The Ways We Were: On Sydney Pollack’s “The Way We Were” at 50

By Harry WaksbergApril 21, 2023

The Ways We Were: On Sydney Pollack’s “The Way We Were” at 50
IT’S UNQUESTIONABLY exciting when the production of a movie has enough drama to fill its own movie—or at least a miniseries. And there’s little better than telling a story where the main characters are already movie stars. Millions of dollars at stake, sexy people behaving badly, and, in some cases, mild criminality resulting in family-friendly wide releases? If only all classic movies had these kinds of engaging stories behind them, the sort of stories that make you look back on the movie in amazement that it was ever produced at all.

The Way We Were is not one of those movies.

It is, however, a justifiable classic: a heartbreaking doomed love story with challenging political themes and two movie stars working in their exact wheelhouses. This year has brought with it two new books about its production to coincide with the movie’s 50th anniversary—Tom Santopietro’s The Way We Were: The Making of a Romantic Classic and Robert Hofler’s The Way They Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen. Perhaps unfortunately, the production of The Way We Were had only small doses of the drama that fans crave and was a fairly straightforward production with the kinds of hiccups any big movie with big stars might experience. As a result, one of these books desperately clutches to any disagreement or challenge as evidence of a deeply troubled production; the other wisely tells the story of the movie’s production with such involved, gossipy detail that the reader hardly cares if the production was a disaster (it wasn’t). Together, these accounts prove that it can be enough to tell a story well and focus on its most interesting figures.

From an original script by theater maven Arthur Laurents, Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were tells the story of two people who meet in college in 1937. Katie (Barbra Streisand) is a left-wing activist and Hubbell (Robert Redford) is a golden boy athlete and preternaturally gifted writer; they do not get along. Reconnecting close to the end of World War II, they begin to fall for one another, and their romance carries them into Los Angeles and the Hollywood blacklist, where her strident politics and his desire not to make waves trouble their relationship until it reaches a breaking point.

If you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it recently, I really do recommend it.

Producer Ray Stark pushed for casting Streisand in the lead as Katie; Pollack had worked with Robert Redford previously and wanted him. Redford wouldn’t commit to doing it, partly because he felt the character Hubbell was a supporting player to Katie and partly because he was the kind of movie star who didn’t commit to doing things easily. Eventually, Pollack convinced Redford there would be enough rewrites to beef up his character, and Redford agreed. Somehow, the numerous rewrites Redford insisted on never impinged on his image as a chill, breezy movie star. Thanks to a sexist double standard, the same was not true for Streisand.

Redford and Streisand didn’t fight much, but they had very different styles of working. Streisand was detail-obsessed and adamant about rehearsing. She called Pollack every night after shooting to go over the next day, something Hofler quotes Pollack calling “not a problem […] just time-consuming,” which adequately describes most of the production’s dramas. Redford, conversely, liked to be thought of as spontaneous, seemingly disinterested in the nuts and bolts of making the movie beyond his own performance: at one point, Streisand, Pollack, and Bernie Pollack (costumer and brother to Sydney) had a lengthy conversation about a military uniform Redford would be wearing, which Redford cut short with, “Guys, it’s fine. A uniform’s a uniform.”

Streisand and Redford’s different working styles weren’t irreconcilable, and such tensions are  not a rarity in Hollywood (let’s call it the Four Christmases problem). Screenwriter Laurents felt strongly that the movie should focus on Katie and the story of the blacklist, but by the time the movie was edited and released, it was much more of a two-hander and a love story. He was angry, but gladly took the screen credit and payment. The first few cuts of the movie were longer and not as good as the version eventually released in theaters. These are, in essence, the “epic battles and bruised egos'' to which Hofler’s title refers.

In the case of Santopietro’s The Way We Were, the actual lack of real-life drama appears to be itself a crisis. The book is peppered with end-of-chapter teasers like, “The battles were just beginning,” or “Barbra Streisand […] was proving to be the least of his problems.” This sort of breathless reporting only underlines how relatively undramatic the whole production seemed to be. Santopietro dutifully reports every available detail about the making of the movie, including dedicated sections about the production designer, set decorator, cinematographer, costume designer, and editors—all important jobs, but almost none of which makes for interesting reading outside a reference text. He relies too heavily on interviews with erstwhile actor, now right-wing social media influencer, James Woods, who had a relatively small role in the movie but apparently has a great deal to say about its entire production.

At around the book’s halfway point, having taken us from the story idea through to the movie’s Oscar wins and losses, Santopietro begins to retell the story, providing something like a special-features commentary on the movie in running order. He offers, for example:

It is clear that Katie is not just a striver but also an underdog and perpetual outsider, which is why Pollack’s silent nighttime shot of Streisand walking by a sorority house is so oddly affecting; as rich sorority girls dance and laugh it up, Katie, briefcase in hand, walks by outside, glancing up wistfully but knowing she’ll never be invited to join.

While certainly a fair assessment of the character and the scene, it’s not clear what interest the reader has in Santopietro’s musings. The Way We Were is detailed and thorough, but its frequent promises of excitement are never borne out, and at some point, James Woods threatens to hijack the account altogether.

