The Way We Were is a thoughtful and believable love story for adults set in part against the background of the HUAC (House Un-American Committee) hearings.
In fact, it was one of the first major film productions to tackle the alleged communist propaganda in the motion picture industry, which had profound repercussions for the Hollywood community in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The committee’s pursuit of some of the most creative people in the film industry became known as ‘the McCarthy witch hunt’ and directly resulted in “The Hollywood Ten” being jailed, blacklisted and boycotted by the movie studios.
Screenwriter Arthur Laurents based his story upon his life-long romance with the bisexual Hollywood actor Farley Granger, whilst his female protagonist was drawn from one of Laurent’s fiery radical college classmates and her fervour for political causes. He managed to interest film producer Ray Stark in the project, who in turn hired Sydney Pollack to direct.
Barbra Streisand signed on for the part of Katie Morosky with Ryan O’Neal pencilled in for her lover, Hubbell Gardiner. But Pollack wanted his best friend Robert Redford for the role of Hubbell. The actor had worked closely with Pollack ever since they acted together in the movie War Hunt (1962). Their collaboration as director and star had first occurred with This Property Is Condemned (1966) and then Jeremiah Johnson (1972). However, Redford continually rejected the part, stating, “It’s a nothing role”. For months Pollack persevered and following several revisions of the script and a great deal of persuasion, Redford, still somewhat reluctantly, agreed to take on the role.
The Way We Were centres on Katie Morosky, a Jewish radical student and vocal member of the Young Communist League. Whilst at college during the late 1930s, she meets handsome all-round White-Anglo Saxon-Protestant athletic hero Hubbell Gardiner. He is of an upper-class background and has no commitment to anything other than himself, as reflected in his autobiographical confession that’s read out in class and serves to demonstrate his brilliance as a writer.
The pair accidentally meet again during WWII in Manhattan, where eventually Hubbell becomes mesmerised by Katie’s devotion to her liberal causes, although he has absolutely no interest in any of them. They fall in love and get married despite the political differences between them, and when Hubbell becomes a successful screenwriter, they move to California. Katie now has to suppress her convictions and tries to live the Hollywood life until the “Red Scare” of the post WWII era disrupts the film community.
Despite Hubbell’s insistence against it, the now pregnant Katie goes to Washington to support the “ten unfriendly witnesses”. Hubbell is still politically neutral and his wife’s actions puts his film writing career in jeopardy, which puts a tremendous strain on the Gardiner marriage. When Katie returns, their partnership slowly and painfully disintegrates.
The title song was composed by Marvin Hamlisch – Streisand immediately loved it but suggested changing the first line from “Daydreams light the corners of my mind” to “ Memories light the corners of my mind”. This slight tweak now perfectly summed up the relationship between Hubbell and Katie as the main theme of the story.
When released in 1973, The Way We Were was an instantaneous and overwhelming success for Columbia Pictures, receiving six Academy Award nominations including one for Streisand as Best Actress – and, just as Pollack had anticipated, the production made Redford a Hollywood superstar. The film’s final scene has been voted to be amongst the most emotional and heart-breaking ever committed to celluloid. Years later, Katie and Hubbell run into each other on a New York street. Both have remarried yet when Katie brushes Hubbell’s hair off his forehead – an image that punctuates the film – they are obviously still very much in love with each other. They painfully talk about their current lives, realising they could never have been happy together. As Katie leaves Hubbell to continue handing out “Ban the Bomb” leaflets, he smiles and calls after her, “You never give up, do you?”