The Way They Weren’t, and How It Saved a Memorable Film From Disaster - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Way They Weren’t, and How It Saved a Memorable Film From Disaster
Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were” (trailer/YouTube)

I intended to write only one movie-themed Valentine’s Day piece this week — on how the death of the heteronormative love story by a thousand feminist cuts — the banishment of male role models, femininity erasure, “Me Too” abuse, gender confusion — has not only wrecked cinema but embittered real-life romance. But I pushed that essay back a bit after reading a new book on the making of the seminal 1970s romance, The Way They Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen, by Robert Hofler.

The Way We Were (1973) is nowhere near a great movie, nor even a particularly good one. Yet it was almost a total embarrassment except for the unique artistry of pre-Hollywoke filmmaking, which rescued it from its original concept as both a Barbra Streisand ego-fest and another anti-McCarthy screed. What instead emerged almost alchemically is a rare worthwhile depiction of a creative writer trying to justify his lover’s faith in him, as played by two major stars, and this only due to the recalcitration of one of them, Robert Redford.

At the time a much bigger film star than Streisand, Redford initially refused to join screenwriter-playwright Arthur Laurents’ ode to her and tedious tirade against the Hollywood Blacklist absent the enrichment of his role — golden boy WASP author, Hubbell Gardner. According to the director, Sydney Pollack, “He didn’t like the character, he didn’t like the concept of the film, he didn’t think the politics and love story would match.” Redford was right on all counts, including the Hollywood sacred cow of McCarthyism. Although a diehard progressive himself, he was also a discriminating artist, who actually called the movie’s third-act focus on the Blacklist “bulls**t kneejerk liberalism.”

Though the actor’s playing hardball frustrated producer Ray Stark (Funny Girl), who wanted to immediately hire Ryan O’Neal rather than negotiate, director Sidney Pollack knew how indispensable Redford would be. And how good he was, having just directed him in the eventual western classic, Jeremiah Johnson. O’Neal, Pollack realized, would have played the part as originally written, tilting the film toward Streisand and Laurents’ vision and to ultimate failure. It was the accommodations he made to secure Redford that salvaged the picture. Pollack brought in two new writers (David Rayfiel, Alvin Sargent) to elevate both Redford’s Hubbell over Streisand’s communist Katie Morosky and the love story above a political one.

Unlike any male character on film today, Hubbell constantly stands up to Katie’s ideological extremism, despite the filmmakers’ sympathy to it, making the film watchable. In their best exchange, Hubbell takes Katie to task for her piqued dismissal of his friends — all the men of whom just fought in World War II, including Hubbell. “You do it, you know. You make yourself feel out of place.… Why don’t you try talking to them?… You don’t talk, you lecture. I mean, what was that speech in there about Yalta? Katie, there isn’t anyone in that room who needs you to explain Yalta.” The Yalta Conference, of course, was the summit meeting between the three main Allied leaders — Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin — at which Katie’s idol, FDR, fundamentally sold out Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union.

What truly saved the picture was the jettisoning of the heavy Blacklist emphasis in its third act. Hubbell forsakes future novel writing to adapt his last book into a Hollywood movie, much to Katie’s disappointment. This throws the couple into the center of the McCarthyite purges. Fifty years later, Hollywood players would initiate a modern blacklist against conservatives, but in the early ’70s, they settled for condemning the original.

So intense was their fear and loathing of the “horror” that at an early development point, Pollack considered telling the story in flashback with Hubbell testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Fortunately, wiser heads like his soon realized that the film’s love story rather than politics was the key to its salvation if not success.

Even then, they at first couldn’t let go enough of the virtue signaling. Though many Blacklist scenes were cut on paper, a lot of them were still shot, with minor supporting characters giving pretentious speeches about censorship (yes, the irony is amusing). Yet unlike the two leads, viewers couldn’t care less who was testifying against whom. This point became clear to the filmmakers at the first sneak preview in San Francisco. The audience was with the movie through the college and World War II portions. Then, during the already thoroughly edited Hollywood portion, they drifted off mentally and physically. Box-office disaster loomed.

Pollack cut five scenes, even two from the love story, including two inappropriate speeches by Redford. The first is when Katie asks Hubbell if he smiles all the time, and he gives her a rambling account of how his teachers liked his “fantastic smile” and advanced him ahead of more studious peers. In the final cut, he responds to the question with a sudden frown and a one-word answer, “No,” causing Katie to laugh. It’s the kind of artistic improvement often only a baptism by fire can inspire. The second preview went much better. Pollack recalled, “Never in my career have I seen such a reversal of fortunes, from having a near disaster one night to a big success the following night with those cuts.”

The theme song, composed by Marvin Hamlisch and belted out by Streisand, became a huge hit, forever cementing the romantic aspect of the picture. Lovers can enjoy the film this Valentine’s Day without giving the Hollywood Blacklist a second thought.

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