The Way We Were: At the height of gritty ’70s cinema, Sydney Pollack brought Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand together for this glossy old-fashioned romantic drama

The Way We Were (1973) is a lush romantic drama directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in lead roles. This film, released at the height of the gritty, experimental ‘New-Hollywood cinema’ period, was a throwback to the glossy, star-driven romantic melodramas from golden-age Hollywood.

Hubbell Gardiner: People are more important than their principles.

Katie Morosky : People ARE their principles.

This is the ideological conflict between a man and a woman that drives Director, Sydney Pollack’s 1973 Robert Redford-Barbra Streisand starrer, “The Way We Were.” Barbra Streisand, perhaps in her greatest screen role, plays fiery, uncompromising Jewish communist activist Kate Morosky, while Redford plays Hubbell Gardiner, the privileged, politically-indifferent, WASP All-American golden boy, for whom everything comes easy, and, hence, he’s happy to merely coast on his privileges and talents and not apply them vigorously to make himself any better. The film is basically a very simple love story between two people who are temperamentally, politically and spiritually opposites, but falls in love nevertheless, even get married, but soon realize that the love and physical attraction they feel for each other is not enough to overcome their personal and ideological differences. The film is basically plotless, and it mainly presents a series of scenes in a chronological order from the intertwining lives of Hubbell and Katie, as they move from being acquaintances during their college days in the late ’30s, to them becoming lovers at the end of WWII, to them getting married and moving to Hollywood during the rise of McCarthyism, and then, finally, divorcing and meeting up again several years later. The film’s author, Arthur Laurents, had originally conceived the film as a sprawling political story set doing the tumultuous period from the late 1930s to early 1950s, when United States went through WWII, Red scare, HUAC blacklisting and so on. Laurents, who had fashioned the screenplay out of his own personal experiences, with Katie Morosky as his self-portrait, had written about a couple in Hollywood whose life is torn apart by the activities of the HUAC. But when Sydney Pollack came on board to direct, and got Redford and Streisand for the roles of Hubbell and Katie respectively, he decided to concentrate on the spellbinding charisma of the superstars and overplay the love story; and cut the political story to its bone. Pollock was a man obsessed with love stories- he once claimed that he is not interested in making any film that does not have a love story at its center. But the thing about his love stories is that they always end unhappily- either with the lovers parting, or with one of them dead. He added love stores to films as rough and masculine as “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Three Days of Condor.” So, it was natural that when he got two of the most romantic & gorgeous stars of all time in a very romantic setting, he would go all out with the romance. Laurents was not pleased by this, and he left the film, leaving several uncredited writers, including Francis Ford Coppola, to finish the script according to Pollock’s wishes. Redford and Streisand were also not pleased by Pollock’s creative changes, but they trusted him as a director, and once the film was released and became a massive success, they agreed that his decision to make this predominantly a love story was correct.

This glossy, classy, romantic period drama, driven mainly by its two glamorous stars (which is basically a throwback to the kind of glossy, star-studded weepy melodramas that Hollywood used to make dime a dozen in its golden age) that came out at the height of the avant-garde New-Hollywood era might have appeared to be an anachronism in the middle of all those gritty, down & dirty dramas starring the new-age, glamor-less method actors. Just think of all other highly appreciated films from 1973- “The Last Detail,” “Serpico,” “The Exorcist,” “Scarecrow,” “Mean Streets,” “Save the Tiger,” “Last tango in Paris” etc. were all films that symbolizes this new age in cinema. The only other film that was similar to “The Way We Were” was another Redford period drama, “The Sting,” which was again a throwback to the the films that were made in ’30s and ’40s. The mega success of these two films would turn Redford into one of the biggest stars on the planet. As i mentioned in my other reviews of Redford films, Redford was the only actor who became a superstar in the ’70s by repeatedly playing an old-fashioned hero. He was really the last of the Hollywood superstars, who had a mystique and charisma that was on par with the Golden-age stars. The same goes for Streisand as well- she was the first official Jewish female superstar, and very much a star\actress in the mold of fiercely independent and charismatic Studio-era stars like Joan Crawford and Katherine Hepburn. The great pleasure to be had from this film – as it was in the case of Bogart-Bacall movies or Tracy-Hepburn movies – is in seeing these two superstars work their magic- both together and separately.

