Film Review posted by Mervyn Edwards, February, 2017: The Way We Were (1973).
Cast: Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand), Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford), J.J (Bradford Dillman), Carol Ann (Lois Chiles), George Bissinger (Patrick O’Neal), Paula Reisner (Viveca Lindfors), Rhea Edwards (Allyn Ann McLerie), Brooks Carpenter (Murray Hamilton), Bill Verso (Herb Edelman), Vicki Bissinger (Diana Ewing), Pony Dunbar (Sally Kirkland), El Morroco Captain (George Gaynes), Frankie McVeigh (James Woods), Judianne (Susan Blakely).
Director: Sydney Pallack.
Musical score: Marvin Hamlisch.
This love story is set in the period from the late 1930s to the 1950s. It is told partly in flashback, and centres on the relationship between two very contrasting individuals. Katie Morosky is a strident anti-war campaigner and a passionate and vocal Marxist Jew with a tendency to denounce people as fascists or racist finks.
Hubbell Gardiner is an easy-going and insouciant Adonis with a talent for sports (javelin, discus, rowing, etc) but no appetite for politics.
The opening scenes go some way to establishing the period in which the story begins – one cinema is showing a Marx Brothers movie. Much later, we see Katie and Hubbell attending a Marx Brothers costume party at which they appear as Harpo and Groucho Marx respectively.
At college, Katie not only admires Hubbell’s all-American good looks but his writing prowess, whilst he is intrigued by her political passions. She is heavily involved with the Student Council and is President of the Young Communist League, and we see her bravely winning over a massed audience of snickering students at an open air peace demonstration. Hubbell shows a tremendous ability for writing at college, winning a class writing competition with a piece entitled, The All-American Smile, which the tutor reads out to the class. It begins, “In a way he was like the country he lived in. Everything came too easy for him.” Katie tearfully consigns her failed submission to the dustbin.
Katie has a part-time job in a diner, which is visited by Hubbell and his friends, whose easy humour she does not embrace. He tells her, “You’re a puritan. You have no sense of humour.” Later in the story, she berates them as being “Decadent and disgusting. You make fun of everything. You think politics is a joke.”
Too busy inhabiting their own worlds, they go their separate ways after graduation.
Their paths cross once more near the end of World War II. Katie is working at a radio station, whilst Hubbell, who has served as a naval officer in the South Pacific, is back on civvy street. Despite their contrasting outlooks, they fall in love, but Katie finds her boyfriend’s companions uncaring and insensitive, especially when they joke about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death. Hubbell realises that Katie’s all or nothing outspoken politics render her a liability in social situations, and the pair drift apart. “You push too hard. Every damn minute.”
They eventually achieve reconciliation and when Hubbell – who has already had a novel, A Country Made of Ice Cream, published – applies for a job as a Hollywood screenwriter, Katie urges him to pursue more challenging work. Still trying to iron out the kinks in their relationship, they move to California and are able to enjoy easy affluence as he becomes a successful screenwriter.
However, they live in troubled times. Creative performers in the entertainment industry are squeezed out of employment by the Hollywood blacklist that targets American entertainment professionals thought to have pro-Communist sympathies. McCarthyism – the U.S. government campaign against alleged Communists and other seditious forces, carried out under Senator Joseph McCarthy in the mid twentieth century – is on the march. Katie and others demonstrate in support of the Hollywood Ten. With Hubbell increasingly becoming sucked in by the Establishment, his reputation becomes threatened by his now-pregnant girlfriend’s unquenchable thirst for political expression.
Hubbell has an affair with Carol Ann, his erstwhile college girlfriend and the former wife of his best friend, J.J. When Katie gives birth to a daughter, Rachel, she comes to her senses and accepts that the blasé
Hubbell is not everything she had desired him to be. Not suitably motivated to realise his potential as a creative talent, he is now writing forgettable sitcoms.
Years after their divorce, the star-crossed lovers meet by chance in front of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Hubbell seems happy with his chic and sophisticated partner and is one of a number of jobbing writers working on a popular sitcom. Katie, now married, suggests that the three of them meet up, but Hubball declines. He asks about Rachel’s progress and about her father. We see that Katie, though older, has retained her political convictions, as she clutches “Ban The Bomb” fly-leaflets. “You never give up, do you?” asks Hubbell.
The film is dominated by the two leads. Streisand is beautiful – though not conventionally so – with luxuriant hair (which her character irons), full lips and expressive eyes. Though there is precious little opportunity for her to display her comedic talent in this film, her “funny bones” and her timing are still there for all to see. Katie’s politics eventually drive her apart from Hubbell, but her love is nevertheless unconditional – a point referenced by Hubbell’s pal, J.J., when the two boys go for a sail, having both become single again: “It’s not like, you know, losing SOMEBODY. Katie… THAT would be a loss.”
Some reviews criticise Redford’s character for being weak and spineless, but this fails to recognise his complexity. It is not that he is indifferent or uncaring about politics as much as the fact that he has figured it all out. He is astute enough to have recognised the pervasiveness of “political double-talk” and laughs at the idea that a Bill of Rights actually operates in America. Disengaging himself from politics, he believes that people are more important, and he expresses this forcefully when provoked in argument by Katie. Thus, we see that Hubbell is not merely eye-candy in the film. Indeed, he is given some great anti-politics lines.