Tuesday, March 21

Good 70s Films: The Way We Were

1973 Romance Drama
From Columbia Pictures
Directed by Sydney Pollack

Barbra Streisand
Robert Redford
Bradford Dillman
Lois Chiles
Patrick O'Neal
Viveca Lindfors
Allyn Ann McLerie
Murray Hamilton
Herb Edelman
James Woods

For my money it is one of the great romantic movies of all time. One, just one, of the things that made it so great is that the romance ultimately doesn't work out. It makes it all so much more heartfelt and memorable.  But gee, I felt the same sadness when Travis shot Old Yeller.  How nice though that Hollywood didn't opt for the fluffy finale. The thing is she is really crazy in love with him, over the moon, and it just doesn't work out.  And how about that bittersweet ending, years after they part? Tender.  Tentative. Sad. She brushes his golden hair.  I feel a knot in my stomach.  It is one classy ending.  Key the song.

I just finished watching it again, rewinding a number of scenes, so I could soak up every drop of energy and intelligence and romance. I kept wondering throughout why I hadn't included this among my top 50 favorite films that I have written about.  And damn if I know why not.  Of course, it wouldn't be the first time I've wondered that about a film not included and it won't be the last.

This movie came about because producer Ray Stark asked writer Arthur Laurents to come up with something for Streisand.  Stark had produced two previous Streisand pics, her debut, Funny Girl (1968) and The Owl and the Pussycat (1970).  He was actually thinking of something with lots of songs, but Laurents didn't quite see it that way. He, by the way, had some impressive credentials from writing Rope (1948), Anastasia (1956), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1963).

Laurents saw a romantic story rather than a musical.  He was not interested in romantic-comedy (thank you, Arthur, thank you) but rather a romantic drama and he wanted it counterpointed with social issues. The story he envisioned would start in the east in the 1930s but wind up in Hollywood and that gave him the issue he was looking for... the blacklist. Hollywood's red scare and its shameful outing of people for their personal beliefs had never really gotten the Hollywood treatment as he had envisioned it.

When Sydney Pollack was suggested to Streisand as a possible choice of directors, she binge-watched his films and agreed that he was the man.  She was apparently particularly impressed with the gutsy performance he got from Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  At the time, Streisand had not really done an out and out drama. 

The first consideration for the male lead, apparently, was Ryan O'Neal, who had been Streisand's main squeeze until their film of a year earlier, What's Up Doc?, tanked at the box office.  (Gee, I liked it.)  So O'Neal was out.

Pollack loved the political part of the story and thought it would also appeal to his good friend, Robert Redford.  They had already worked with one another twice (in two films that are in my top 50 favorites, by the way) in This Property Is Condemned (1966) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972).  Redford, to Pollack's surprise, wasn't interested.  

Redford did, apparently, have issues with the script, imperfect as it was when he first saw it, and thought his character was more of a symbol than a fully-fleshed out character. He wanted him to be more flawed.  To satisfy some of those qualms and also Pollack's own that the political sequences didn't play as well as he would have liked, some other writers were brought in.  Two of them were actually among the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo and Alvin Sargent, and the brilliant Paddy Chayevsky also apparently contributed some of his gifts.  A favorite script doctor for both Pollack and Redford, David Rayfiel, was also brought in. It's interesting though that Laurents receives sole writing credit.

The good and bad news came like this: Redford was convinced to come aboard and Columbia Pictures grandly announced that they didn't want to do a political picture after all.  They wanted the romance beefed up and the political toned down.  One assumes they got their way but however it worked out, I thought it was wonderfully blended together.

The real issue Redford is said to have had in the beginning is that he would play second fiddle to Streisand.  After all, it was being written for her.  He apparently said that he was concerned that she was controlling without mentioning that most whispered the same thing about him.  But all of this got handled, too, because his role expanded to be as large as hers although he would take second billing.  Still, Redford likely counted on his good-buddy director to look out for him.

Both stars would have their vanity issues which took precedece over realism. Streisand's character, Katie Morosky, is a get-down-in-the-dirt, rabble-rousing, communist, college student who probably wouldn't have had the long fingernails that Streisand famously sported and would not eliminate.  More interesting was that Redford, as a naval officer, would have had a regulation haircut far shorter than his but he objected to cutting it.

Redford's character is named Hubbell Gardner and I confess it is right up there with Atticus Finch as one of my favorite screen character's names.

Each of them had issues on how they were photographed (you know those good sides and bad sides, noses and skin condition) and sometimes it took some fancy footwork to accommodate both in the same scenes. Streisand was likely a little more unnerved by how she looked because, c'mon now, what actress wouldn't have been a little concerned being in the same frame with Redford?  And to say he looked devastatingly handsome in this film is an understatement at best. While we're at it, she certainly knew what she was up against and I expect she never made another film in which she looked so good. Additionally, Streisand had a bit of a crush on Redford which worked out well because Katie certainly felt the same about Hubbell.

