The time-honored, age-old inquiry of ‘can opposites attract?’ is at the forefront of Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973); one of the most poignant and intriguing cinema romances ever put on film. It isn’t only the iconic Oscar-winning/chart-topping Marvin Hamlisch song; only the galvanized performances given by two of Hollywood’s biggest superstars (Redford and Streisand…is there any need to mention their ‘first’ names?); only Harry Stradling Jr.’s lush and evocative cinematography; only Arthur Laurents’ intricately woven screenplay that takes its pro-active young Communist Jew meets blasé and impossibly handsome Wasp incompatible love affair and grafts it onto a more timely story about America at one of its less than flattering moments.
No, The Way We Were continues to resonate with audiences because it is the culmination of a period in American movie-making that sadly is no more; a time when experimentation in the ensconced genres was not only readily evident but encouraged; the status quo having decamped, leaving the mantle of quality to a younger generation who were fearless in taking chances. In many ways, director Sydney Pollack brilliantly straddles this chasm between old and new in The Way We Were – looking back on all those ‘misty’ and ‘water-colored memories’ of the way movie’s used to be made with a clear-eyed approach to the material.
Since its premiere, The Way We Were has become a microcosmic reflection of America’s once bright-eyed optimism turned asunder; a capsule of changing times both in front of and behind the camera. The Way We Were is deceptively superficial, functioning as a tragi-romance and occasionally pulpy melodrama; the spectacle of seeing Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in their prime, locked in embrace and teetering perilously close to sublime happiness – only to watch it all slip away – has jerked many a tear over the last forty years.
Can it really be forty years?!?! Time, alas, has neither erased nor rewritten every line. The film remains vital and fresh; of the moment while somehow escaping the similar fate of other movies made throughout the 1970’s. The Way We Were was always a period piece. As a result, it hasn’t dated – much; although several of the Dorothy Jeakins/Moss Mabry costumes and hairstyles lean dangerously close to falling out of period and succumbing to that irrefutable bell-bottomed style of the 1970’s.
Robert Redford did not want to do this film; perhaps recognizing that in the early drafts his Anglo-Saxon stud, Hubbell Gardiner is little more than luscious eye candy pitted against Streisand’s flashier ‘woman of principles’. “People are their principles!” Streisand’s Katie Morosky tells Hubbell in a heated moment, a notion he understands all too well. Because as the movie progresses we realize that underneath Redford’s amiable, always smiling, man about town lies a deeper oppression; one self-inflicted by conscience. It isn’t that nothing is going on inside Hubbell Gardiner’s head. It’s that there’s too much for him to even articulate – except perhaps in moments when pushed into frustration. Maintaining an elusive aura of the rugged devil-may-care is a full time job. Moreover, it is a mask to keep the outside world at bay while his truer feelings fester and feud from within; something Katie utterly fails to grasp. Can you blame her? Streisand’s political activist with a chip on her shoulder wears her heart on her sleeve. Yet, at their core, Katie and Hubbell are not so much opposites, but all too similarly aligned to ever go beyond their hot-blooded friction. It won’t work – but that doesn’t stop either from trying.
Redford’s great ‘movie star’ quality has always been his unattainability; the bronze Apollo somehow just a little out of reach for the starry-eyed female costar who has thrown herself at his head in countless movies over the decades. Streisand’s Katie makes the attempt only once; pitifully pleading for Hubbell to comfort in her heartbreak in the middle of the night. It’s a moment of uncharacteristic weakness; the iron petticoat turned to heart-palpitating mush in order to get what she wants – her man. But in The Way We Were, Redford offers us a distinct variation on his trademarked beefcake; intuitive and troubled by the fact that, as Katie points out early on, everything comes too easy for him. On the surface, at least, this is true. Hubbell is admired without even trying to impress; fawned over by cute but vacuous kitten-faced beauties and followed by male stragglers who are neither as competitive, handsome nor as physically accomplished as he, hoping some of that ‘Hubbell Gardiner mystique’ will rub off. It could so easily be a soothing massage to his ego - except that Hubbell knows he is a fraud. Underneath the brave veneer this paragon cringes. We see flashes of this insecurity early on. In fact, it’s what makes Redford’s jock endearing to both Katie and the audience. He’s a real man. But he’s also one of us.