Despite being an old-fashioned film, it does possess a few qualities of ’70s films, like the fact that the film is devoid of plot and is completely character-driven. Well, star-driven maybe a more apt word, because the characters that these two stars are playing are more icons or archetypes of certain kind of American individuals than full-blooded characters. They are given a little more depth than standard archetypes- the ultimate American insider and the outsider, but one can’t help but feel that the two stars are playing a version of their star-images. Streisand as the politically outspoken, pushy, hard-to-get-along Diva, who is insecure about her looks and her fashion sense, seems to be an exaggerated version of the star herself. Streisand excelled in playing the ugly duckling turned Cinderella in film after film, even as late as “The Mirror has two Faces (1996), which she also directed. In this film, she starts out with curly hair, then transforms to having long hair – she got it ironed, she says, by someone from Harlem; she brings socio-politics into that too – and it is in this form that Redford finds her physically attractive and starts having a relationship with her. When we meet her in the final scene in the film – long after she and Redford had split up – she’s back to having her hair curly. Redford’s smooth to the point of being cold Hubbell is another instance of that classic Redford screen persona about which i have written a lot in my reviews, especially the one on “Three Days of Condor, so I don’t want to expand any further on that. Suffice it to say that Redford, who was the epitome of All-American virtues on screen, was always attacked for being too safe and conservative with his film choices, and not pushing the envelope, as his contemporaries like Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman were doing with their choice of roles. This is something Katie accuses Hubbell in the film as well, not doing enough to better himself and just coasting on his good looks and talent. Though Redford detested exploiting his good looks for advancing his career, he was often cast in parts that emphasized just that; and this was again an instance where he had to be a symbol rather than a character, an ideal of All-American-ness that Katie was chasing; the crumbling of her faith in Redford’s Hubbell coincides with the the crumbling of her faith in the American nation as a country of free speech, rights and democratic values. There are several instances in the film where the camera lovingly moves into Redford’s Hubbell- from Katie’s perspective- amplifying his beauty. All through the film, Hubbell seems to appear and disappear as and when Katie wishes, as if he is something that she created out of her imagination. That’s why Redford turned down this role twice when Pollack approached him for the part, and Pollack had to use very trick in the book, including threats of ending their friendship, to get him on board. Originally, the character of Hubbell was a supporting one, but Pollock had it beefed to be on par with Katie’s, keeping in with Redford’s wishes; but, the film still belongs to Streisand, who is billed above Redford in the credits. She’s the driving force of the film, the real hero, while Redford gets to play the typical ‘heroine’ part\ the trophy husband, who’s too beautiful to be true but is rather passive and plays second fiddle to the woman\wife.

In the film, Redford’s Hubbell is a talented writer, and it’s his writing as much as his golden boy handsomeness that attracts Katie to him. The short story he wrote in college named “The All-American Smile” (What else?) had Katie running and tearing up her own story and dumping it in the garbage can. He would go on to publish other short stories, and finally a novel. Katie is only ‘one of the two people’ who bought that novel and read it three times. She finds potential in him, but she feels he remains at a distance from people (another trait of the Redford persona), he doesn’t get close to people, or life in general; and that’s what she inspires him do- to leave his chic but shallow “Beekman Street” crowd and move into her politically-active circles. Of course, Hubbell is not as intense or driven about anything, at least definitely not as Katie. He is hesitant to write further novels, and though he is not perfectly in synch with the attitudes of the people he run with, he certainly likes their company and is more easy going about the reality of politics than Katie- who has no sense of humor and brands anyone making fun of her (or her politics, there is no difference between the two for her, everything political is personal, as the opening quote clearly states) as fascists. When Roosevelt dies, Hubbell takes Katie, who is in deep mourning, to the Beekman crowd to cheer her up. There, Hubbell’s friends like J.J. (Bradford Dillman) makes some jokes about FDR and Eleanor to relieve the tension of the moment. Katie, who worships FDR like a god and who takes any insult to her heroes personally, gets furious and storms out. She even tries to get Hubbell to go with her, but he refuses.