Katie is an activist, a Marxist agitator at Cornell in the 1930s.  She is determined, thoroughly dedicated to her point of view, combative and high-maintenance.  It's completely obvious from the very beginning that she tries too hard... at everything... and certainly in her relationship with Hubbell.  

He starts out as the college jock, undoubtedly the most popular boy in school. I think the script nailed the nuances between the two characters... a girl who is not in the same league, due to looks, accomplishments, social standing, etc., as the boy, but still wants him no matter what. Hubbell is rather non-political, laid-back and appears to see both sides of most issues. He sees little point to Katie's pit bull attitude. Everything that happens in the world, he says to her, doesn't happen to you personally.

With all they seem to have going against them in a relationship they still become one and it lasts until Hubbell just can't take it anymore. One of the best scenes (there are at least five... director David Lynch once said if you have five good scenes, you've got a good movie) is when he tells her it's over and leaves the key to her apartment.  Another beautifully-realized scene is when she calls him and asks him to come over and talk.  I won't touch you, she rather heart-breakingly says. 

As it turns out they do get back together. She promises, in her fashion, to turn down the political rhetoric at the same time as he is offered a screenwriting job in Hollywood which he knows will be a battlefield for her. She is dismayed that he hasn't finished his novel but she remains on her good behavior for some time.  There's a lovely montage of them sailing, looking carefree and in love, and then putting together the interior of their new home while they laugh and clown around. She has her hair piled high, he is in a black polo shirt and both look gorgeous and happy.  Romance devotees must have gone gaga.

But the happiness is not to last.  She cannot abide what's happening in Hollywood and she cannot tolerate that Hubbell will not take a stand. He neither cares about communism nor would he name names. She loathes his shallow friends, takes them on at parties and digs herself in deeper after FDR dies and the friends see fit to make jokes.

When Hubbell confronts her, exasperated as they both are, he starts with the word look and she says don't start a sentence with look because it's always bad news.  He tells her that when she discusses politics, her humor goes out the window.  More importantly he admonishes that she's so eager to fight she doesn't have time to understand anything.

You expect too much, he says.

Oh, but look at what I've got, she purrs.

And then she no longer has him.  Time goes by and we see her across the street from New York's Plaza Hotel handing out leaflets for her newest cause.  She sees him arrive at the Plaza and he spots her as well.  They meet, ask about one another, she brushes his hair with her long fingernails and through silence we see that she still yearns for him. He inquires about the daughter they had but whom he has never seen out of the hospital. The pathos envelops us all and then they part.

That hair-touching has become one of the famous parts of this movie.  It began when we first meet him in one of the most iconic introductions to a character in all of moviedom.  He is sitting at a bar, facing the room, in his Navy whites, asleep.  I nearly had to shut my own eyes because the sight of his beauty burned my eyes. Redford was already a huge star when he made The Way We Were and we were aware of his looks, but I dare say they have never been showcased so gorgeously as here... in this film, in this scene. What was so touching about her caressing the golden locks as she did?  I dunno but it always makes me heart skip a beat.

In a few ways I found Hubbell Gardner to have similar issues with Denys Finch-Hatton in Out of Africa.  Additionally, Katie has some similarities to Karen Blixen.  Both stories concern women who want more intimacy, more substance in the relationship and the men are put off by the compromises and demands of love.  I suspect Redford knew a little something about playing these types of men.  The Way We Were would take him into the stratosphere of popularity around the world.

Streisand has never achieved, despite her Oscar win, the kind of glory in her movie career as Redford has.  I have long adored her as a singer and find that I have only really liked about four or five of her 19 films with this one being my favorite.  She has said it is hers, too. Arthur Laurents was asked to write a screenplay for Barbra... and he certainly did.

We cannot close without a word or two about the Oscar-winning, Bergman-Hamlisch title song, now can we?  It is used throughout the film, most effectively during the opening and closing credits with lyrics. One thing I have always loved about it is the title... the four simple words evoke a lot of emotion.  It also became Streisand's second-highest selling single ever.

Ah, the misty, water-colored memories...

By the way, Golden Girls fans, did you know two alumni from that series were in this film? Who are they?  They're listed above.

Next posting:
Canadian actors 


1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful posting! All those " behind the scene"facts that You write about made it look even more beautiful to me. I wish I could say something interesting about this jewel, but I know that I would say only something insignificant.
    In spite of it sadness ( maybe it works)I do believe that this film made everibody believe that love really is "a many splendored thingh." A presto!