Monday, March 31, 2014

The Way We Were (1973)

          Although it’s a highly problematic film, The Way We Were achieved monumental success—and remains deeply beloved by many fans today—simply because of a casting masterstroke. It’s hard to imagine two actors with more seemingly incompatible energies than Robert Redford, the coolly handsome Californian whose persona is predicated on internalized conflict, and Barbra Streisand, the unconventionally beautiful New Yorker whose persona is predicated on a dynamic blend of brashness and neuroses. Yet the two stars generated unmistakable heat together, and the story of The Way They Were echoes the divide between their personas. Add in the fact that both actors were at the peak of their box-office appeal, and it becomes clear why the movie was a major hit. Thus, while it’s unlikely that subsequent generations will ever embrace the film as a timeless classic, the movie remains a beguiling example of what happens when the right actors converge with the right material at the right time.
          Because, of course, The Way We Were does much more than just serve up marquee-name charisma—Arthur Laurents’ thoughtful script merges politics with romance in unexpected ways, and Sydney Pollack’s slick direction bridges Old Hollywood glamour and New Hollywood social consciousness. As such, even though The Way We Were is excessive and schmaltzy (with more than a few plot holes), it’s one of the most intelligent big-screen love stories of the ’70s. Laurents, an acclaimed playwright and screenwriter who was blacklisted for left-leaning political activities during the ’50s, created a vivid narrative spanning several decades. Over the course of various extended flashbacks, The Way We Were tracks the experiences of Katie Morosky (Streisand) and Hubbell Gardner (Redford), who first meet in college.
          She’s Jewish, loud, and political. He’s a golden-god WASP oblivious to current events. Initially, they’re as repelled by each other as they are attracted, because Katie comes on too strong and Hubbell doesn’t come on strong enough—she’s the ultimate activist, pushing for social change and condemning those who aren’t with her on the front lines, while he’s the ultimate embodiment of entitlement, a naturally gifted writer accustomed to happening upon good fortune. In essence, these polar-opposite characters represent defiance of authority and compliance with the status quo, respectively. As the years pass, Katie and Hubbell miss opportunities for romantic connection. When they finally consummate their attraction, the intensity of their bond surprises both of them. They marry, but life intervenes in tragic ways. Among other things, Hubbell takes a sell-out job as a Hollywood screenwriter, and Katie’s ongoing political activities make Hubbell a target as the Hollywood blacklist emerges. The linchpin moment is a test of Hubbell’s integrity—will he rise to Katie’s principled level or not?
          Laurents’ storytelling is unavoidably episodic and repetitive, giving the feel of a soap opera. (Marvin Hamlisch’s syrupy score contributes to this problem, although the title song he composed with Alan and Marilyn Bergman is haunting, thanks to Streisand’s emotional vocals.) Many supporting characters teeter on the brink of one-dimensionality, especially Hubbell’s mistress, Carol Ann (Lois Chiles), and certain transitions within the story feel like arbitrary narrative choices made solely for the purpose of raising the tearjerker stakes. Yet The Way We Were is not, ultimately, the sort of movie from which one expects immaculate dramaturgy—it’s a glossy hymn to the kind of overpowering love everyone hopes to experience at least once. Particularly during the bittersweet final scene, The Way We Were sings that hymn beautifully.

The Way We Were: GROOVY

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