The Way We Were (1973)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

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The Way We Were is a good ‘ol fashioned romantic drama set against a politically charged backdrop over the course of a couple decades.  The couple is Katie and Hubbell (Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford), college classmates and political opposites.  Well it’s not so much that they’re opposites, just that their political and life philosophies often put them at odds with each other.  And with him on his way to becoming a screenwriter while she’s a communist, and this being the 40s and 50s, well there’s a brick wall coming, telegraphed from miles away.

The title of the film would seem to refer not only to the ways Katie and Hubbell change but so too America as a whole.  For the couple this is a warm, tender, hyper-nostalgic perspective, celebrating the arc of their lives, their romance and the ways they’ve grown.  For the political side of this story, the title would refer to one of the uglier moments in U.S. History, the fear mongering and McCarthyism of the 40s and 50s.

As a political movie this seems to miss the mark, at least as far as I can tell.  It’s underdeveloped and rushed, but as a romantic drama, which this is first and foremost, I found it all quite swell.

The film is constructed around a couple wholesome montages of life at a particular time. One is set at the very beginning of the movie, showcasing their respective lives in college (him an athlete, her an activist), and another is set halfway through the film as they construct a pleasant life together on the beaches of Malibu.  In each case the sequence highlights a nostalgic beauty, celebrating their daily lives at that moment in time.  It’s as you would recall a fond memory.

Montages like these, it often seems, exist simply because those moments are about to end.  Everything is nice and pleasant and conflict-free, and then the next scene will introduce the next round of conflict.  It’s a brief, momentary celebration of the moment because it isn’t permanent.

The movie, however, being told over the course of many years, ends up celebrating this impermanence.  I suppose all love stories of this sort do, the ones like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and La La Land, among so many others, that don’t end with the couple together and because of that must find meaning in the characters’ respective journeys.

It’s thus some kind of celebration of life as a whole, the ebbs and flows, drama and catharsis.  Everything comes and passes, and in the end we’ll hopefully have a few stories to recall.

So it’s nice, it’s real nice, but that again ignores all the political turmoil of this time.  Since it’s part of this story and referred to in the movie’s title, it feels like the politics of this movie should be more pressing.  I kind of wish it was.

I even had a couple problems with Redford’s character, one who seemed to be missing something.  I get that he’s defined by his carefree attitude, but early on the story brings up his feelings of fraud, that everything comes too easy for him, and then he seems to just let that go.  Everything also does come too easy for him as he just waltz his away into Hollywood, one of those storytelling devices in many romantic melodramas in which the main characters are uniquely excellent at every area of their lives except for “love.”

But all of that aside there’s a lot to like here, movie stars doing movie star things, set to rousing, swelling music and with a positive coda.

Up Next: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), Tony Manero (2008), Tender Mercies (1983)

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