By Pat Perry
The Way We Were is the story of a doomed romance between spectacularly mismatched lovers, set on wobbly political underpinnings. With its intriguing but underdeveloped subplot about the Hollywood blacklist, it is – to borrow a phrase from Roger Ebert’s review – a film that seems to be about more than it actually is. But its enduring popularity and the status it has earned over the years as a romance classic can be at least partially explained by its trailer’s tagline:
Streisand and Redford together!
The Way We Were is what Mark Cousins would rightfully call a “bauble” – a old-fashioned sort of film, harking back in both style and substance to an earlier era when people went to the movies to see glamorous stars. The stars may have suffered in those films, but they looked damn good while they did. Or, in this case, Streisand’s character might be passionate about her radical political convictions, but she’s also lipsticked, lacquered and coiffed to perfection for the lion’s share of the film. (You know she’s really come home to her lefty roots in the final scene, not so much because she’s handing out “Ban the Bomb” leaflets in Central Park, but because she’s stopped straightening her hair. In The Way We Were, Streisand’s hairstyles are the most reliable indicator of whether her character is being true to herself.)
Surely I don’t have to give you too many plot details: Streisand’s Katie Morowski and Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner, have, after all, long been a part of romance film iconography. Katie, the quick-tempered, outspoken Jewish liberal, and Hubbell, the golden, gorgeous WASP athlete with no stomach for politics, are at first glance completely wrong for each other. (At second and third glance, too.) But Hubbell has hidden depths; he’s a writer of some talent and insight, if a lazy one. The opening sentence of a short story he writes in college (“In a way, he was like the country he lived in. Things came too easily to him.”) is evidence of an acute self-knowledge from which he constantly tries to escape. Katie sees in him a potential for greatness that she pushes, cajoles and brow beats him to develop. She also finds him incredibly attractive (because, let’s face it, he’s played by Robert Redford) and has a pet habit of ruffling his impossibly thick blond bangs, something every woman in the audience was dying to do as well. For his part, Hubbell is fascinated by Katie’s staunch political convictions and go-getter personality, two qualities he does not remotely possess himself.
In the first of the film’s three acts, they meet in college where Katie’s impassioned speech against Franco’s Spanish Civil War (a particularly brilliant scene for Streisand) brings the whole campus to its feet, even the snotty, apolitical rich kids who are Hubbell’s crowd. Years later, during World War II (which Hubbell inexplicably spends looking devastatingly handsome in his Naval uniform while gadding around New York), Katie finds a dead-drunk Hubbell on a nightclub barstool and brings him home. He gets into her bed and winds up falling asleep on top of her, halfway through making love.
From such inauspicious beginnings is an unlikely romance born. Katie is the pursuer in the relationship, essentially sublimating her innate passions for politics and social justice into a quest to make her boyfriend the next great American novelist. Hubbell is the passive, bemused object of her adoration; he puts little energy into the relationship beyond occasionally breaking through Katie’s intensity and making her laugh. Katie gushes all over Hubbell’s failed first novel and urges him to write more. Hubbell drags Katie to cocktail parties with his martini-swilling, upper-crust Republican pals where she behaves badly after hearing one too many FDR jokes. Despite the hastily inserted montage of happy moments between the couple, there’s far too much evidence here that their relationship is not meant to be. Hubbell, at least recognizes it and tries to break things off, but Katie doesn’t give up so easily – as demonstrated in this exchange:
Katie: I don’t have the right style for you, do I?
Hubbell: No you don’t’ have the right style.
Katie: I’ll change!
Hubbell: No, don’t change! You’re your own girl, you have your own style.
Katie: But then I won’t have you. Why can’t I have you?
And it goes on in that same vein for a while, culminating in Hubbell growling in frustration and aiming his hands – clenched as if to strangle – in the general direction of Katie’s neck. “You expect too much!” he shouts at her. To which she purrs “Oh, but look at what I’ve got.”
