been married for five years, and in the middle of the night, [I] was fast asleep and the phone rang," she says. "I picked it up, and all I heard was a raspy voice saying: 'I just wrote you my last love letter. It's about 150 pages long.' I didn't know what he was talking about until the next day when the book came out, and then the movie followed the book."
Although Jenny dies at the end of Love Story, Janet is alive and well and is the mother of three. "I think that his writing the book and killing her was killing me off the pedestal and acknowledging that he was never going to accomplish or get whatever dream he had," Janet says.
Erich passed away in January 2010, and he died without ever confirming or denying whether Janet was really his "Jenny." "Let's just keep the mystery going," Janet says. "It's something that I will always be extremely proud, grateful and astonished that this happened to me, and I'm glad my children can share it with me."