Seen by Martin before? No
What did I expect? A meretricious, nostalgic love story with some big “issues”
What did I get? They meet at a fancy Ivy League college. He’s an athletic WASP who hails from the affluent reaches of society and appears to have all horizons open to him. She’s an “ethnic” urbanite with an ignominious job who habitually pricks his easy sense of himself. They fall in love, of course. It doesn’t end well. The movie featured a strain of music that had people humming for months. That’s Love Story, yes, but it’s also The Way We Were — for The Way We Were is Love Story for smart people.
Spanning 15 years at a bare minimum, The Way We Were is epic in scope but intimate in scale, a formulation that might well have served as the pitch for the movie. The significance of the ultimately failed marriage of Hubbell Gardiner and Katie Morosky is left tantalizingly opaque; it’s scarcely more than a vehicle on which to hang a few midcentury political tropes — Spain, Yalta, HUAC. Katie is the only one who recognizes lofty greatness in Hubbell, wants to push him to take the difficult path achieving it will require. But Katie can’t tether her leftist political passions enough to suit Hubbell’s instinctive conformism, a problem that unavoidably prompts the question of why Katie is so powerfully attracted to Hubbell in the first place.
In the 1970s they didn’t have Manic Pixie Dream Girls, they had “warm,” messy Jewish girls whose purpose was to de-starch the WASP. The foundering of Katie and Hubbell’s marriage is easier to feature than its existence. (That she seduces him while he is fast asleep provides their coupling with an unsound, if not outright disturbing, substratum.) The primary draw of the movie was likely the uniting of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars — stars especially beloved by educated viewers — but their chemistry seems entirely notional. Streisand, whose performance as Katie required her to address, however obliquely, her reputation as a “difficult” actress, is better cast than Redford, who never quite comes off as capable of penning a well-regarded novel. (He’s also a little old for the part.) That Streisand and Redford represented a prestige upgrade from Love Story‘s Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal was explicit in the advertising.
As that upgrade, The Way We Were couldn’t escape being pretty interesting. Their relationship is prefigured as “highly dramatic,” and none of the creative people on the set stinted on making the peaks and valleys of their relationship absorbing. Surely the movie won deserved credit for addressing the scary chill McCarthyism wrought on the Hollywood of the late 1940s and 1950s — a plot element that does elevate this material above Love Story. Hubbell’s something of a cipher, which is accentuated by Redford’s breezy, declamatory style, and Streisand is very effective (if annoying). The thing I most believe about Katie, though, is that she likes Hub’s book.
The title gives the whole game away — it’s a projection. For the intensely politicized 1960s generation, it may have seemed a revelation to be told that their elders also protested, also cursed, also fucked; to us, it seems rather less compelling. And curiously, some of the unexamined premises of their relationship don’t seem so enlightened to us. Katie is “mouthy,” and Hubbell has an unappealing habit of telling her to shut up. Their squabbles at the residence of some of Hubbell’s Republican chums reveal both of them to lack that fundamental intra-relationship ethic of loyalty that today strikes us as a prerequisite for a relationship. Indeed, their relationship is well-nigh intolerable for both of them; behind closed doors, their marriage depends on a shared presupposition of an idealized mode that is entirely abstract. Put another way, the whole thing only makes sense through the willful elimination of the other options that both parties surely had. In the end, Redford and Streisand get lost amid the thicket of the ideas and themes and premises the characters represent, which is a shame.
What here smacks of 1973? Interesting question for this movie. A certain nascent Boomer moral superiority, perhaps.
IMDB score: 6.9
My score: 6
Director: Sydney Pollack
Writer: Arthur Laurent
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Bradford Dillman, Lois Chiles, Patrick O’Neal, Viveca Lindfors, Allyn Ann McLerie, Murray Hamilton, Herb Edelman, Diana Ewing, Sally Kirkland, Don Keefer, George Gaynes, James Woods, Susan Blakely
IMDB synopsis: The movie begins with the Katie (Barbra Streisand) running into Hubbell Gardner, an All-American popular jock she went to college with, some time after World War II. Though some other summaries claim it’s been about 20 years, that is not really the case. It’s probably been more like 10 years since college and Hubbell has written his first novel and later joined the navy while Katie continues to work hard and remains very much involved in the grassroots level of politics. Katie who had a crush on Hubbell back in college is still very attracted to him and soon the two start an “on again off again” relationship. Eventually Katie ends up giving up her voice and her interest in politics in order to hold on to Hubbell and they get married. However when Hubbell begins to compromise his literary talent by abandoning his novel writing for writing Screenplays for Hollywood their marriage begins its downfall.