Hofler’s title, The Way They Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen, is somewhat ironic as Hofler doesn’t sweat nearly as much promising either epic battles or bruised egos. But Hofler does the superior job exploring the primary figures (e.g., Streisand, Redford, Pollack, Laurents), their motivations, and occasionally their personal lives, making The Way They Were a human story of an iconic film. Like most movies, The Way We Were involved artists collaborating imperfectly and making compromises they did not want to make. Unlike most movies, the end product is something really beautiful.

Only Hofler was granted interviews with Redford (I have no clue why Santopietro was not), but there is not a great deal in terms of Redford’s emotional arc working on this movie: Redford wanted to make sure that his character was a more fleshed-out person worthy of his star power; he liked Streisand but kept some distance both for the sake of their performances and to avoid Streisand developing a crush on him; he sometimes made people on set wait. One is reminded of the anecdote about the casting of The Graduate (1967), when Redford was considered for the lead but proved unable to put himself in the headspace of someone who didn’t get laid a lot. Here, too, he balks at a scripted scene that suggests that his drunken lovemaking would be anything less than stellar. A movie star like Robert Redford understands how to preserve his image.

In the case of EGOT winner and dog cloner Barbra Streisand, both books exhaustively stress how nearly everyone involved with the movie found Streisand unattractive. Twist: It’s her nose. Apparently, it’s too big. Hofler cites a few 1960s reviews of Streisand’s work emphasizing her apparent unsightliness, but archival research be damned: I speak for the millennial population when I say that Barbra Streisand was obviously gorgeous. How is it that her every screen appearance proves this—not just this movie but Funny Girl (1968), Yentl (1983), The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996), and others—but these experts need more proof every time? In search of drama on the set, did both men miss the striking drama of Streisand’s unforgettable, and unforgettably beautiful, face?

Toward the end of Hofler’s book, Laurents, a repeated irritant to Pollack and Stark throughout production, begins to take center stage. The original story and screenplay of The Way We Were (and a novelization Laurents wrote concurrently) are based largely on his own experience as a campus-radical-turned-Hollywood-radical. Katie’s character and her swooning affection for the handsome WASP Hubbell is meant to reflect Laurents himself and, Hofler suggests, his own swooning affection for a series of handsome WASPS, including Laurents’s longtime partner Tom Hatcher.

As Laurents would not have been able to get a movie made in the 1970s about his own gay love story, his character became Katie. Thus, as Redford (and Pollack, desperate to retain Redford) insisted on beefing up his character, Laurents fought frequently with the producer and director. Since Katie was a die-hard radical in occasional conflict with Hubbell, the latter had to have an even-handed point of view to make him something more than a roadblock to Katie’s political fulfillment. Laurents hated the idea that the “reasonable” character would be one who didn’t fight tooth and nail against the blacklist. When test audiences responded much more strongly to the love story than to the story of the Red Scare, scenes were cut and Laurents became a fierce critic of the movie. But once the movie was a critical and commercial hit, he softened somewhat.

Laurents’s opposition to the blacklist was genuine, of course, but his own personal connection to it was somewhat exaggerated. In his memoirs and in stories told in person (Laurents was a renowned raconteur), he fudged timelines a bit and beefed up his own heroism to appear, as Hofler writes, “in the august company of Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner, and eight other blacklisted writers who ended up being imprisoned. […] The sympathetic view of Laurents’s early career in Hollywood was that he ended up being ‘graylisted.’” Laurents’s apparent devotion to emotional truths came at the occasional expense of facts. By digging through the fact and fiction of Arthur Laurents’s life, Hofler arrives at a truth more interesting than bruised egos or epic battles. Laurents is rightly treated as a fascinating figure whose appetites for epic narrative and passionate romance could be consuming, even destructive.

Both books conclude with details about various attempts by the movie’s stars (mostly Streisand) to get going on a sequel to the 1973 movie. While Pollack never appeared particularly interested (less so since his death in 2008), Redford flirted with the idea sporadically over the years, seeming to eventually settle in on a stance opposed to sequels in general. Streisand rarely let up, and here, Santopietro’s book is more interesting, detailing nearly every time the original film’s director, writer, or stars floated the idea of a sequel on the record. There absolutely have been some fascinating angles, particularly setting a sequel in 1968 and seeing Hubbell radicalized. This idea, developed largely by Laurents, would have allowed him to reintroduce some of the political themes that he felt the original had ended up jettisoning. Laurents has died now too, and neither Redford nor Streisand seem to think a sequel could happen. We may never return to the characters Katie and Hubbell, though with the publication of these books, we finally have something more than misty, watercolor memories.


Harry Waksberg is a stay-at-home dad and Hebrew School teacher living in Westchester County, New York. He is between dogs.

LARB Contributor

Born and raised in New York, Harry Waksberg has written extensively about film and television for a variety of online sources. He moved to Los Angeles after college and worked in the TV industry in various low-level positions there, then moved back to New York. He is currently working on a book about the history of television piracy and is attempting to take a picture with every statue of a television character (most recently: Budapest’s statue of Columbo and Dog). 


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