Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
#3: The Way We Were|
(USA, 1973; dir. Sydney Pollack; scr. Arthur Laurents, with uncredited assists from Alvin Sargent, David Rayfiel, and possibly others; cin. Harry Stradling, Jr.; with Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Bradford Dillman, Lois Chiles, Viveca Lindfors, Patrick O'Neal, Murray Hamilton, James Woods, Susan Blakely)
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For my three grandparents, still with us at the start of a new year.
In the hour-long retrospective documentary that accompanies The Way We Were on its 1999 "Special Edition" DVD, Sydney Pollack recalls some typically backhanded compliments in Pauline Kael's original review of the film, which deemed it "a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port." Kael lambasts everything from the story structure to the lighting to the editing to the famous title song but marvels nonetheless that "the damned thing is enjoyable." Pollack seems to accept not just the final recuperation but the spirit of how Kael arrives there. He declines to sell The Way We Were as cleaner or tighter than its critics allowed, and in this he is not alone. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the screenplay and the novel in virtual tandemhaving started from an initial idea about Barbra Streisand leading a school for disabled children!can't overlook the absence of a climax in the finished film. After test audiences complained of too much politics distracting from all the romance, Pollack literally chopped out some late scenes from his completed print in which Streisand's Katie Morosky is officially reported to HUAC as a Communist, then elects to divorce her screenwriter husband Hubbell Gardner rather than stain his career or muffle her voice. Pollack returned the now-amputated print to the same test-screening theater the next night and approval spiked through the roof. Streisand describes herself as "heartbroken" about the fate of the film, which visibly stutters and leaps just when its story threads converge most decisively. The version that reached the world leaves the impression that Katie and Hubbell were undone by a single infidelity, itself elliptically telegraphed, rather than pushed back apart by ideological and temperamental differences that had always caused them trouble. For Pollack, Laurents, and Streisand, then, The Way We Were is both an adored object and a lingering wound, in close if unwitting sync with the film's own themes of ambivalent nostalgia. Robert Redford, giving maybe his best performance as Hubbell, doesn't even appear for an interview. Deferential to public tastes, bowdlerized of the very ideas that drew its creators' interestthe manifest anti-HUAC convictions, and the notion of adults citing more principles than love alone in building or breaking a marital compactThe Way We Were became a case of life imitating art.
Try telling any of this to my paternal grandmother, who has wanted to marry Robert Redford the entire time I've been alive, though she, an 87-year-old woman, has expressed concern about him aging less well than she anticipated. She has always loved Barbra Streisand, too, embracing all her movies and recordings except her antic 1967 recording of "Jingle Bells," which Grandma Davis will describe to you as a wild miscalculation. I promise, she will. You only have to get as far as "Jing" or "Barbr" and she will file this brief, before moving onto the pleasanter business of complimenting everything else Streisand ever did, especially The Way We Were. The idea that the screenplay is missing a climax, or missing anything, would take her aback completely, though not as much as Pauline Kael alleging that the "whining title-tune ballad embarrasses the picture in advance." I can't remember now if I saw the movie knowing it was Grandma Davis's favorite or if that was a happy discovery after watching The Way We Were myself on TNT as a high-school student and getting completely swept up in it. (I ascribed the movie's weird dramatic arrhythmia to the copious commercial interruptions.) Later, visiting my maternal grandparents, I noticed a VHS copy of The Way We Were in their living room, on a shelf with Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and just a few others. Opa and Chickie are both on record, too, as Streisand and Redford supporters, though with less matrimonial zeal than Grandma Davis has articulated. They both finished college degrees a few years after Katie and Hubbell finished theirs, and while their personalities are not exact matches with those of the characters, it is no stretch to imagine my grandfather appreciating Redford's introverted charisma, or my grandmother admiring Streisand's vitality, intellect, and firm resolve.
Though my father is also a major Way We Were fan, and almost certainly prompted me to see it, the movie has always been branded in my mind as belonging to my grandparents. While it's possible I would take any movie to heart that meant so much to all three of them (and it's hard to think of another movie that does), I think The Way We Were resonates especially in this capacity. As a military kid who moved around quite a bit, I did not have the experience of growing up among extended family. Lacking that kind of daily contact, I have always been in the position of conjecturing a bit into the lives of my grandparents; I love them dearly and consider them intimates and mutual confidants, but seeing them has always been a special occasion, contextualized by long and undesirable interludes of absence. There are sizable swaths of their memories and corners of their minds to which I've never been exposed. Perhaps I couldn't possibly, even if they lived next door. Watching Katie and Hubbell come of age in The Way We Were in the 1930s and 1940s, I felt some of my first questions about my grandparents' experiences as students, as citizens of those periods, and as young people. This connection was easier to feel with characters created in the looser, more street-level idiom of 1970s film than with the archetypes and icons of actual FDR-era cinema, who inhabited their own world, indelible but not at all familial. Katie and Hubbell, especially as imbued with so much of Streisand's and Redford's palpable personalities, are speculative fictions that also feel like real people, immersed in a bygone era but not at all fossilized inside it. Indeed, for all its scrupulous and often stagy period recreations, The Way We Were brims with moments that allow a remarkable intimacy with both its protagonistsand maybe even with the people playing them. Some of these are quiet, like the sublime scene where Hubbell entices Katie to the patio of a pub and ties her shoe while she makes nervous conversation. Some are shrill by design, like their first breakup scene in a radio studio, or their wholly plausible arguments in the company of Hubbell's joke-slinging friends. One ranks among Hollywood's most perfectly delivered monologues, as Katie wheedles Hubbell back home over the telephone. Another has no dialogue at all, at least from the two leads, as he reacts with pride as well as discomfort when a demanding professor fondly recites a story he wrote, and she, having been so thoroughly and publicly bested by him, is overcome with envy, admiration, arousal, and self-rebuke.