This is a turning point in their relationship, as Hubbell realizes that he doesn’t have a future with Katie. he breaks up with her, but then is manipulated back into the relationship by Katie. Katie is independent and individualistic, but just as she would blindly support Stalin in college, and later FDR, she is blindly obsessed about Hubbell and wants to possess him at any cost. As Hubbell himself put it, when Katie loves someone – from Roosevelt to him, she’s dumb, deaf and blind. She decides to change for him, by putting her politics on the backburner. She even lightens up under his influence and starts looking more beautiful and fashionable then ever. They get married and move to Hollywood, where Hubbell starts a lucrative screenwriting career, working on a movie adaptation of his novel for the liberal-minded director, George Bissinger (Patrick O’Neill)- just when the HUAC turns its attention towards Hollywood. But unlike Katie, Bissinger is a realist, who knows what to say (and do) and what not to say (and not do) in a volatile atmosphere, when paranoia of ‘red-scare’ has gripped the whole country. Hubbell and J.J., who is now a producer, also go along with his views. But the moment brings out the dormant political activist in Katie, who has never been pragmatic, and always lets her passion overtake here better judgement; she sees the HUAC’s actions only as a threat to the “Bill of Rights”; she doesn’t see that this was just a ploy by publicity seeking politicians to exploit the current popular mood in their favor; since Hollywood is what gives them most visibility\publicity they were going after it. Despite Hubbell’s disapproval, a pregnant Katie goes to Washington to support the “Hollywood Ten” who were blacklisted and sent to prison. Hubbell comes to take her home, but gets into an altercation with the press and citizens who were insulting Katie. A bleeding Hubbell and an exhausted Katie are escorted to the safety of an empty train station room, where the married couple have their big confrontation that pretty much seals the fate of their marriage. It’s here that they unequivocally state their respective position regarding people and principles- Hubbell, who considers people being above principles, correctly assesses that once the current storm settles down, then the ‘fascist’ studio heads will hire the same blacklisted writers to fix their films, and the writers will more then happily oblige. Katie, who considers people to be a sum total of their principles, feels the need to act now. Once back in Hollywood, the couple has a heart to heart, in which Katie realizes that Hubbell is far from the man she imagined him to be. He never had any interest in seriously pursuing his writing career, and is more interested in just selling out his talent to movies and Television, and lead a comfortable life. Katie also realizes that she cannot change herself to be the wife that Hubbell wants, and Hubbell finds it impossible to live with real Katie; she exhausts him by pushing hard, and finds her easy only compared to ‘Hundred-years war.’ The couple has no other option but to go their separate ways. This is one of those movies were both husband and wife are decent people in their own right, they also love each other very much, but their ideological and temperamental differences drive them apart. It’s also one of those rare movies where the lead characters traverses an arc, but by the end they are back to being what they originally were. This thematic thread maybe due the influence of the ’70s. But the most important ’70s influence is in its sympathetic treatment of Communism. It was a time when Liberals retook Hollywood and the were finally ready to confront the shame of the ‘Blacklist.’ The was the first mainstream studio film to openly tackle the actions of the HUAC; and, though it had to watered down to keep the nervous studio happy, some of the tragic events of those times made it intact into the film. The film also make social commentary on the differences between America’s East and West coasts: the easygoing, charming & breathtakingly beautiful Hubbell standing in for the latter, while the more complex personality and intellectualism of Katie standing in for the former.

“The Way We Were” is also popular for its Oscar winning title song created by Marvin Hamlisch and Alan and Marilyn Bregman, which became one of Streisand’s best loved songs. Streisand’s singing of that song is extraordinary and deeply moving, and it provides a terrific emotional punch to the film. Hamlisch also won an Oscar for Best original Score, they were the only two Oscars won by this film, which was nominated in six categories, including one for Streisand’s acting, but, unfortunately, she did not win. Streisand’s performance as Katie is excellent. She was a very methodical actress, who took several takes to accomplish her performance, but one would not feel that watching the film- she comes across as very spontaneous, and most of her snappy retorts comes across as if adlibbed in the moment. Redford gives a typically solid Redford-ian performance that mixes drama, pathos, charm and humor in his understated way. Though his reluctance in taking such a passive role is understandable, the film would not have been half effective if it wasn’t him playing the role. Redford and Streisand, though wildly different in their acting styles, has great chemistry together (the shots of Streisand brushing back Redford’s hair off his forehead – something she repeatedly does throughout the film – is damn erotic and, in the final scene, becomes extremely poignant) and it’s a pity that they never again starred together in another movie. Though they frequently clashed on the set due to their different working methods and temperaments – much like the characters they were playing – they grew to be extremely fond of each other and remain life-long friends; when Redford won the Oscar for lifetime achievement, it was Streisand who presented it to him.

Since the film completely concentrates on these two, there is little room for other actors to shine; still, Bradford Dillman, Lois Chiles and a very young James Woods does well with what they are given. Director Sydney Pollack, whose strength is in bringing out the best in big-time movie stars, does very well here; fashioning roles that play to the lead stars’ strengths and pretty much letting them run with it. The film is devoid of any directorial imprint or style, I was quite shocked how devoid of style it was for an early 70s film, almost like the two stars made the film without any director at the helm. The film looks as gorgeous as a technicolor production from the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s also very stagy and talky like the films from that era. But since the talking is done by Redford and Streisand we don’t mind. Of course, the film does carry Pollock’s sophistication and intelligence that always elevated his films from being merely crass commercial affairs. The manner in which a lot of the scenes are written and performed, a lot of the political and personal ideologies are debated, is brilliant and classy. It’s the kind of stuff that we hardly see in movies today. The film has now become a sort of pop-cultural icon, being repeatedly referenced in everything from “The Simpsons,” “Sex and the City,” “The Gilmore Girls” etc.. Sydney Pollack would go on to have a great career, making his brand of star-studded, sophisticated commercial films, most of them starring Redford; and he would go on to win his only directing Oscar for “Out of Africa (1985)”- another great romantic period drama starring Redford and Meryl Streep. My favorite Pollock films have always been “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Three Days of Condor.” but I suspect that the film he will always be remembered for is this one.

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