Last night I had a rewatching of The Way We Were (1973), and felt inclined to write about it. Even though the year of production is slightly newer than what I'm accustomed to writing about on here, it truly is one of my favorite films. [Warning: there are spoilers.]
The film's appearance on TCM was as one of their Saturday night Essential selections, as chosen by Robert Osborne and the current celebrity programmer, Drew Barrymore. And it really is just that: an essential film. At first glance, it's the kind of movie that may be dismissed as a chick flick or a tearjerker, but that's an unfair judgement, for this movie has more than that lurking under it's surface. It's a beautiful but blunt and sometimes brutal portrait of love; an education for the viewer on why love can't always be easy, or uncomplicated, or enough. The theory that "sometimes love isn't enough" is, in itself, shocking, because we live in a society that idealizes this emotion. Didn't the Beatles sing to us that "love is all you need"? Isn't Valentine's Day, to so many, the pinnacle holiday of the year? But sometimes real life experiences contradict this idea, and The Way We Were paints this contradiction, with the all the bitterness that comes from such a painful reality, perfectly.
It is the story of Hubbell Gardner, portrayed by Robert Redford, and Katie Morosky, played by Barbra Streisand. He is the carefree rich boy who never had to work hard for anything in his life; and she is the Marxist, self proclaimed loudmouth, Jew girl who is overly passionate. The movie begins when Katie runs into Hubbell at a New York affair, circa 1944. Seeing Hubbell having fallen asleep upright in a bar stool, the particular lock of blond hair having fallen across his face, brings back memories to Katie. In a series of flashbacks, we learn their history together, having attended the same college in the 1930s. Their romance never began but the mutual affection is born; despite their polarities and their entirely different crowds, he is attracted to her headstrong qualities and she to his boyish good looks and innate writing skills. When she awakens him in the bar, their relationship begins - they are now real adults, her hair is ironed, but the attractions are all the same - that quickly blossoms into a romance. The film then continues to depict their struggles to stay together that are driven by their opposite personalities and principles. When Hubbell gets a job as a screenwriter, they move to California, but Katie's political protests against the Hollywood blacklist & House of Unamerican Activities jeopardize his career and their marriage.
The movie may use the classic setup of "opposites attract," but it doesn't condone it. There is really no happy ending for Hubbell and Katie: they are too unalike. It is the very things that initially attracted them to each other that eventually drive them apart. The beginning of the movie shows a curly haired Katie, as president of the Young Communists League, making a desperate plea to the university crowd to hear her cause. They jeer her, but the closeups of Hubbell among his laughing friends reveal his admiration for her passion. Whether or not he agrees or cares about what she is saying, it is the way she is saying it, the fervent insistence in her tone, that draws him to her; but later in the movie, it is one of the things that tears them apart. "You're unhappy unless you do something. Because of me, you're trying to lay out, but that's wrong... wrong for you. Commitment is part of you. Part of what makes you attractive, part of what attracted me to you," he tells her.
It is the same for Katie. The distinctions of his personality, that are so very different from hers, excite her: his easygoing attitude and boyish outlook on life. While she revels in these qualities he has to offer, it is equally frustrating to her. When he insists that she pushes too much, she basically replies by saying she pushes him because she knows how gifted he truly is - as a writer, as a person. His carefree traits create his charm for her, but all the while, she can't understand him. She is a loud person, and cannot agree with Hubbell's tendency to make a joke out of everything, his lack of seriousness; whereas he can't tolerate her expressiveness. In a scene in which they discuss political advocacy, he tells her, "I don't see how you can do it." To this, she, the natural troublemaker, says, "And I don't see how you can't."
It is unfair and complicated paradox: for the same reasons they love each other, they cannot live together. They are split personalities, oil and water, fire and ice. Both are too stubborn in their own personalities to change for the other. There is this idea that a person can change, but can a person really change? No matter how much one may love a person, there are some things that are inborn: they can be wonderful principles or entirely self destructive, but they are there, and it takes hell to change them. And, oftentimes, as this movie tells us, we don't want to change them.
"Wouldn't it be lovely if we were old?" Katie muses at the end of the movie, when the not too happy ending is near. "We'd have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated; the way it was when we were young." She is picturing them as an elderly couple, having weathered the worst of their obstacles, together and content in their old age. Hubbell reminds her that it was never uncomplicated, and to this she says, "It was never uncomplicated... but it was lovely." That's my favorite line of the movie, because to me it summarizes the movie's major theme. It's a bittersweet remembrance of how their relationship from the start was doomed due to their differences, but when they were happy, it was beautiful. This is what drives the whole movie: they strive so hard to be together because of how wonderful is when things are okay, when there aren't any obstacles in their way.
