I was part of a Facebook discussion this morning about Sydney Pollack‘s The Way We Were (’73), a romantic tragedy set in New York and Hollywood of the ’40s and ’50s. I’ve never been a huge fan, largely due to the oddly obstinate nature of Barbra Streisand‘s Katie Morosky vs. the vagueness and lack of substance inside Robert Redford‘s Hubbell Gardiner character. She’s too hardball and he’s too half-hearted. Doomed from the start.
The discussion, however, launched three topics or questions.
Topic #1: Pauline Kael once described Pollack’s film as “a fluke — a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes that comes snugly into port.” What she actually meant, I said, was that it’s “a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes that is saved by the Hubbell-reconnects-with-Katie scene outside the Plaza hotel at the very end.” Which led me to wonder which other films are admired in this particular way — okay or mildly effective and sometimes frustrating in an in-and-out way, but they save themselves at the last minute with a killer ending. Please submit candidates.
Topic #2: According to commenter Andrew Williams, Kael also wrote that Redford is the object of desire in this movie, relatively passive, and Streisand is the active one. This relatively unassertive, quietly handsome quality, Kael went on, is why Redford didn’t work in The Great Gatsby because nobody bought him as the pursuer rather than the desired object. What actors in today’s realm (if any) qualify in this regard — devastatingly handsome and effortlessly sexy but unconvincing in a role requiring any degree of romantic aggression?
Topic #3: “Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner is very appealing, very magnetic,” I wrote, “but many have overlooked one very troubling aspect of his character. Not so much his lack of depth and conviction, or his brief affair with Lois Chiles or his bizarre decision to leave Streisand’s Katie just after she gives birth to their daughter (who DOES THAT?). I’m referring, rather, to Redford’s inexplicable, years-long friendship with Bradford Dillman’s character, J.J. — one of the most repulsively glib and shallow lightweights ever created in the history of American cinema.
“I ran into my share of these entitled guys in my suburban middle-class youth in New Jersey (Union County) and Connecticut (Fairfield County). Dillman’s fraternity buddy character is the proverbial country-club dickhead — a born Republican who likes his martinis at sundown and wears checked pants and plays a helluva game of golf.
“What a repulsive, heartless, value-less, quarter-of-an-inch-deep scumbag! And out of all the life forms crawling and slithering around on the planet earth in the 1940s and ‘50s, Hubbell Gardiner chose this TRULY REPELLENT HUMANOID as his best bruh, his pally, his affable drinking buddy. For the J.J. factor alone, Gardiner is a deeply flawed fellow in the eyes of God, Jesus, Krishna, Siddhartha, Buddha and the rest of the heavenly choir.”