Saturday, May 19, 2018

Misty and Water-Colored

Film: The Way We Were
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

So here we go again. I clearly left the Barbra Streisand to the end of this set of films with two left to the last hundred. With The Way We Were, I thought I knew what I was getting into, but there’s a great deal more here than I figured there would be. In fact, I thought this was little more than a romance that dies over the course of the movie. What I didn’t know was that this is kind of a period piece, taking place at the end of World War II through the McCarthy era.

World War II is in full swing when we start, and Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) is working at a radio station and constantly clashing with the government censor. That night, out at a club, she encounters the WASP-ishly named Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford), who she knew at college, and it’s flashback time. We jump back to those college days at an unnamed college that is almost certainly somewhere on the East Coast and also very likely Ivy League.

The Way We Were is going to be one of those romances where opposites attract; Katie and Hubbell are about as opposite as we’re going to get. Hubbell is very much the WASP his name implies that he is. He rows on the college team and seems to make a joke out of everything. Katie is painfully serious about everything and also happens to be a Marxist Jew, about as far away from the straight-laced Republicans that Hubbell and his friends represent.

Since our star-crossed pair is still cross with each other in these college days, the romance won’t start until the War. There are hints, though. Katie is impressed with his writing, and one night he tells her privately that he has sold a story. There seems to be a sort of mutual respect between them, although he finds her too serious and she finds him too frivolous. But when they meet up in New York during the war, Katie at the radio station and Hubbell in a naval uniform, the romance begins to blossom.

Long story short, Hubbell and Katie move out to California so he can work as a screenwriter, initially adapting his first novel for the screen. His friend J.J. (Bradford Dillman) marries Hubbell’s ex, Carol Ann (Lois Chiles) and heads out to the coast with him. And then the McCarthy era begins and HUAC gets nasty and Katie’s pro-Soviet, communist past comes out, which jeopardizes Hubbell’s career. The fact that she is now pregnant only complicates things, but in terms of how this movie works, it doesn’t really complicate things that much.

So now that I have the basic plot out of the way, I have a couple of things to say about The Way We Were. The main thing is that there is a huge problem with the film: it doesn’t work. This is the most unbelievable romance I’ve seen in a very long time. I know that opposites can attract, but there is no way I buy a romance between Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Oh, it doesn’t surprise me that she would fall for his boyishe, goyishe good looks at least on some level, but a long-term, “we’ve gotten married” relationship is a non-starter.

What surprises me most about The Way We Were is not that it takes place during an earlier era or that there is a great deal of political content in the film. What surprises me the most is that my loyalties are flipped. I typically like Robert Redford, particularly in this era before he had his face tanned into fine, Corinthian leather. I’m also happy to admit the clear talents of Barbra Streisand, but I’m also quick to admit that she doesn’t do a lot for me in general. In this film, though, my sympathies are entirely with her. This has nothing to do with her politics; it has everything to do with the fact that Hubbell Gardiner is a privileged shit.

Is that harsh? Not really. This is a guy who, over and over and in just about every possible case in the film, Hubbell takes the easiest possible way out. This is a guy who has never had to make a difficult decision in his life, because every time a difficult decision comes up, he just walks the hell away from it. Rather than challenge himself ever, he just walks away. Rather than deal with the problems in his relationship, he just walks away. Rather than stand up for his partner, the person he’s supposed to love and who he is having a child with, he just walks away. This guy is an asshole, and it’s just another reason that causes me to think there’s no way that someone as intelligent and forthright as Katie Morosky would end up in a relationship with this asshole.

This isn’t a bad film, but it’s also one that simply doesn’t work. The politics are mildly interesting, even if we don’t really get into the details of HUAC and the Hollywood Blacklist. The romance, that should be central here, is a straight failure.

Why to watch The Way We Were: It’s a lot deeper than you probably think.
Why not to watch: The romance is unbelievable, and not in a good way.


  1. Yeah, the romance feels off throughout. I also found the love scene, where Streisand gets into bed with a passed-out Redford, deeply weird. I think I was supposed to find it funny/romantic - what woman wouldn't want a naked Redford in their bed, but it just felt wrong; she kind of took advantage of him (not that he seemed to mind, but this is definitely in the murky, grey area of consent). If the genders had been flipped it would have played even creepier, but it still felt icky.

    1. Yeah, I avoided discussing that scene for that very reason. How that plays as romantic is beyond me, because you're right--switch the genders and that ends up in court.

  2. I’ll admit the picture has problems, I particularly hate that scene discussed above and wish it had been excised-it just doesn’t fit with the rest, but I love the movie despite its faults.

    I agree that Hubbell is a selfish entitled weakling for most of the film and that Katie is far too good for him but I can’t agree that their pairing doesn’t make any sense.

