By Scott Ross
The Way We Were was so popular in its day, and is so warmly remembered by those who saw it when it was new, that the glow of memory has transmuted it into something it isn’t, and never was. Far from a great romantic drama, it is a potentially great romantic drama effectively sabotaged, mostly by the usual spineless obduracy of its director, Sydney Pollack.
Once upon a Hollywood time the producer Ray Stark wooed the playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents to concoct a project for Barbra Streisand. Laurents based his original treatment on a firebrand Jewish coed he’d known at college in the 1930s. Because he’d been impressed with the 1969 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? the scenarist, to his everlasting regret, insisted that Pollack be their director. Pollack in turn wanted the lead male role for his pal Robert Redford. And thereby, as is said, hangs a tale.
As is plainly evident from the compelling novel Laurents published in 1972 based on his own original script, The Way We Were is Katie Morosky’s story. Hubbell Gardner, her goyische obsession (and eventual husband) is a supporting actor merely. Indeed, his charming emptiness is part of the point; their romance is doomed because Katie sacrifices her ideals for a beautiful, bright man who is, while politically astute, a passive, empty, uncommitted vessel into which she pours her romantic/erotic desires. And Katie’s political engagement is in the novel front and center, even when, as a Hollywood wife, she’s neglecting it.
The story works in the book in a way it never gets a chance to on-screen, where Redford’s involvement overbalances the narrative and Pollack, after a disastrous preview, panicked and cut nearly every political moment of importance, even shredding the climactic motivation for the dissolution of the Gardners’ marriage, as the pregnant Katie realizes her past has become a danger to her screenwriter husband’s present and offers to permit a divorce if they can just stay together long enough for her to deliver their child — a thing she couldn’t imagine doing in any other circumstance. By deliberately trimming these lines, and only these lines, of Katie’s, Pollack subverted the picture, and Streisand’s performance. But then, Pollack became well-known in Hollywood (perhaps as a result of The Way We Were) as a writer-fucker.
Pollack, who when he appeared on the other side of the camera was a fine actor, as a director was little but a gifted hack who, early on, made a couple of good pictures (They Shoot Horses… and The Scalphunters) and later a few more (Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie and Absence of Malice) but whose work in the main is a catalog of mediocrity with a certain pictorial prettiness. He was not, to be charitable, what one could reasonably call a deep thinker. Unlike that other Sidney, the late and much lamented Lumet (himself once an actor) Pollack seemed not to have an analytical bone in his body, and very little narrative logic. I remember, in 1986, howling with laughter to hear him praising the Motion Picture Academy for its “courage” in decreeing his expensive Hallmark Valentine Out of Africa Best Picture of its year, as if the movie was some radical departure from the accepted norm instead of exactly and precisely the sort of big, swoony romantic pap upon which in those days the Academy habitually bestowed its imprimatur. Some well-respected filmmakers (Lumet, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt, Roman Polanski, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Kenneth Branagh and even Redford himself) were or are actors,* and the really good ones have a feeling for how to present other actors to their best advantage. Certainly these men are not known for sabotageing their stars’ performances as Pollack did to Streisand, not once but twice. The second instance was a sequence he cut in which Katie, driving on the UCLA campus, sees a passionate young girl agitating against the actions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities who both reminds her of her youthful self and stands as an living upbraid to her own increasing complacency.
Laurents knew he was in trouble when Pollack gushed that he had come up with the best romantic screenplay anyone had written in years, “and you’re a homosexual!” Due to his commitment to Redford, Pollack insisted that Hubbell be given equal weight with Katie thus (in my admittedly minority opinion) fatally compromising the project. When Laurents eventually walked away from his own film — directors who moan about having to do this should talk to a few of the writers they habitually drive to that extreme — Pollack eventually brought on no fewer than 11 additional writers including some very fine ones like Alvin Sargent, Paddy Chayefsky, and Herb Gardner, only the first of whom would seem to have had any natural affinity for the material. Along the way someone (Sargent?), trying to resurrect the shreds of a character (poor Bradford Dillman’s) who, while peripheral in the book, at least has a presence there but who is nearly translucent in the finished picture, shoehorned in the movie’s most annoying wheeze: Hubbell and J.J. challenging each other to come up with “best”s. (“Best whiskey,” “Best year.”) As a recurrent motif it’s even more irritating than the sight of Streisand pushing Redford’s bangs across his forehead as if he was a little boy about to have his portrait photo taken, and equally as true to life.
