Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Grate Cinema: The Way We Were (1973)
Gene Siskel didn't drive. After the preview of The Way We Were (it sneaked along with the Robby Benson teen romance Jeremy), he stood in front of the Golf Mill Theatre in Niles, Illinois looking for a cab.This was a few years before At the Movies transformed him into one of America's most recognizable, if not top, movie critics.
There weren't many hacks cruising Milwaukee Ave. at 10:30 on a Friday night, so Gene accepted my offer of a lift home, and was good enough to buy a friend and I a burger at Lum's in Old Town. We all agreed that Jeremy was the better of the two pictures and I'd probably still feel that way today if presented with the same double-bill.
Let's begin with a couple of pet annoyances. When a character removes a pot from a hot stove and transfers a spoonful of its contents to another character's mouth (who in turn winces from the scalding contents), they should never handle and return said pot to their lap, lest they covet third degree thighs.
Nothing undermines painstaking period detail quicker than an incongruous haircut. Though the film takes place during and after World War II, Robert Redford's thatched, “summer boy” headdress smacks of Santa Monica Pier c.1973. There is a running hair motif that finds Streisand lightly adjusting the fallen locks of her goyisha-kup lover doll's feathered-do.
The only man allowed to have hair hanging over his forehead in the 1940s was Hitler. Set aside the mousse and blow dryers when you're making a period piece! While of the subject of anachronisms, check out Patrick O'Neal's swingin' ‘70’s wardrobe. He looks like Peter Lawford subbing for Dickie Dawson on The Match Game '73.
Streisand plays an outwardly tough dame who vacillates between fierce independence and hopeless need. By day she's a college student championing Leftist causes. (Her bedroom is painted red and there's a huge portrait of Lenin adorning her living room wall, yet she cries when FDR dies.)
Away from the rallies she's a virginal meeskite who becomes a lap dog the second Hubbell (Redford) is around. Spotting him in a bar she can't wait to take him back to her place and hop Hubbell's telescope. She's a dishrag waiting for some buff surfer to come along and wipe his hands all over her.
The film had everything going for it -- interesting story, precise period detail, a big budget and even bigger stars --yet it lacks a director who has a feel for the time and place. The studio's original choice, reigning hot shot Peter Bogdanovich, who had recently turned down both The Godfather and The Exorcist, also took a pass on this one.
Too bad. His flair and feel for the era would have added layers of insight and sophistication to the otherwise over-glossed star vehicle. Years later Bogdanovich publicly regretted his decision after three legendary flops in a row sent him forever reeling to the margins of film history. Pollack, in turn, went on to produce more plastic blockbusters to great acclaim.
Harry Stradling Jr’s high-key cinematography is beautifully executed, but is it the right look for this story? Study the inordinate amount of extra light it takes to make Redford and Streisand look even more beautiful.
According to Arthur Laurent's original script, their characters are not attractive and their lives none-too pretty. Whether it was a studio decision, a star contract clause, or the brainchild of director and DP, whatever it was, it offsets the rest of the picture causing it to frequently tailspin.
It's a People Magazine cover shoot masquerading as a movie. The leads move from scene to scene with introductions and camera set-ups identical to the ones that came before. Was Pollock contractually obligated to give each star an equal amount of close-ups? It sure seems that way. Pollock's career was paved with lumpy scripts.
When the material was in front of him he could execute it with great aplomb (They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Absence of Malice). He was a craftsman incapable of transcending the failings of a large number of the properties assigned him. Bogdanovich, an experienced writer and film historian, would have tweaked the dialog, moved the camera back, and cut the hair.
Why are Streisand and Redford’s characters so bitter and disillusioned? They're young, they're beautiful, and both have good studio jobs, yet at age 33 all this maudlin pair do in their spare time is pine away for the past.
In all fairness, the film was heavily tampered with after initial previews proved audiences of the day preferred romantic interludes over unpleasant talk of the Hollywood Ten. Note that Murray Hamilton's character appears and quickly vanishes never to be heard from again. One gets the idea that the stars are frequently reacting to a subplot that isn't there.
In any case, the film was destined to be a box office smash and Marvin Hamlisch's irksome theme music continues to haunt elevators, shopping malls, and wedding receptions to this day.
This column is a revised version of a November 22, 2008 review from the now defunct Emulsion Compulsion blog.
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