    He’s her blind spot. Unfortunately there are far too many women (and men) who because of attraction or love pursue or remain with someone who are bad for or unworthy of them. It’s not just his surface that she loves though, it’s the talent that he takes for granted but that she is intuitive enough to realize is far better than hers and that she wants to nurture. I suppose the fact that he becomes a successful writer is some kind of vindication of her belief.

    To Hubbell’s credit he seems to realize it but doesn’t have the strength of will to make the break against Katie’s greater resolve and determination. As he says to her during an argument when she loves someone it’s total and unyielding and in large part she’s culpable since she refuses to give up on him. He also recognizes her worth, when during one of his attempts to break away she tells him no one will ever be as good for him, believe in him or push him the way she does he acknowledges the truth of that but he also senses it will never work but bends to her will. I love the scene with JJ in the sailboat later in the film when the two men are doing that game where they name the best of whatever subject is brought up and he names every year he’s known her as the best. Instead he deceives, disappoints and hurts her which is where the tragedy of the situation comes in because he doesn’t know any other way to escape.

    Though it’s not shown in the film, I saw it in an excised scene included on the DVD, ultimately it’s not even his decision to leave but her choice (which is how it would have to be). When her college friend (the James Woods character from the beginning of the film) names her as a communist she chooses to go once the baby comes to save his career.

    And Hubbell does appear to mature over the period they are apart since when they accidentally meet again he is the one who finally has the courage to admit that their emotional connection is too deep for them to resume any kind of relationship, even as casual friends.

    It’s imperfect but swoonily romantic and I think this is Streisand’s strongest onscreen performance (and perhaps the best she’s ever looked on screen-the fashions and hairstyles of the 40’s become her). As great as she is in Funny Girl this is the film she should have won her Oscar for, her work is very strong and doesn't rely on her musical gifts to give it an extra punch.

    1. I see where you're coming from here, even if there are places where I substantially disagree. I will say that I agree that it's Streisand's best moments on screen because, as you say, she has only herself in the character to sell the role. She can't rely on her prodigious gifts as a singer or performer here.

      So I'm going to enter some spoiler territory here--anyone reading along who hasn't seen this might want to step away now. To say that Hubbell matures here is head-scratching at best. When they do meet up again on that New York street, he asks after his child, but has no desire to see her. He has completely given over not just the raising of his own child to his ex-wife, but that child's entire existence. This is not any level of maturity that I would recognize. It's just Hubbell doing the same thing he has through the entire movie--taking the easiest pathway out of a situation where he is uncomfortable, and more or less handing over all of the real work to somebody else so that he doesn't have to deal with it.

      The failure of the relationship happens not because of all of the things he does that appear to destroy the relationship, specifically in this case his infidelity. While it is almost certainly Katie who walks away and does so for the sake of his career, Katie can walk away not because of her deep love that puts his career ahead of her happiness but because of how much he has allowed his own talent to go to waste and how little he seems to care about living up to her idea of him. He doesn't care enough to not disappoint her or to even try.

      The most telling line during their break up is when she says how much she hates what he's done to his own book. It's her disappointment not in his moral positions or sexual infidelity but in his own artistic integrity--his intellectual weakness--that finally splits them apart.

    2. She had definitely lost a great deal of respect for him before the breakup when she realizes he doesn't have the principles she ascribed to him, it surely made her decision easier and the loss of the relationship is squarely his fault. But she obviously still loves him and if she saw any way to make it work she would and damn the consequences which is apparent when she speaks of how nice it would be if they were old and had lived through everything. So it had to be a complete break and it seems that is the reason that she is raising their child without him. I'm not saying that's the right decision-it's the coward's way out but Hubbell IS a coward, there are ways he could have worked it out but that wouldn't be true to his character. Unquestionably he's a facile jerk who can't deal with any mess.

      But when they meet again he is aware that Katie has remarried and Rachel considers her present husband her father. It's not plainly stated but he probably feels he had no right to intrude into the girl's life. I'm not saying that he's become some bright shining light of maturity, a man like he never would, he's just conscious enough of the connection between Katie and he to know the danger for them both if they resumed any sort of relationship. While she is too he's the one who has to say it out loud so that she can acknowledge it to herself. For once he's the stronger person and does the right thing.

      Like I said it's not a flawless film but it has an emotional punch. Much of that comes from the strong chemistry between Redford and Streisand. They're genuine Movie Stars and in a film like this that means a lot.

    3. I still just don't buy the romance. I get that he's her blind spot, that she very much loves him despite who he is rather than because of it...but I still just can't make it work in my head.

      I get it, I just don't get it.