15 January 2009

The Way We Were

I'm a sucker for sentimental tearjerkers, so I recently seized the opportunity to buy this on DVD for cheap. Watching it last night, for the first time in years, I was surprised to find that it wasn't as sad as I remembered.

Or else I don't cry as easily.

The movie, which stars Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand, and is directed by Sydney Pollack, is a love story between Katie, a Jewish girl (Katie) with a social conscience, and Hubbell, a goy prince with (apparently) none. They meet in college, where he is a celebrated jock with surprising depths, demonstrated in the short-story class they take together. Katie wants desperately to be a writer, but apparently lacks the talent. Instead, she pals around with communists and tries to organize the student body against Franco.

They don't get together in college--Hubbell is paired with the prettiest girl you can imagine (Lois Chiles)--but there are a few moments that spark a mutual attraction. They meet years later and begin an exciting affair, which is periodically troubled by Katie's concern about Hubbell's lack of seriousness (particularly as evidenced by the shallowness of his friends) and Hubbell's concern about Katie's inability to let well enough alone. Hubbell tries leaving Katie, but she won't let him go. They get married, go to Hollywood (Hubbell's now a screenwriter), and are on the cusp of having a child together when crusades against reds in Hollywood begin, and Katie of course entangles herself in political battles. Meanwhile, Hubbell is under tremendous pressure at the studio to be more of a team player, while Katie has been encouraging him to move to Paris with her and finish his second novel. Finally, they split up.

Years later, they meet by chance in New York. They're involved with other people now. Clearly, they haven't been in touch, and Hubbell hasn't seen his child. Just as clearly, they're as attracted to each other as ever. They wish each other well and go on with their separate lives.

Anyhow, very enjoyable movie--Sydney Pollack's work is pretty consistently entertaining and you can hardly go wrong with the young Streisand and Redford. The emotional sincerity of the movie somehow overcomes the cloyingness of the theme music, which has of course been done to death in the past 30-plus years.

Among the extras on the DVD is a fairly substantial "making of" documentary, featuring interviews with writer Arthur Laurents, director Sydney Pollack, and star Barbra Streisand. The documentary features deleted scenes that apparently Streisand and Laurents still blame Pollack for cutting. The scenes have a lot of political content. Pollack notes that one preview (with the political scenes) was a dud, the other (without the scenes) was a hit.

Both Streisand and Laurents talked about how you can't possibly understand why the two characters split up without those scenes. Streisand says the viewer ends up thinking it's because of Hubbell's one-night stand with an old girlfriend; Laurents says the climax is missing from the movie and the viewers are just too dumb to notice.

What the star and writer don't seem to notice is that the movie traces a classic story of lovers who are strongly attracted but ultimately incompatible. Streisand seems to think they parted because if they had stayed together, Katie's political past would have destroyed Hubbell's Hollywood career. Laurents thinks two scenes that made this explicit were the missing crux of the movie.

On the contrary, these scenes would've made the movie trivial, because, finally, politics is trivial, at least in the world of movie romance. If it was just politics, why not get back together when the politics had changed? But at the end, when the politics had changed, Hubbell says to Katie, "I can't. I can't come for a drink," and Katie nods and understands, and they hug, and that's that.

We talk about opposites attracting, and the glib assumption is that opposites, once attracted, can also live together. But it is not easy to make the adjustments necessary to accommodate a person who is very different from you. This reality underlies The Way We Were and makes it poignant. That's why the plot details don't matter, and the "missing" scenes don't feel missing at all.

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