Talking Pictures

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The Way We Were, USA 1973.

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2014

Katie's apartment in The Way We Were

Katie’s apartment in The Way We Were

This is a film that I have enjoyed several times, partly because of the effective star pairing of Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, and partly because it attempts, in a confused way, to address one of the darker periods in US film history. The film was re-screened at the Bradford Widescreen Weekend in a 4K DCP. This means that the original Panavision 2.35:1 was altered to 2.39:1, but it was a good transfer and great to watch. The Widescreen Weekend at Bradford is noted for the care and attention to the projection of films.

The film’s story follows the relationship of an unlikley romantic couple: Jewish Bluestocking Communist Katie (Streisand) and [in his own words] ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ Hubbel [Redford].  The film opens in 1937 with campus agitation by communists and fellow travellers for intervention in support of the Spanish Republican Government against the fascist rebellion led by General Franco. However, the focus in the story is more personal, Streisand and Redford are both would-be writers taking classes. He has talent but [in his own words] ‘everything came too easily to him’. He socialises and wins sport events whilst she works part-time to fund her studies.

They meet again in New York in the later stages of the war – he is supernumerary naval officer, she is working in radio. Here a relationship develops, though Streisand rather than Redford takes the lead. After the war they marry and move to Hollywood. But their differing value systems lead to tensions: aggravated by the HUAC investigations and the case of the Hollywood Ten.

The pair part, though they have jointly sired a daughter. They meet briefly in New York in the mid-1950s. He now writing for television, she is married and still supporting liberal causes.

The film’s treatment of liberal and left politics is fairly underdeveloped, [in typical Hollywood fashion]. However, Streisand brings a fire to the scenes where she expresses her convictions. The CP-USA line on Spain is fudged though there is a brief dig about the change of the line during World War II. When we reach the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood Ten there is little sense of the Party activities, but a lot of liberal protest. In the final scene Streisand is collecting signatures against the Atom Bomb. In fact the most political point in the film is in her New York flat, where, in a rare combination, we see pictures of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Paul Robeson and Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Symptomatic is the fact that I am pretty sure that we never see a picture of Karl Marx.

However, the screening was illuminated by a really interesting introduction by Tony Sloman. It appears that the film was cut shortly before release. It seems that five scenes comprising seven or eight minutes were cut by the director Sydney Pollack. This followed on from a very disappointing preview screening. It seems that after the cuts the film received a better reception. The content of the cuts is not completely clear. However, Streisand, who seems to have opposed the action, kept the deletions. Tony Sloman showed us a two-minute clip, an argument between Redford and Streisand on the eve of the well-publicised flight to Washington by Hollywood stars to support the ‘Ten’. To be honest it did not seem to have any more political content than scenes that remain in the released film.

However, it seems that some viewers found Streisand’s performance ‘strident’, which is part of the characterisation, though she is also a powerful performer. Hollywood films have almost made a convention of avoiding demanding political analysis. One thinks of the scene in Reds (1981)where Reed (Warren Beatty} explains to his politics to Louise Bryant {Diane Keaton) – thanks to cuts we never actually hear a complete sentence.

Revealingly Redford initially turned down the treatment as he thought that ‘Hubbel’s point of view’ was not given sufficient attention. I think he was probably wrong, even of the uncut version. Streisand’s several speeches are long on rhetoric but short on content. This is true of the initial meeting to ‘Support Spain’ right up to the arguments on HUAC and the Hollywood Ten. Moreover, Hubbel is given a notable speech of response at this point: [this may have been added at Redford’s insistence]. His argument is that despite any actions ‘nothing’s goin’ to change’. He claims that ‘people are more important …not causes, not principles!’. This fits with the Hubbel character, but also is a more general attitude across Hollywood films. It is what would be termed ‘apolitical’ [dictionary – politically neutral]. In fact of course such a position is quite reactionary, as it leads to a form of quietist inaction. Katie’s response is that ‘people are their principles!’ but the point requires a more political and a more concrete response: such a response may have been in a deletion?

The screenplay for the film was adapted by Arthur Laurents from his own novel [which I have not read]. However, Laurents had direct experience of HUAC and the blacklist. In that sense the film takes a ‘liberal’ rather than a left or communist line on the period covered. Having noted that Streisand’s character calls for support for the Republican fighters and the Soviet resistance to fascism with immense gusto. I mentioned Reds earlier. The film has a little [only a little] more politics in it, but certain no more gusto for the cause than exhibited by Katie.

One interesting aspect of a very effective mise en scène is Katie’s hair, as hair is often a potent signifier for female characters. At college her hair is in tight, little curls. By the time of the New York sequences it is more or less straightened…’I have it ironed’. It stays like this all through her relationship with Hubbel. Then in the final meeting the hair has reverted to the tight, little curls!


Since re-seeing the film the issue of  ‘the male gaze’ (Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey in Screen, 1975) has come up in an Adult Education class. I never found this particular concept convincing and I was always puzzled that feminists should be influenced by the essentialist and idealist theories of Jacques Lacan. And this film is a mainstream narrative offering that does not comply with the claims of Mulvey and others.

The Way We Were is constructed around the ‘female gaze’ of Katie. The film opens in wartime New York with Katie working as a producer’s assistant in radio. Later, at a night-club, she encounters a stupefied Hubbell, [a combination of fatigue and alcohol}. We then are presented with a flashback from Katie’s point-of-view of ‘the way they were’ in the 1937 college days. The early stages of the flashback celebrate the physical beauty of Hubbell for Katie, mainly in athletic pursuits. The key scene in classroom where the lecturer reads Hubbell’s short story is mainly from Katie’s point-of-view. The story is titled ‘The All American Smile’ and the opening line runs – “In a way he was like the country he live in, everything came too easily to him”.

The flashback leads us back to the then present and the wartime relationship that develops between Kati and Hubbell.  It seemed to me that Katie’s point-of-views still predominates though we are offered more frequent ones from Hubbell. Certainly the first scene of sexual intimacy between the pair is seen as Katie experiences it.

As I suggested above when we come to the Hollywood sequences more of Hubbell’s side is presented. For example we see scenes between Hubbell and his friend J.J. [Bradford Dillman], something that did not occur in the flashback or in the New York sequences. And Hubbell’s interventions regarding the actions in support of the Hollywood Ten are given parity with those of Katie. Yet even at the end it is Katie we follow into the New York Street and then we encounter Hubbell, as she does.

Katie is clearly the central focus of the narrative and her point-of-view if the privileged point-of-view. And as an audience we enjoy the pleasures, along with her, of gazing on Hubbell [Redford] body. What strikes me about the way that the film shifts towards Hubbell’s position is that this is not because he is masculine, but [as with his short story]] he seems to embody the values of the primary audience’s country, the USA. Hubbell embodies the values of the dominant forces in US culture. In particular, he expresses a strong individualism, which is central to the ‘American way’.



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