Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Queer Cinephile(s) #21: The Way We Were

I'm a cinephile. Studied film in college and got to review movies for a TV station (don't get excited; it was way back in the 20th century). My Netflix queue swelled to over 400 titles in 2013, so, for 2014, I gave myself an assignment: watch 50 films that I've never seen before and write something about them. I'll be watching a little bit of everything -- Oscar bait, indie darlings, black & white classics, cult flicks, blockbusters and weird shit my friends have been recommending for years.

The Way We Were (released October 1973)

The Way We Were: Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford

Here's the original theatrical trailer...

What the Queer Cinephile Says: Before I watched The Way We Were the only thing I knew about the movie was that it starred Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, and the title song was an enormous, Oscar-winning hit. The trailer gave me the impression that I was about to see a wartime romance with tearjerker potential. It carefully avoids the film's sociopolitical drama and sells one thing: Streisand & Redford Together! They might as well have called it that.

Redford is Hubbell Gardiner, a blonde, blue-eyed, all-American guy who falls in love with Streisand's Katie Morosky, a passionately radical Jew. He's affluent, carefree and apparently irresistible. She's tireless, stridently political and not necessarily the kind of girl a white-bread boy takes home to meet mother, unless he hates his mother. Years after their mutual infatuation at some unspecified New England university, Hubbell and Katie accidentally meet up again in a New York City bar. She takes him home and to bed, where he falls asleep on top of her after sex. There's some hint that it might have been her first sexual experience, maybe, or not. All we really know is that this is pretty much what it takes for her to fall head over heels in love and give him the key to her apartment. Hubbell is fascinated by Katie and somewhat respectful of her political fervor, but mostly she's his respite from a glib and tedious circle of friends and acquaintances.

Hubbell and Katie couple up, break up, reunite and marry. At various points along the way, Katie tries to change herself enough to fit into his world while simultaneously fretting that she's not attractive enough for him. Hubbell writes a book entitled A Country Made of Ice Cream, sells it to Hollywood and they relocate from the east coast to the west coast -- along with Hubbell's best friend and his wife, who used to be Hubbell's college girlfriend and, yes, all that turns out to be just as bad an idea as you think it is. Hubbell becomes a screenwriter and Katie takes an unfulfilling studio job reading film synopses or something. There's little time for happiness in their cozy Malibu beach house because Hubbell has landed in Hollywood at the same time that Congress's House Committee on Un-American Activities is determined to expose every Communist in the movie industry. Katie's suppressed political instinct resurfaces and Hubbell is bewildered by her impulse to get involved.

The Way We Were has big problems. Streisand and Redford, 30 and 36 respectively at the time of filming, just aren't credible as college seniors in the film's extended flashback. The supporting characters are consistently undeveloped, wasted (poor Viveca Lindfors, James Woods and Herb Edelman), or unceremoniously dispatched from the picture without so much as an inkling as to why they were there in the first place. The editing is choppy, the photography is oddly flat, and Pollack's direction is uninspired -- which is especially frustrating since he's directed some really fine films, including Tootsie. Worse, the DVD extras include a number of impactful scenes Pollack shot and ultimately discarded, most of which would have arguably given the film more coherency, a lucid climax and an even more poignant resolution.

The potential for a great story is all there, but The Way We Were is a badly executed film. The original script by Arthur Laurents -- based on college events and his personal experience with the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- was written with Barbra Streisand in mind for Katie Morosky. (This is confirmed by both Streisand and Laurents in the DVD extras.) But when Sydney Pollack signed on to direct, he had the role of Hubbell Gardiner rewritten to accommodate Robert Redford. (Pollack states that directly in the DVD extras, too.) Reportedly, eleven different writers worked on the script, so Laurents' original vision was undoubtedly lost. The politics have mostly been eviscerated, too, so all that's really left is a jumbled, lukewarm narrative about star-crossed lovers set to a lush, melancholic score. Streisand does have her moments as Katie, a character that's alternately obsessive and foolish. Her big emotional outbursts come at regular intervals, so things never get too dull. Redford brings surprising depth to Hubbell, a character who likes things easy and would surely have coasted through life on charm, good looks and family connections if he hadn't met Katie. I grew tired of Streisand and lost all empathy for Katie late in the film when she wistfully muses, "Wouldn't it be lovely if we were old... we'd have survived all this and everything would be easy and uncomplicated the way it was when we were young." Hubbell wearily replies, "Katie, it was never uncomplicated." In that single moment of impeccable acting, Redford almost makes you forget the preceding hour and forty-five minutes worth of botched storytelling.

Stray Gay Observations: Barbra Streisand is another one of those entertainers I'm supposed to love because I'm gay. For the record, I like her, but I've never really gone out of my way to see one of her movies. In 2012, she co-starred with Seth Rogan in The Guilt Trip, an amusing story about an inventor whose mom tags along with him on a cross-country trek to get various investors interested in his latest product. I saw it because I like Rogan, but Streisand is quite good; she has an impressive chemistry with her co-star. Streisand's music? I've enjoyed some of it over the years -- dear God, the woman's been recording since 1963! -- but the only one of her songs on my iPod is "Enough is Enough (No More Tears)," a disco duet with Donna Summer.  

Throughout The Way We Were, Robert Redford's hair never changes style, despite the fact that the movie appears to take place over about a 20-year period, from roughly the late 1930s to the late 1950s. It's a totally anachronistic hairstyle.

The Way We Were is a period piece; Redford's hair is a decisively '70s style.
For me, the most interesting question raised by The Way We Were is this: Can you have a successful relationship with someone who doesn't share your politics or worldview? All I know is that I can't date (or even fuck) a guy who watches Fox News.

Should You See It? Lots of people think The Way We Were is a grand cinematic romance, but I'm sincerely baffled by the popularity of this movie. All I see is a gracelessly executed star vehicle filled with dozens of closeups. Redford is fine in a thankless, almost passive role, but it you want to see him give a solid performance in a better movie with political overtones, check him out in All the President's Men -- he has excellent chemistry with Dustin Hoffman. If you're a Streisand fan, my guess is that you've already seen The Way We Were. I honestly can't think of a single reason to recommend this to anybody else. It's not terrible, but even Streisand & Redford Together! can't rescue it from mediocrity

Next Week: Mahogany (1975)

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