Monday, October 16, 2023

This Day in Film History (‘The Way We Were’ Scores After Off-Screen Script Struggles)

Oct. 16, 1973— The Way We Were, a bittersweet, through-the-years drama starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, premiered at last in New York City, after undergoing multiple rewrites and backstage bickering that, miracle of miracles, resulted in a box-office hit and placement among the American Film Institute’s list of the top romantic movies.

The film also firmly established Redford—whose career had been inexorably building momentum for a decade—as the male romantic idol of his generation—ironically, for a role that, in its initial incarnation, he saw as such a “Ken doll” that he had rejected it.

More than a few fans of this classic might be surprised to learn that its heterosexual couple were a projection of the relationship between screenwriter Arthur Laurents and his lover of the late Forties and early Fifties, actor Farley Granger.

In both cases, a Jewish screenwriter with outspoken leftist sympathies (Laurents in real life, Streisand as the film’s Katie Morosky) falls in love with a WASP of startling good looks (Granger, and Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner), only to see the relationship founder. 

Streisand, committed to the project from the start, recognized that the film needed a male co-star of unusual magnetism. She thought she saw it in Redford, “an intellectual cowboy…a charismatic star who is also one of the finest actors of his generation.”

“What intrigued me most about Bob was his complexity,” Streisand recalls in her upcoming memoir, My Name Is Barbra (excerpted in the November issue of Vanity Fair). “You never quite know what he’s thinking, and that makes him fascinating to watch onscreen. Like the greatest movie stars, Bob understands the power of restraint. You’re never going to get it all…and that’s the mystery…that’s what makes you want to keep looking at him.”

To Streisand’s disappointment, Redford initially rejected the role as being little more than a love object. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer, beginning a process where as many as 10 screenwriters were enlisted (most crucially, Alvin Sargent, David Rayfiel, and even Paddy Chayefsky and Francis Ford Coppola) to make Katie more appealing and, more important, Hubbell a figure of substance and complexity.

With every rewrite, Laurents saw less of his original, and it infuriated him, particularly on what he saw as the softened subplot involving the Hollywood blacklist. Streisand and, to a lesser extent, Redford also objected to the de-emphasis on politics.

But director Sydney Pollack, already under enormous pressure from balancing the contrasting acting styles of his stars (Streisand loved constant rehearsals and additional takes; Redford felt he grew more stale the longer it lasted), battling with producer Ray Stark, and making sense of all the different scripts, was also getting static from Columbia Pictures, which desperately needed a hit to stave off bankruptcy.  

It all come to a head after a disastrous Friday night preview. Frustrated by his inability to integrate the passion and the politics, Pollack decided to cut five scenes—all with political overtones.

Nearly a decade later, Pollack would engage in another clash about the meaning of a movie with a significant figure: Dustin Hoffman, who saw Tootsie as being about what an actor would go through for his craft while the director conceived it as how a male could become a better man.

Both movies became enormous hits, but The Way We Were left a far more bitter residue. The outspoken Laurents remained bitter to the end of his life about the violence Pollack did to his script. For his part, the director felt that at the end of the day, the movie was a love story.

For all the battle over the movie’s words, a crucial contributor to its eventual success—in a way that audiences may not fully appreciate—is its theme music. I’m not talking simply about the fact that the song, with its nostalgia-tinged lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, won an Oscar for Best Original Song as well as the Grammy for Song of the Year.

No, I’m also referring to how it opened up audience tear ducts during the film’s ending. Composer Marvin Hamlisch, thinking the audience would grow tired of his theme after two hours, had used different music for the goodbye scene between Katie and Hubbell. At first, he couldn’t understand why audiences didn’t react the way he wanted.

When he realized the problem—they needed to hear that theme music again!—Columbia Pictures wouldn’t come up with the $15,000 cost of redoing the scene. So Hamlisch took it out of his own paycheck.

Did the studio suits ever recompense him? You got me. Maybe they thought that Oscar and Grammy were all the rewards he needed. In any case, that soaring ballad got a lot of people’s minds off a script that had given countless people agita.

(See Sarah Jae Leiber's interesting discussion on the Jewish Women's Archive about how The Way We Were concludes that "civility alone cannot sustain loving relationships where core principles are misaligned.")

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