GAAH!! That conversation has ‘Time to break up!’ written all over it. Any other pair of incompatible 30-year-olds (as Katie and Hubbell are at this point in the story) would walk away singing a few bars of “We Do Not Belong Together” and never look back. Not these two. When we next see them, they’re drifting together along the scenic California coastline on Hubbell’s sailboat. The we cut to a scene of Katie unpacking a box from which she extracts a bride-and-groom cake topper and lovingly sets it on a bookshelf. Oh no they didn’t!! That’s the moment where you see the unhappy ending coming….
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let me take a moment here to assure you that I do honestly like The Way We Were. In fact, it came in at #38 on my personal ballot for the countdown. If I’m flipping around the TV channels and find it playing, I will put down the remote and immediately become engrossed. But it’s a film I first saw in the swoony, tortured throes of adolescence, and the way I respond to it now is but a faint echo of how I responded to it then. When you’re young, the very act of yearning after someone or something you can never attain has a power and a romance all of its own. You can feel so alive and so sad at the same moment. And The Way We Were genuinely and affectingly taps into that kind of sweet sorrow. For over forty years, it’s been a cultural touchstone for young women when parsing their own complicated or failed relationships (as memorably demonstrated in this scene from Sex and the City), and for that reason alone, it earns its place on this countdown. But re-watching it in middle age, however, is a whole different story. What resonated with me and made me cry with yearning at 14 or 22 now just looks like too much drama and too much work. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Meanwhile…. In the film’s third act, Hubbell and Katie are ensconced in a cozy Malibu beach cottage and working in Hollywood. Hubbell struggles to adapt his novel for the screen, and Katie just barely maanges to keep her strong opinions to herself. She makes nice with Hubbell’s loathsome friends. She also gets pregnant. Then come the HUAC hearings and the blacklisting of actors and writers who have been identified as Communists, and Katie finally revives her old, militantly political self in protest. In rapid succession, she goes to Washington D.C. to protest the treatment of the Hollywood 10, Hubbell cheats on her with an old flame, Hubbell gets fired, Katie has the baby, and then Hubbell and Katie divorce.
Everything happens too fast in this part of the movie, and it’s always a little hard to understand why things are happening in the first place. While re-watching it recently, I kept thinking “There’s another, better version of this story, whether they actually filmed it or not. There are a lot of missing pieces here.”
And then I found some of those missing pieces on You Tube…
Pretty amazing, huh? Suddenly the relationship between Katie and Hubbell makes a hell of a lot more sense. Not only do we better understand their mutual attraction, we also better understand why they ultimately split up. And the whole third act suddenly makes more sense, too. When I first saw these, I thought “Wow! Why didn’t they make this movie instead?”
There’s a whole other post to be written, on another day, about the troubled history of The Way We Were. As originally conceived by screenwriter Arthur Laurents, it was not intended as a love story so much as it was Katie’s story. Laurents envisioned a star vehicle for a Jewish actress playing a Jewish woman with strong political convictions; he based it on his college friendship with a young, passionately committed Communist named Fanny Price, as well as his own experiences in the Hollywood blacklist era. The role of Hubbell was meant to be a smaller, supporting role. Reportedly when Sydney Pollack came on board and cast his friend, Redford, in the role, Laurents was commanded to beef up Hubbell’s part. He was even fired at one point, and a host of other, uncredited screenwriters (including Dalton Trumbo and Paddy Chayevsky) worked on the screenplay before he was finally reinstated. In the end, it was a much different film than its author had set out to make, and you can feel the bitterness in his comments on that YouTube clip. (I read Laurents’ novelization of his own screenplay years ago, before even seeing the actual film. My recollection is the book, at least, was Katie’s story all the way.)
With Laurents and Pollack now both gone, we’ll sadly never see the director’s cut of The Way We Were (or the screenwriter’s cut for that matter.) But the film we’ve got is the film we’ve got, and it has its own distinct pleasures, including the one we haven’t yet discussed: the final scene. I could tell you what happens when Hubbell and Katie meet that one last time, years after they’ve gone their separate ways. But it’s better you experience it yourself. Excuse the not-so-great quality of this video clip – and enjoy: