Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Way We Were

The Way We Were is everything its title song suggests: capital “d” dramatic and capital “r” romantic. In other words, it’s not subtle at all. It’s not even close to my favorite of Pollack’s films (Pollack himself didn’t seem to care all that much for the film, stating that his biggest accomplishment was merely, “getting the thing made”), but there’s something classically deliberate and endearing about the tone of the first half of the film: an hour that knows exactly the kind of film it is and executes the romantic melodrama perfectly. It’s in the second half of the film that story becomes problematic as Pollack and his screenwriter Arthur Laurents try to cram too many topical, political subplots into the film. The effect is a film that starts off earnest in its romantic schmaltziness but devolves into a film totally unable to shift tones.

The plot for The Way We Were is one of those classical, melodramatic love stories: two seemingly polar opposites, Katie (Barbra Streisand), who is a Marxist Jew with strong political convictions, and Hubbell, a WASP with a frustratingly neutral (I don’t know that I would call it apathetic) view of politics and the world around him. The story is told in flashback as we first see Katie and Hubbell in college – Hubbell always looking upon her as though there’s something else beneath the super-serious exterior; Katie sees Hubbell for me than he is, too, when she reads one of his short stories and encourages him to keep writing. Within Hubbell’s writing, there’s an inkling of an opinion – a belief about something – that Katie gravitates for, and before too long Katie no longer pines for Hubbell from afar as the two share a night together that acts as the catalyst for their relationship and eventual marriage.

There’s nothing wholly original or even emotionally involving about this melodramatic tale, but it’s acted so well and executed with such ease in the first half of the film that it’s easy to forgive how badly the film goes off the rails at the end. But before I get to that, I need to point out the singular fact that is true about almost every Sydney Pollack film: the acting is tremendous. Nothing much stands out in way of aesthetic or art design or music (even though the score, by Marvin Hamlisch, won an Oscar, as did Streisand’s song – both get played ad nausea throughout) – it’s all just there and good. What I mean by that is it is clear to see that this is a film made by professionals. Everything looks and sounds as it should, and it’s just kind of there; it doesn’t say or stand-in as something more than the impression its title song gives the viewer: this is a Big Melodramatic Romance story.

So, with all that being said (as I struggle to find a lot to write about this film), it must then be noted that Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand are really damn good here. They’re movie stars through and through, and it’s kind of nice to see two performances like this that make the melodramatic elements of the film go down a lot more easily. As I alluded to earlier, Pollack claimed in this interview the his biggest contribution to the film was not something visual (in fact he seems quite dismissive of the film in that interview) but was the fact that he merely got it made, and, in the process of getting it made, convinced Redford to the film even though he had no desire to. Redford’s looks and status of a movie star at the time made him the perfect Hubbell: laidback, handsome, and charming. It made sense why Katie would pine for him because there’s a charisma there that even though Hubbell is a frustrating character, Redford doesn’t play him off as totally aloof; in fact, unlike many modern romantic melodramas (or comedies, for that matter) that try to shoe-horn in some uncharismatic, clunky actor just because he looks good and is the flavor of the month, Redford has the charisma of a leading man, and it’s interesting to see his evolution from his previous collaboration with Pollack in Jeremiah Johnson to his role as Hubbell. So even though Pollack admits that there’s no specific stamp he put on the film, I would argue that one thing Pollack did better than most – working with actors – is his stamp, and it’s the one thing that gets the viewer through The Way We Were without rolling their eyes throughout.

As for Streisand as Katie, she’s wonderful. I’ve never been the biggest Babs fan, but the political activist Katie was a natural fit for her. Prior to the film being made, she was one of the celebrities on Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List” (which also included another Pollack actress, Jane Fonda, and, not to stray too far off topic here, it’s just that I can’t let this go without commenting on it because I think it’s funny: how the hell does someone as harmless as Bill Cosby end up on that list?). She brings a previous understanding and awareness and passion to the issues that are important to Katie that is palatable because they were more than likely important to the Streisand. However, it’s the quiter moments that Pollack elicits from Streisand that impressed me most about her performance (just as he did with Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?).

There are moments within the film where she really has to carry the thing on her shoulder, and we have to feel her frustration at the apathy that surrounds her when she’s with Hubbell and his friends. There is a scene where after their initial tryst, Katie and Hubbell split for a while and she makes a moving phone call to Hubbell to try and get him to see that despite their differences, they can work things out and be happy together. She plays it so well at balancing desperation (wanting him back so badly) and assuredness (she’s a really good thing for him; they balance each other out well) that it wouldn’t surprise me if this were the scene they sent the Academy that earned her an Oscar nomination.

What doesn’t work about The Way We Were is near the end when Katie and Hubbell move to Hollywood and Hubbell begins writing scripts just as the McCarthy era is getting underway. This allows the film to take ridiculous, grandstanding detours using Katie as its mouthpiece. It’s not that I disagree with the filmmakers and what they’re saying about the lunacy of McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist; it’s just that the tone just feels so off in what is essentially just a basic, melodramatic love story. As the filmmakers try to force these other themes about the Blacklist into the film, I found myself going from being a viewer that was engaged by this love story to being totally indifferent. The first half of the film has a nice, lingering pace about it; however, when the Hollywood part of the plot kicks in, the movie jumps around too much and rushes through to its conclusion where Hubbell and Katie meet on the streets of New York years after their divorce and their child having been born. It should have been a poignant moment – Katie still involved in political activism and Hubbell being no-different himself as he’s an un-credited writer for a sitcom – but the film doesn’t earn it thanks to trying to cram too much into the ending.  I much preferred the feeling of just kind of floating from scene to scene – moment to moment – as if were re-living Katie’s fond memories in our own head, but the end is so unnaturally abrupt, that it really reduces the film to being “just another love story.”

The Way We Were reminds me a lot of Pollack’s much later film Sabrina – a deliberately paced film that feels very much at home in that classic Hollywood aesthetic and tone. Sabrina just feels differently than other films of the ‘90s with the way it so effortlessly takes its time to tell its romantic story, and The Way We Were has the same effect: compared to other films from the ‘70s that were groundbreaking in their narrative content or innovative in their aesthetics, The Way We Were is just kind of there – and it seems happy and pleased to feel like it comes from a different era. I give credit to Pollack for trying to sprinkle in something else in the film aside from just the romance – but it distracts from the best parts of the movie; the film can’t really be both at once as it really hasn’t earned the right to turn into something else halfway through. It’s an abrupt tonal shift that just feels like Pollack trying to shoehorn too many political agendas into a film where they don’t really fit. It has a bittersweet ending, sure, but it doesn’t reach the level of pathos that I expect from Pollack. But man, Streisand and Redford are so good in these roles that it almost doesn’t matter how badly botched the last third of the film is.


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