Monday, January 29, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Way We Were" (1973)

"It's about a Jewish woman with a big nose and her blond boyfriend who move to Hollywood, and it's during the blacklist and it puts a strain on their relationship."
                         --Lisa Loopner (aka Gilda Radner), describing "The Way We Were"

"The Way We Were" is one of the few well-known love stories that defies conventional male/female roles. The usual central dynamic can be summed up by what feminist critics call "the male gaze," in which the way the female character is portrayed is defined by how they are beheld by their romantic male counterpart.

In short: women in the movies exist to be gazed upon, and men exist to do the gazing.

The first few moments of "TWWW" flip this on its head. Barbra Streisand sees Robert Redford, and is so overcome by his beauty she literally gasps, her mouth hanging open like a trap door. Indeed, through virtually every encounter they have in the movie, it is she who is the active pursuer and he is the lackadaisical pursued. She is always looking at him, while he usually has his eyes turned elsewhere.

Director Sydney Pollack photographs Redford with a lustrous quality, like a fallen angel loitering about the Earth to amuse himself. His character, Hubbell Gardiner, is the object of affection to Katie Morosky (Streisand), a passionate leftist political activist. She is the proactive character, while his is entirely reactive. Hubbell's defining characteristic is that he doesn't really have one, existing as a beautiful object upon which Katie (and others) project their own aspirations.

Much is made about Hubbell's blondness, which in the movie is intrinsic to his ability to mesmerize. I have commented before on Hollywood's declining favor for fair-haired male movie stars, and indeed, Redford in the 1970s more or less marked the last of the line of blond sex symbols. Katie refers to Hubbell as her "gorgeous goy guy," and one of her pet moves is to brush the coppery locks on his forehead with her fingers -- less a grooming gesture than a a miser fingering his gold.

Pollack was just establishing himself as a mainstream director, despite a number of features already under his belt. He was brought into the project solely upon the basis of his promise to entice Redford, with who he had just made "Jeremiah Johnson," to take the role opposite Streisand, for whom the part was expressly written.

Hubbell had originally been envisioned by screenwriter Arthur Laurents as a supporting character to the firebrand Katie. Laurents based the story on his college experiences in the 1930s and '40s, transposing his own Jewish identity onto the figure of a woman he admired but never pursued romantically.

Pollack petitioned to expand Hubbell to an equal footing, and reportedly brought in a raft of other writers to change the script around without Laurents' knowledge or consent. Despite some sloppy editing and story construction, "TWWW" was rather well-received at the time and was a huge box office hit.

Laurents ultimately retained the sole writing credit, he and Pollack buried the hatchet and even pursued a sequel, which fell apart in the early 1980s. The idea was still was being batted around as late as 2005.

As for Redford and Pollack, they would go on to make five more pictures together, including "Three Days of the Condor" and "Out of Africa."

Hubbell and Katie encounter each other in college around 1938, hit it off but never become a couple until they meet again at the war's end. She takes the drunken Navy man back to her apartment, where he sleepily has movie sex with her -- read: sweet, and short -- not realizing it's Katie. Later, though, he puts it in on purpose.

They stay a pair the rest of the movie, despite stormy waters and several near-breakups, before Hubbell finally dumps her for good right after she's given birth to their daughter. Later they meet up for a moment sometime in the 1950s, fond remembrances of love lost.

Hubbell is defined as being everything Katie is not: an easygoing, likeable WASP with no strong political convictions or even a core identity beyond being a BMOC in college, and the adult equivalent thereafter. His redeeming attribute is that he's aware of how easily everything comes to him, and is able to write about his privilege with flair and a little distance.

At first jealous of Hubbell's writing talent -- she's crushed when the professor picks his short story, instead of the one she'd been laboring on for weeks, to read aloud to the class -- she eventually becomes his caustic muse, pushing him to write more deeply about his characters and subjects. Forever taking a stand against the latest cause, she's vexed when Hubbell appears to stand for nothing other than his own success and comfort.

Their relationship is defined by a pedestal: Katie places Hubbell upon one, convinced he's the perfect man, except for needing a little prodding from her. He's fascinated by her sense of unfailing certainty, whether it's about politics or his own abilities, while she thinks he needs to push himself harder, in life and in his writing. When they move out to California together so Hubbell can pursue a lucrative screenwriting career, their resentments are slowly stoked to the point of no return.

It's fascinating how passive and inert Hubbell really is. Like a classic romcom woman, he allows himself to be defined by his lover, and then grows to resent the box in which she has placed him. Meanwhile, Katie goes through the paces of being the one who decides she must change, even if in the end she goes back to her old life of rabble-rousing.

The film is probably remembered now more for the title song, sung beautifully by Streisand, than the story itself. The supporting characters don't make much of an impact, the two most notable being Bradford Dillman as Hubbell's best friend, J.J., and Lois Chiles as Carol Ann, who ping-pongs back and forth between the two men.

James Woods and Sally Kirkland both turn up in small roles early in their careers.

Patrick O'Neal plays George Bissinger, the director whom Hubbell is working for on an adaptation of his first novel. As near as I can figure, the screenwriting process goes on for months and even years, which seems unlikely for the late 1940s, when it wasn't unusual for writers and directors to have three feature film credits in a year.

The section about the Blacklist isn't terribly compelling, other than it exacerbates the tension inherent in their relationship. Katie wants Hubbell to speak out against the House Un-American Activities Committee, while he thinks it's best to keep his head down. Entire families will be destroyed for nothing, he argues, while Katie sees that laying down before one monstrosity will only invite a worse one.

Unlike its two stars, "The Way We Were" hasn't aged very well. It feels like it would have been a better fit during the Golden Age of Hollywood, where it's set. Of course, it would have been rare for a film of that age to end with the couple splitting up. Just as it is to see a movie in which the usual gender roles are reversed so starkly.

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