The Heroine’s Journey in “The Way We Were”

The Way We Were, produced by Ray Stark and directed by Sydney Pollack from Arthur Laurents’ adaptation of his novel, is a traumatized, painful movie about a woman born with an unwavering sense of justice who ultimately frees herself from a harrowing love affair/marriage with a man who should be her natural enemy, a Fitzgerald-like hero, played with icy, dangerous charm by Robert Redford. The movie has the look of a big Hollywood romantic film but because director Pollack looks corruption in the face and exposes it for what it feels like, The Way We Were emerges as one of the least sentimental love stories ever filmed. 

Since the Streisand-Redford marriage is given a death blow by his cooperation with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the movie brings up the memory of blacklisting in Hollywood, that ugly, slimy slice of history which still lingers on in broken friendships and in ruined lives and careers. 

Streisand plays a political radical who never loses her humanity, even if she often loses her cool at the wrong time, in the wrong place. When she first meets Redford in college in the Thirties, he’s the king of the campus, a budding Watergate type who also happens to be a talented writer. She is a Communist firebrand who makes speeches urging the defense of Spain from fascist takeover. 

As much as she loathes his way of life, she respects his talent and is drawn to the way he looks. When they accidentally meet again after World War II, they fall erotically in love although it’s a tragic/foolish mistake. 

He is never particularly kind to her while she’s never at ease in his Waspish, upperclass world where pretty, apparently nice but ultimately bloodless people like Bradford Dillman and wife Lois Chiles make boring, stupid jokes about Eleanor Roosevelt just after the death of her husband. As much as she loves him, she can’t save him from drowning in the lie of his own pleasant facade since he’s a weak man who always takes the easy way out. 

Because Streisand is obviously the smartest and most interesting character in the movie, it’s devastating to see her follow him to Los Angeles to enact the Hollywood wife, one of that legion of women trapped in contempt for the way their once talented husbands collapse into uninteresting hacks. She finally walks out on him after she learns of his cooperation as a friendly witness. 

Years later, they accidentally meet in front of the Plaza in New York where she’s passing out Ban-the-Bomb leaflets, a radical to the end, probably happy; he has become gracefully empty, a once important novelist who writes television. 

Laurents’ screenplay has a shocking sense of character truth, and The Way We Were says things that no one else has dared to say in a major Hollywood movie. The pain of these revelations sometimes confuses the proceedings but the movie’s disjointed, spastic rhythm seems appropriate to the way Pollack exposes the glamour and ease of everyday corruption.  Pollack swings the camera over the faces of the cast as if they were elegant vultures who can’t destroy Streisand’s natural goodness no matter how hard they try.

And there is that beautiful title song sung by Streisand in the background.