It’s hard to believe in 1973 you could smoke in movie theaters. It’s even harder to believe at thirteen I did – with my friend and accomplice, Gina. Hey, no one could see who you were – bonus for a thirteen year old – and it was in-doors. And, really what’s better than watching dreamy Robert Redford in The Way We Were (1973)? Watching him while smoking one Eve cigarette after another.
You know what else is hard to believe? I thought Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford were a plausible romantic paring. I thought theirs was a great love story.
Then again, smoking at the movies once seemed liked a good idea, too.
The Way We Were (1973) had the tagline “Everything seemed so important then … even love!” In reality, it’s just one of the characters that find everything so important – and the character’s name is Barbra Streisand.
Arthur Laurents (who died in May of this year) wrote the screenplay for Streisand and it’s likely she had a heavy hand in the writing. Babs seems like a control freak * Redford seems like he was just along for the ride on this one and if you watched the reunion of the two on Oprah this year it was obvious after thirty years he still couldn’t stand the touch of her. Two for flinching, Redford.
Most people – Ok, most girls – loved this movie and bought it hook, line and sinker. Directed by Sydney Pollack the film follows the travails of our two leads from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. They first meet in college – Streisand plays the earnest (and humorless) Katie Morosky, a curly haired, Jewish working-class girl with a lefty bent who wears a lot of brown clothes (if she went to college in the 1990’s she would have been a Women Studies major) and Redford is Hubbell Gardner the super-WASP all American jock who has had the world handed to him on a silver platter and is possessed with mad writing skills. She finds him beautiful and maybe deep. He is intrigue by her political passion because he is apolitical to the point of apathy.
(Fun fact – James Woods appears in a small role as a fellow college lefty who is either lovesick for Katie or gay or too afraid of her to really have a personality – either way he is rewarded by being bossed around by her. And, how times on film do you see Woods in the submissive role?)
Katie and Hubbell meet years later. She has straight hair and wears colorful clothes and he is drunk and/or sleep deprived sitting bar side at the El Morocco. While he is unconscious she smooths his adorable blond forelock – a gesture revisited numerous times during the film. Later, he passes out in her bed but not before deflowering her. She must have been a virgin because it might be the most dispassionate sex ever but she thinks it’s great and cries. This scene gave hope to frizzy haired girls everywhere that they too could be penetrated by an unconscious hunk.
And, that is the conceit – that even bossy, brainy girls get hunks. The problem is Katie likes the way her hunk looks but not the way he thinks.
Hubbell doesn’t actually remember they had sex that first time but they end up falling in love anyway. They are happy as long as Katie doesn’t have to share Hubbell with anyone. Barbra’s problem is…I mean, Katie’s problem is that she thinks she is better than everyone else. A pivotal scene is a gruesome argument the two have in front of his rich society friends – including his side kick played by Bradford Dillman – where Katie basically says “Your friends are stupid, losers with crappy politics.”
There are about twenty minutes in The Way We Were that stand apart from the rest of the film. It’s almost like Pollack was able to distract Streisand from calling the shots for two seconds. (He probably un-alphabetized somethings in her dressing room.) When Streisand relaxes and lets Redford work his magic you believe these two are in love. There is genuine chemistry. It is then Streisand is at her most believable, beautiful and engaging. Aside from this interlude, it is just a beautifully made film that is entirely too talky for a romantic movie and there is too little sexual passion. The stars look gorgeous though and the costuming is amazing.
The couple end up in Hollywood where Hubbell is a screenwriter (honestly, with those looks he would be a movie star), which she hates because he is debasing himself by working for The Man. They can’t sustain their romance because of that pesky Joe McCarthy and his Hollywood-hating spies. Katie thinks Hubbell should stand up to the red-hating goons and Hubbell thinks he likes having a house on the beach. (I would die for their Malibu beach house. In fact, the entire set design of this film is perfection.)
Because Hubbell can’t control Katie’s lefty political passion he commits the bourgeois act of having sex with his old college girlfriend Carol Ann (played by Lois Chiles) a domesticated blonde who is married to Dillman’s character.
Dillman later laments losing Carol Ann isn’t like losing someone special like Katie. Katie is special blah, blah, clunk. I don’t buy it. It’s like Streisand told Laurents to add that dialogue. “Listen, Arty, if you know what’s good for you someone better say I’m special!”
Katie and Hubbell eventually divorce – almost immediately following the birth of their daughter. (Staying true to the times Katie smokes and drinks throughout her pregnancy. It’s almost like watching a horror movie.) They see each other years later by chance. Hubbell is with a younger, blonde woman – read compliant – and Katie has curly hair again and wears brown clothing. She handing out leaflets ‘Banning the Bomb’.
She reaches up and smooths that pesky forelock of his and utters that now classic line, “Hubbell, your girl is lovely.” But, what she is really saying is “You settled.”
In the end, maybe Hubbell did settle for a blonde life and maybe Katie is too much of a ball buster. (Let’s face it most woman worth their salt bust balls but in moderation.)
In retrospect – some things and people just don’t go together. I don’t smoke at the movies anymore and I prefer documentary to romantic drama.
* Describing the pond on her farm (The Oprah Show, 2011) Streisand said, “Since the houses are barn red, trimmed with black-and-white, the fish, of course, have to be black-and-white, right?” Get that – they have to be. And, the hens lay green eggs. I don’t even want to know how she gets them to do that but I bet whatever it is isn’t good for them:(