Although it was probably cold comfort, considering the damage Pollack would ultimately do to his screenplay, once the director’s team of re-writers got through ruining the very script Pollack had raved about, Laurents was prevailed upon to return to the project, and was in a position to charge Stark & Co. through the nose for his continued participation. I like to think Laurents wrote Katie’s splendid rejoinder to Hubbell late in the movie, in the sequence at Union Station where supporters of the Hollywood Ten are attacked by shrieking McCarthyite conformists. The exchange highlights both the limits of Hubbell’s thinking, and the essential soundness, even if it sometimes lacks humor, of Katie’s:
Hubbell: I’m telling you that people — people — are more important than any goddamn witch hunt. You and me! Not causes. Not principles.
Kate (Exasperated): Hubbell, people are their principles!
Or their lack of them.
Watching the Union Station sequence in 2020, the terrified mass in the movie that physically assaults the defenders of free speech (including, of course, the freedom of the attackers to oppose free speech…) is eerily and unsettling close to the equally ill-informed and frightened of today shouting into the faces of their fellow citizens for the unpardonable sin of not blindly obeying the edicts of governors, mayors and un-elected officials threatening them with arrest should they balk at slapping 95% ineffective pieces of cloth over their faces, whatever their reasons for failing to submit might be, including ill health, psychic distress or simple good sense. Plus ça change…
However butchered it was in the making, and bearing Pollack’s less-than inspired staging of most of its scenes, the picture still looks handsome, thanks to the sharp imagery, beautifully balanced color and unerring eye of its cinematographer Harry Stradling Jr., the splendid period production design by Stephen B. Grimes and set decoration of William Kiernan — there’s an especially nice touch at the beginning when Larry Parks’ name rather pointedly appears on a theatre marquee — and Dorothy Jeakins’ and Moss Mabry’s subtle costume designs which perfectly re-create the sartorial look of the late ’30s, mid-to-late 1940s and early 1950s. The Oscar-winning score by Marvin Hamlisch struck me as bloodless in 1973 and seems even thinner now, particularly when I reflect that one of the composer’s direct competitors for the award was Jerry Goldsmith’s superb score for Papillon, and that among the non-nominated scores that year were Enter the Dragon (Lalo Schifrin), Scorpio (Jerry Fielding), The Thief Who Came to Dinner and Oklahoma Crude (both by Henry Mancini), Theatre of Blood (Michael J, Lewis), Cahill, United States Marshal (Elmer Bernstein), George Martin’s distinctly non-John Barryesque James Bond Live and Let Die and my own personal favorite of that year, Michel Legrand’s marvelous score for The Three Musketeers. The brief song Hamlisch composed with the lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman (and which soon became annoyingly ubiquitous) is, on the other hand, strongly and exceptionally plangent, although I have a quarrel with one of its essential lines:
“Memories may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget
So it’s the laughter
We will remember…”
This, in my experience, is wholly incorrect. The memory of laughter fades; it’s the pain you can’t forget.
Laurents’ published book (and, one presumes, the screenplay on which he based it) fleshes out all the characters. The movie flattens them. And as with the fabled night in Tootsie which Larry Gelbart said “would have to last a hundred hours,” Pollack’s sense of time is so imprecise that the movie Hubbell is hired to adapt from his own first novel seems to be taking years to write. Aside, to a degree, from Patrick O’Neal as Hubbell’s director, Herb Edelman as Katie’s New York radio producer and Viveca Lindfors as a character very like Salka Viertel (in whose literary salon most writerly emigres of the period congregated) no one else in the picture has a chance to land a performance, or even to make us aware of their existence. I suppose it’s a relief that the movie omits the sequence in which Katie, devastated by her unrequited feelings for Hubbell, lets her Young Communist League pal Frankie, who is in his turn in love with her, fuck her outside the gym on prom night. Yet without that rather terrible scene, we don’t understand why Frankie informs on Katie later. And since we never see James Woods again, I would bet most people who saw the picture didn’t even remember his character’s name, when all it would have taken was an artfully edited insert near the end to remind us. Pollack’s incompetence in these areas is often genuinely shocking; it’s as if, having stitched together so many writers’ scripts, he had no idea what he was shooting, and had to discover it in the editing, after he’d made a mess of things. Either that or he was so contemptuous of the audience he figured he could get away with any inconsistency or plot gap. It’s up to the stars to pull us in, and while Redford does what he can to make Hubbell matter, it’s really Streisand who holds the thing together.
