Monday, May 4, 2009

The Way We Were (1973)

Directed by Sydney Pollack. What about us determines our favorite movies? My oldest friend still speaking to me, Ann-Marie, pointed out to me one day that my sister's Facebook list of favorite movies had an interesting theme to them. I looked myself and sure enough, "Pretty Woman," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Cinderella" all boast a revealing story. Women here were rescued from unhappy lives by decent men, as my sister was.

In turn, Ann-Marie fired off her top-five: "Barfly," "Out of Africa," "The Way We Were," "Juno" and "The Accidental Tourist." All movies about writers, a lot of strong women, a lot of dysfunctional relationships, and if you give "Juno" some slack, all fish-out-of-water dramas. I didn't point this out to her.

I'd never seen "The Way We Were" but I'm always compelled to see someone's favorite, especially if it's reputation is weak. "The Way We Were" is a romance, which as far as critics are concerned is a strike against movies whose title is not "Gone With the Wind." However, this film's reputation originates with disagreements during its production among its director (Sydney Pollack), writer (Arthur Laurents) and principle stars (Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford).

The movie is not the mess it is reputed to be, though shrapnel from the conflict is evident on-screen. One side wanted the story completely driven by the romance between its main characters. The other wanted to bring more to the forefront its secondary storyline: hearings going on at the time by the House Un-American Activities Committee questionning the political motivations of ten high-profile filmmakers.

As a result of this conflict, the third act is chopped up in a way that the story's resolution is a bit open-ended. Still, with more than 35 years of distance since the flick's release, I'd argue this is a virtue. Audiences don't get enough credit these days.

This is not to say the movie is great. Despite big budget the production design is weak; the film takes place in the '40s, yet it all actually looks like a bunch of people in the '70s are attending a '40s-themed costume party. Streisand at 31, and especially Redford at 37, look disturbing playing college students.

This feels very long while its stars are curiously short on charm. However there is one fantastic scene early on that takes place outside a bar. Redford's character convinces Streisand's character to have a beer with him. The writing is perfect, the actors own it, and for a few minutes, we forget they are supposed to be 21 and just enjoy the movie. It needs more of this.

By the way, my top five: "Pulp Fiction," "American Graffiti," "Love and Death," "Dazed and Confused," "A Boy Named Charlie Brown." The main characters here all question whether it's necessary to seek redemption -- or anything really -- before it's too late.

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