Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Way We Were (1973) Directed by Sydney Pollack

Over the last few weeks we've had a Sex & The City marathon, re-watching the whole series. We're currently on the 5th season, where quality and meaning have been reduced to product placement. In an earlier season, the girls raptured about Hubbell in The Way We Were, and the episode even riffed on the last scene of the movie. In some ways, The Way We Were has a reputation as the quality romantic weepy, especially with mainstream audiences. I'm sure a lot of women of a certain age regard this film as a classic. The reality after watching The Way We Were again is what a confused mess of a picture this is. The Way We Were tries to mix political incentive (specifically the clumsy portrayal of McCarthyism) with liberal ideas on femininity in stark contrast to Hubbell's stoic (outdated!) machismo, all the while trying to impose a romance where opposites attract. Phew...did I say it was only a weepy?

But lets clear another thing up, the direction here is terrible. Pollack has always been well liked as an all around good guy rather than a great director. Personally, I always liked him more as an actor and have found his direction certainly workman-like. Pollack has also had a thing for Robert Redford (Hubbell), The Way We Were being one of six films Pollack has directed Redford in. And here lies a big problem with The Way We Were.  Pollock indulges Redford here. Redford does nothing but look good and act cool offering nothing of the emotive variety. Opposite Redford is Barbara Streisand as the politically aware Katie, who by being so good here, merely shows Redford's capacity for imitating cardboard. We're with Streisand all the way here, in every cause she stands for, while her dream-man often feels embarrassed for her. This lack of empathy from Redford towards Streisand ruins any will we might have for Barbara getting her man. Oh well, you're better off without him Babs, one might opine. On top of this, Streisand, one of the great voices of cinema trumps Redford again by singing the excellent theme song.

Watching The Way We Were again, it does remind  me of where the appeal lies with Redford. Robert Forster, The Go-Betweens tunesmith once opined that Redford had perfect hair, and it's a view one can't help but agree with. As Redford has spent most of his 1970's cinema trying to be a Fitzgerald character on screen, until he actually got to play Gatsby in the end, his hair in the meantime has been exquisite. The best scene for Redford in The Way We Were? Redford behind the wheel of a vintage Mercedes sports car, blonde locks blowing in the wind. If his hair could act, Redford would be the perfect actor.

We have been working our way through Sex and the City - the boxset with all seasons. At some point the women had a moment where they remembered The Way We Were and even sang Memories all made us eager to watch the film again. I remembered The Way We Were as a really flawed film, which had nevertheless made me cry. On my second viewing I liked the movie less than before. Barbabra Streisand was pretty convincing and passionate in her role, but Robert Redford seemed to be sleepwalking through the role of an idiot hunk. He was so meat-and-potatoes and so full of himself as a movie star, it was impossible for me to believe Streisand's character in love with him.

As the film happened, it unraveled as a cinematic example piece on co-dependency. At first the movie managed to portray a woman's lust and passion for a man in a way that's quite rare – Redford occupied the sex object position usually given to the leading ladies. Quite quickly though, it became clear that Hubbell was not much of a man for the thinking woman Katie. Yet, she kept insisting on needing him and loving him. That's where instead of romantic, the film seems to me sad. Surely there would be someone more stimulating and loving for Katie, if she would let go of the blond pin-up sailor boy.

For once watching the making-of-documentary offered a crucial perspective to the film. In the documentary it came out that the movie was brutally edited after a few test audiences saw it. Barbara Streisand thinks the edits ruined a great movie. Many important scenes were cut out in which the politics of the film and her character Katie were developed. These scenes gave depth to Katie's and Hubbell's separation and difficulty as a couple and they justified the whole political aspect of the film. In the version that came out and became a hit, the politics seems to serve no purpose other than being a futile prop offering something for Katie to feel passionate about. Had the politics stayed in the film, it could have been a much more fulfilling a film á la Reds or Doctor Zhivago. Now it is a rather mixed-up story of a relationship with some great acting and some confused directing.