Hubbell’s an enigma to Katie at first and why not? She’s uncompromising and steadfast in her beliefs and has no problem sharing them with anyone who will listen. Moreover, she knows her own mind. And she isn’t pretty. Part of Streisand’s own exploration of self – at least in the movies – has been to critique the myth and reality of ‘what is pretty?’ It’s a central theme of practically every movie she’s appeared in, beginning with her debut in William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968). A decade later Streisand is still asking the question ‘Am I beautiful?’ in The Way We Were; exercising her strengths and assets to minimize the reality that she will never be ‘conventionally cute.’
It is a rather crushing blow to Katie’s tightly-wound conceit that Hubbell’s own appeal extends beyond his good looks; a rare man of hidden qualities indeed. After his short story is singled out in a writing class Katie desperately wants to excel in, the pair finds common intellectual ground where the sparks in their tempestuous romance can dance and play. Recognizing the parallels is troubling to Katie. She will spend the rest of the movie struggling to reconcile this gorgeous mannequin with her ideal mate that she desperately wishes he could become. It all matters, to Katie. The extraordinary thing is that it matters just as much to Hubbell – but in a very different way.
The impetus for The Way We Were is a little convoluted to follow. Screenwriter, Arthur Laurents remembers being approached by producer Ray Stark with the unusual concept of having Streisand play a school teacher who uses music to reach out to her mentally challenged pupils. But many years before while Laurents was still a student in college he became fascinated by a young politically proactive student who organized radical rallies and peace strikes in protest of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. This began the real genesis for Laurents’ rewrite. In fact, The Way We Were is not at all the way it began; the rough cut of the movie much more political in tone; Katie reflecting on her youth through the eyes of another young activist at Berkeley; her marriage to Hubbell breaking apart after the witch hunt has branded her a communist sympathizer. To save her husband’s face and career she suggests divorce and he agrees, despite the fact she is carrying his child.
Arthur Laurents first draft immediately impressed Stark who green lit the project without reservations. Laurents also suggested Sydney Pollack to direct; a decision embraced by Streisand – who had worked with Pollack before – but receiving little encouragement from Stark who reluctantly backed Laurents on the grounds that Pollack could get Robert Redford to sign on. Redford, however, was dragging his heals. Until the eleventh hour, Stark repeatedly threatened to recast the movie with Ryan O’Neal; Pollock wooing his reluctant star – and very good friend – by wearing him down. At this point Arthur Laurents bowed out; his prose distilled by the intervention of eleven writers including black-listed Dalton Trumbo, Alvin Sargent, Paddy Chayefsky, and Herb Gardner. Regrettably, the result was a script so badly mangled and chocked full of half-realized ideas that neither Streisand nor Redford agreed to partake of it. Laurents was recalled into service, agreeing to do a complete rewrite only after he received an exorbitant salary as his compensation.
At the start of the movie the narrative timeline is rather complex. We find our heroine, Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) a dramatist toiling on a popular radio program during WWII. But Katie’s anti-war propagandizing is at odds with the entertainment value of the show. To take the edge off Katie’s boss, Bill Verso (Herb Edelmen) suggests a night out at the Cocoanut Grove where Katie accidentally sees Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) in full naval uniform seated on a bar stool and obviously two sheets to the wind. From this rather lengthy prologue we regress in flashback to the real start of The Way We Were; opening with a peace rally organized by the Young Communist League; its chairwoman, vocal Marxist Jew, Katie Morosky attempted to broker favor with the predominantly Anglo-Saxon student body. They chide and goad her repeatedly throughout the ruminations of what eventually becomes her rousing anti-war speech. Regrettably, this shining moment is defused by pranksters who hold up a sign behind her that reads ‘any peace but Katie’s piece.’ Still, resident jock and heartthrob, Hubbell Gardiner is bowled over by Katie’s passion for a cause she believes in. There’s just something about her that gets under his skin.
The two romantically spar. Katie isn’t particularly interested in Hubbell whom she disregards as superficial and vane – at first. But his congeniality – and moreover, his hidden talent as a formidable writer – win Katie over. And why not, when such intelligence comes so neatly wrapped in an attractive blonde and buff package? The attraction for Hubbell is based on Katie’s baffling conviction and her insatiable and almost hypnotic ability to persuade others to take up social causes. But friction mounts between the pair, primarily because Hubbell’s friends, J.J. (Bradford Dillman) and, more importantly, potential rival love interest, Carol Ann (Lois Chiles) seem so vacuous and empty-headed to Katie. After some deeply felt passions ignite, things reach a fevered pitch and Hubbell and Katie part in a flurry of mutual frustration. All is not lost, however. The narrative timeline returns to the present… or, at least, what is present in the film. Hubbell awakens on his bar stool but is still quite inebriated, deciding to take Katie home with him. The two rekindle their college flame and carry on an affair, Hubbell’s frequent absences due to being stationed as a naval officer in the South Pacific, allowing for badly needed separations whenever he and Katie quarrel. Still, it’s always so good to come home and eventually Hubbell and Katie marry and decide to move to Hollywood.