Katie is so earnest, so (to use a word often applied to Striesand in her youth) strident, particularly at the beginning, that she could easily become unbearable. Her ironic attachment to Redford’s Hubbell softens her, but doesn’t turn her into a mindless twit. (Although it’s a mark of Pollack’s failure as a director that he never makes us aware, as Laurents does in his book, that despite Katie’s assumptions Hubbell’s family background is as lower-middle class as her own.) While both stars are too old to be believable in the long college flashback early in the picture — Redford was 36 in 1972 and Streisand was 30 — she carries it off better than he does. She also has a quietly devastating moment when, putting up the drunken Hubbell for the night she climbs into bed with him and he makes love to her, perfunctorily, as if he’s performing a ritual, like putting the cat out for the night. There are few things more dispiriting in the realm of sexual love than lying naked beneath someone you’ve adored forever and being grateful nearly to tears for what’s (finally!) happening while at the same time fully cognizant that he’s so wasted he can barely remember his own name, let alone yours. The emotions that pass over Streisand’s face during this sequence encompass everything Katie is feeling without for a second doing too much or pushing too hard for effect; they would do any actress proud, let alone one not, at that time, known for her abilities in drama. (And yet the Academy gave its award that year to Glenda Jackson, for an anemic comedy no one remembers.)
Streisand never quite forgets Katie’s passions, even, in the Hollywood section of the picture, when she’s less attuned to them. Hubbell quite rightly accuses Katie of humorlessness, although it’s impossible to imagine how she could have laughed off, as he suggests she should have, her public humiliation in the sequence where she speaks at the student strike for peace. And somehow Streisand even makes Katie’s masochistic yen for Hubbell less pathetic than merely heart-breakingly human, although the Jewish-girl-with-the-nose-pining-for-the-gorgeous-guy routine was wearing more than a little thin by 1973. She’d been doing it to death, and continued to for years when, aside from her voice and her comic touch, what her fans most loved about her was that she was different. We didn’t want her demure, or small-featured, or conventionally pretty. And if Katie’s early stridency makes her a bit of a pill, I still prefer it to that soft-toned, eye-batting and rather blatantly condescending manner Streisand adopts when she’s trying to sell us on her latest political kick, usually while also hawking a record album. At least Katie Morosky had the guts to call her listeners fascist.
Interestingly, it almost seems now as though there was never a time when the phrase “the way we were” didn’t exist. It’s given to very few writers to come up with a title, or a term, that defines a concept with such sharpness and clarity that it becomes an immediate and lasting part of the language. Fitzergald’s “The Jazz Age,” coined for an essay in 1931, instantly codified the decade he was so instrumental, with The Great Gatsby, in fixing in amber. And in the modern era, who, aside from that rapidly dwindling minority called readers even remembers that it was the then-young novelist Douglas Coupland who in 1991 created the term “Generation X”? In the same way, few now know that Arthur Laurents gave us our favorite clause to describe the loves and the mores of our youths. But because The Way We Were was a movie, and one which for all its flaws is both popular and enduring, at least more people know where his phrase came from. It’s not much but in what Gore Vidal aptly called The United States of Amnesia, surely that is something.
*I don’t include Woody Allen in this company because I would have to accept that he was, or has ever been, anything like an actor. Watch The Front sometime if you want proof of what a classic non-actor he is. And if Ron Howard is indeed “well-respected” as a director, it only goes to prove why those who value serious American movies live so close to despair.
Text (except for the Bergmans’ lyric) copyright 2020 by Scott Ross