Hubbell and Katie aren't always there, even in their own movie, which skips over crucial beats and passages. Beyond the garbled climax, there is, for example, no wedding. You never see the characters fall in love, beyond some conversations where she fawns over his failed novel, though not without registering misgivings. Stardom takes the place of affection: the movie, like you, like me, jives so much to the Streisand-Redford pairing that it establishes their mutual magnetism as a given, rather than earning their couplehood through writing. Later, their move to Hollywood is amazingly abrupt, especially given the timbre of what's preceded it. A strained delivery-room conversation ends their relationship even more decisively than you realize in the moment, as in The Way We Were's darker, longer, more tuneful twin, Martin Scorsese's New York, New York. Like that film, The Way We Were has an uncanny knack for turning its elisions into advantages. At the very least, its central performances connect so many emotional dots that you can watch the film without realizing how much it's skimping, and misremember entire scenes that in fact don't exist. Redford and Streisand both excel at playing the scenes they're in while feeding you backstory, nuance, and accumulated self-perceptions from several episodes we've missed (as is true of several performances in Tootsie and They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, so surely Pollack deserves some credit). Hence my sense that The Way We Were is in some way familial. I grew up with it. It equally comprises vivid impressions and unexpressed thoughts so tangible that they feel as if they've been spoken. Years go by where I don't see it, but I also feel perpetually as if I saw it yesterday. It never changes, yet it's never quite as I remember it, and it's amazing how well I feel I know these people and their story while in fact contending with substantial redactions. What would pass in other movies or other relationships as uneven or aloof somehow feels in this case like extreme closeness and bone-deep recognition.
The least predictable aspect of The Way We Were, especially given its recurrent and eponymous drift back into various pasts, is how pertinent and modern it often feels. Maybe this is lightning in a bottle, or maybe it's what happens when a rare Hollywood romance tells us so much more about its central lovers than how they feel, and when it treats history not as an archive of facts and watersheds but an actual impingement on who people are, how they think and behave, why they bond or bust up when they do. The friction between the activist and the fantasist, the oversharer and the withholder, the electron and the neutron, the underdog-cum-thwarted artist who channels feeling through protest and the mystified, semi-complacent object of unearned adulation... these are not period- or generation-specific tensions. I have at times identified with both characters, sometimes simultaneously, and I have equally identified with everyone else in The Way We Were who finds them exasperating. I've met a few Katies and a few Hubbells, and felt The Way We Were made me quicker to appreciate their virtues while protecting myself from the injuries either can inflict: the firebrand advocate who wants more or different things from you than you do, and the quiet stalwart whose equanimity depends at least a little on acquiescence and unconfessed betrayals.
That said, Katie and Hubbell are not just cautionary figures, or even primarily so. I learned a lot about moral principle from her, and even more about political passion, which wasn't even a legible concept to me when I first saw The Way We Were. She's wrong to think she can change herself as much as she wants to for Hubbell, or to change him as much as she wants to (though she feels she's actually distilling who he already is), but she's so poignantly earnest about all of it and takes her licks with dignity, especially toward the end. I can't help but sympathize. Hubbell is a grimmer proposition on the page, and possibly the deadbeat-est dad in the entire history of deaths or beats, but especially in his youth he really is serious about wanting to earn people's respect. The very fact that he's drawn to Katie is a big point in his favor, and beyond being sharper than many characters realize, he also isn't wrong in several of the disputes that the movie seems to cede to Streisand's character. I'd relish any of the nuances in any personality that The Way We Were lavishes onto its principals, even at the admitted cost of turning everyone else in the story into a cipher. That two personalities and a core relationship could be so richly illuminated, even amidst a vehicle that smacks at times of omission, hyperbole, and chintz, is what I remember whenever I remember The Way We Were. So, too, its awareness that every phase in its multi-era chronicle is polluted by inevitable human compromise. There is no "way we were" that really deserves our impulses toward idealizing reminiscence, though nostalgic appeal, like star charisma, is something The Way We Were emanates, even emblematizes, while nonetheless holding it up to scrutiny. Like its makers and its characters, the movie demonstrates considerable warts-and-all self-knowledge, which is hard to acquire in any story, or any era, because people are paradoxical, desires disobedient, and the world unfair. The way we were is the way we still are, and though you'd want to avoid emulating several dimensions of Katie, Hubbell, and their film, you disavow or underestimate them at your peril. Or, at least, I do.
Hey, Reader: What movie did you first watch with family and still adore, but for new reasons as you age?