But Tinsel Town is an ill fit for the socially-conscious Katie. It doesn’t help that J.J. and Carol Ann have made the trip too; the foursome constantly surrounded by a plush but sycophantic superficiality. Katie allies herself with acting coach, Rhea Edwards (Allyn Ann McLerie) and finds at least something redeeming in Hubbell’s studio boss, producer George Bissinger (Patrick O’Neal). However, when the FBI takes to bugging George’s home in the hopes of weeding out communists and communist sympathizers, Katie’s ire is raised. (An interesting aside: the aforementioned ‘bugging’ incident has its basis in real life; at a fashionable Hollywood house party attended by Arthur Laurents where famed comedian Charlie Chaplin attempted to provide the entertainment by doing a silent bit as both a bullfighter and the bull. When Chaplin accidentally lost his balance during the performance he struck and dislodged a picture from the wall whereupon it was discovered a listening device had been planted.) The communist witch hunt polarizes Katie and Hubbell right down the middle; Hubbell’s insistence that no amount of solidarity amongst the innocent will help the cause of standing against government spying on private citizens in direct odds with what Katie perceives as Hubbell’s ‘do nothing’ attitude.
As the specter of the blacklist encroaches on all their lives Katie's political activism increasingly jeopardizes Hubbell's reputation in the industry. Her persistent abrasiveness leads Hubbell to having an affair with Carol Ann despite the fact that Katie is already pregnant with his child. The couple divorce and time passes. Years later, they reunite – this time, quite unexpectedly; Katie spying Hubbell in front of the Plaza Hotel with his new wife. She invites the couple for a drink. But although it is quite obvious that neither has ever severed the bond of love that continues to throb between them, Hubbell politely refuses Katie’s invitation. They embrace, perhaps as friends – definitely as unresolved lovers – with Katie brushing a wayward lock of Hubbell’s hair from his forehead as she tells him that his ‘girl is beautiful’. Whether by choice or mere resignation, each knows that what might have been between them is at an end. The way they were can never be again.
In this penultimate moment of bittersweet farewell, The Way We Were is heartbreaking; the shared loss and passage of time not enough to reunite these two people who so undeniably continue to care for each other. Katie’s realization, that Hubbell was never more alive or vibrant than when he was with her, and his abject surrender of both his wife and daughter, the latter named Rachel who he has never met – and will likely never meet – tears at the ties that bind and remind both Hubbell and Katie of the way they were. Streisand and Redford deliver high-caliber performances that sell what could so easily have become a moment of maudlin rank melodramatic sentiment, herein imbued with a genuine sense of epic loss and mournful regret. We feel for these characters; want to see them happy, then almost inadvertently and instinctually recognizes – as they have – that happiness is an unattainable illusion. There is no perfect ending for this imperfect match. It’s simply over – finished – with the lingering angst and ennui likely to haunt and plague Hubbell and Katie for the rest of their lives. Each will always be to the other ‘the one that got away’.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray doesn’t let The Way We Were get away from a fantastic looking 1080p transfer. The movie looks spectacular in hi-def. Sony’s mastering delivers a vibrant image with precise flesh tones, rich colors, excellent contrast levels and a light smattering of film grain looking very natural throughout. The ‘wow’ factor is present and much appreciated. This disc sounds about as good in DTS 5.1; Streisand’s rendering of the title track enveloping with a very solid spread across all the surround channels. You are going to fall in love all over again with The Way We Were. Twilight Time gives us an isolate score of Marvin Hamlisch’s orchestrations that incorporate a good number of vintage tunes into the musical mélange. We also get a fairly comprehensive audio commentary, and – even better - extensive featurette ‘Looking Back’ that was on Sony’s SE DVD from 2003, with input from the late Arthur Laurents, Sydney Pollack, Streisand and others expounding on the development and enduring legacy of the film. Very good stuff and very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)