In the second half of the film, the additional story line of their involvement in the Hollywood blacklist (and the repercussions this has on their marriage) adds another element of substance to this movie. Katie is now pregnant, but in the nine months leading up to the birth of their child, fueled by political angst, their marriage dissolves. "Could you do me a favor," she asks of him. "Could you stay with me until the baby is born?" They have a daughter, but in the hospital room, they are awkward and silent. Katie sits in the bed, tears welling up in her eyes, knowing that it really is the end. Because she is the determined one, the girl who never gives up unless she is forced to, you can see the pain that is being inflicted upon herself for having lost her fight. "Why can't we both win?" she begs at one point in the movie; but Hubbell states the truth when he says as long as they're with each other, they're both going to lose.
The last shot of the film is a few years later, in the 1950s. Katie is picketing in the New York streets for yet another one of her causes, and she spots Hubbell with his new girlfriend. They greet each other with a hug and she invites him over for a drink; Hubbell's girlfriend reminds him they'd better get going, so Katie rushes away. But he goes after her. She brushes the hair out of his face as she always did; he inquires about their daughter, asks her if her new husband is a good father. "Your girl is lovely," she says of his girlfriend. "Won't you bring her over for a drink when you come?" "I can't," he says, and she replies, "I know." They hug, once more, this time slowly, with deep sentiment and resentment of having to let go. They don't speak now, but the embrace is the perfect note to end the movie: it is clear they still love each other, the love is still there, but they have come to understand that they can't live with each other, and their relationship is best left as a memory; the way they were.
I'm a fan of both Redford & Streisand and loved both of their performances. It's not that Hubbell and Katie are always likable characters. In fact, much of the time, they aren't. Katie is over emotional, high strung and a drama queen - it is to her that the tearjerker lines are given. But Hubbell is sometimes so cardboard that you want to shake him by the shoulders. The negatives of these characters which are so, at the same time, reflective of their positives is another interesting aspect of their movies. They are opposites and opposites at extreme ends: they struggle to find stable ground and are eventually incompetent of finding it.
Besides the great performances of their own, respective characters, the chemistry between the two leads is palpable. If it wasn't there, the movie would have fallen apart: why root for this couple to make it when the love doesn't seem worth it? But it does seem genuine, the depth of feeling is there and it's tangible, therefore making it realistic and the major backbone of the movie. The moments of affection are sometimes simple but just as effectively demonstrative: him tying her shoe at an outdoor cafe during their college days (a few years before their romance really begins), or her constant habit of brushing his hair out of his face.
This isn't to say that it's a perfect movie, because it isn't. The script, penned by Arthur Laurents, is strong throughout most of the film (though is not totally immune to falling into a couple patches of the typical, teary lines). The editing gets jerky and the last half of the movie leaves a bit to be desired at times, sometimes coming across as a hasty breakup of their marriage. But this can be overlooked, because it is just technical aspects that only leave a few snags in a movie that offers a greater overall picture, one that is in a sense, a little bit surreal because it refuses to offer us the ending we want. The performances, the chemistry, the beautiful backdrops of New York City & Los Angeles, all contribute to this effect. It is visually appealing, both in the cinematography and the star power it drips with. And last but certainly not least, there is that song, probably my all time favorite. It's a gorgeous song, one that completes the movie perfectly.
Overall, I love this movie because of the feeling it leaves me with after seeing it. It's not just the tears (because they're definitely there; who doesn't feel their heart breaking in that final scene?) but something a little bit greater than that. Most people wouldn't try to analyze a 1970s romance to death (and I envy those people, I've been sitting here for the past hour, trying to find the right words, lol), but I wanted to point out that there is substance to this movie. I love it partly because it's an honest to goodness tearjearker, but also because of the way it depicts this heartbreak, and the reasons that drive it. (And, hey, I may also go for it because the theme's main couple and major message remind me of these people, who I kinda happen to adore.)
Also: Happy New Year's!
PS: I know, I actually can't believe I haven't been here for about a month. Excuses to come in the next post. I'll be doing my end of the year wrap up/what's in store for 2013 post within the next week, promise. Also, look at these two!