The Way We Were
"Can it be it was all
so simple then
time rewritten every line.
If we had a chance to
do it all again
Would we, could we?
too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget."
– From the theme song of "The Way We Were"
It's not that it wasn't that way. But that's not
the way it was, either. It's the way "The Way We Were"
keeps slipping slightly out of focus that bothers
me. It's that great glossy Hollywood valentine wrapped
snugly around Barbra Streisand's Communist-red heart,
matching her red earrings, red lips, red-painted
kitchen and Mandarin-length red fingernails that
somebody out there would have us believe were busy
at the mimeograph machine grinding out leaflets to
save Loyalist Spain.
Look, except that I was a few years too young to
save Loyalist Spain, I could be Katie Morosky, more
heart than head, falling in love with handsome unsuitable
goyim; knowing from knishes about dialectical materialism,
but I cared. At the end of the movie, Katie still
cares, enough to man, or ms., the ban-the-bomb barricades.
Once blacklisted Arthur Laurents, who wrote the embarrassingly Ladies Home Journal-ish novel and screenplay, still
cares. Given the changes wrought by time and tides,
I still care.
Given the changes wrought by time and tides, Hollywood
still cares — for gross profits, and we'll get to
the grossness in due course. Now it's kosher to have
a Communist New York Jewish heroine who marries her
goyishe, uncommitted-but-sensitive boyfriend, in
a slight case of confusion of identities. She thinks
he is Hemingway or at least F. Scott Fitzgerald,
and she keeps pushing him to be great, but he just
wants to be comfortable. They go to Hollywood where
darkness sets in at high noon over Malibu when the
House Un-American Activities comes to town.
After all, what could be so dangerous now to mention
the unmentionable in a movie? People are tired of
blacks, old Indians, new Indians, homosexuals, hippies,
dope, bad cops and good robbers. What's left? Who
knows? Our President (Richard Nixon) used to come
to Hollywood with HUAC to hunt for subversives sneakily
whistling "The Internationale" into movies
for the masses. He now goes to Mecca himself. He might
even go to jail, God and the slow grinding wheels
of justice willing, just like HUAC Chairman J. Parnell
Thomas did, and the "Hollywood Ten."
But there I go talking politics again. A fellow
in the office — he's over 30, digs good movies and
comes from Tucson, which probably never developed
a Young Communist cell — says it's not a political
movie. It's a romance: two people aren't suited to
each other; it happens all the time. It's not a bad
movie. It doesn't insult your intelligence. Identify,
don't identify. Relax. Enjoy. Like we used to do
when Mr. Smith went to Washington. Coast-to-coast,
people are thronging to see it. In New York, an old
friend, probably one of the last of the true believers
and a lady who knows Hollywood, just loves it. "It's
got some good lines," she says. In San Francisco,
a college friend giggled, a little embarrassed, and
said she loved it. She said the Word as enunciated
in the People's World by one of the Hollywood Ten
is that "TWWW" is awful. A canard. Oh,
hell, I think, can't they ever laugh?
Katie's man, Hubbell Gardiner, loves her for caring,
but he keeps saying a little desperately that he
wishes she'd laugh sometimes too. Does she have to
bawl out his ritzy friends on the day FDR dies because
they're making jokes about the Yaltese (sic) Falcon
and Eleanor? Yes, she does. She can't keep quiet,
but she keeps trying to revamp herself in the image
of the company that Hubbell keeps. She straightens
her frizzy hair. "Why can't you say ass instead
of behind?" Hubbell complains. All right, already,
she'll stop being a Puritan: "I'll take courses
in swearing, laughing and Protestant cooking." Katie,
'zvedt dir gornisht helfn' — no way, man! The marriage
is doomed. (You want a critique? Read The New Yorker.
Pauline Kael enjoyed it — despite everything.)
OK, points for Streisand's acting and Robert Redford's
beauty, and no question, they're realer than Ali
McGraw and whatshisname in "Love Story", but not really
real. And love story aside, the movie is a mish-mosh.
Attempts at period authenticity are marred by future
schlock: Katie making a speech for Spain at an upstate
N.Y. college, leads the students in a peace pledge. "You're
really beautiful," she says mistily. (In 1937?)
The jocks put a sign up behind her: "Any peace
but Katie's piece."
Odd touches make no sense unless you know the history
that doesn't get taught in civics. Right at the start,
even before the titles and credits, there's a quick
shot of a movie marquee with Larry Parks starring
in one of his Al Jolson movies. Why Larry Parks?
Even a nice lady in the office of Director Sydney
Pollock wasn't too sure just who Larry Parks was. "He
suffered a lot, didn't he?" she asked. Yes,
he suffered and nobody but Larry Parks will ever
know how much. He told the House Un-American Activities
Committee he was a member of the Communist Party
when he was young and wanted to fight for the underdog
and would they please not make him crawl through
the mud and name names they already had. But he crawled,
named names and other people went to jail. This movie
doesn't like informers, but it certainly is murky
about the whole business.
Katie goes irresistably off to Washington to challenge
HUAC on the First Amendment while Hubbell who wishes
she'd stay home wonders if anybody knows what the
First says. People brandish signs: "Save the
Hollywood Ten" but just what in the hell is
going on never becomes clear. Maybe that's why you
can't find a copy of Laurents' novel in any of the
San Francisco libraries. If somebody is trying to
figure out the way they were in Hollywood then, they'd
do better with Hollywood Ten-er Alvah Bessie's "Inquisition
in Eden", which surprisingly enough has some very
funny stuff in it.
About those touches of authenticity: Katie who used
to have photos of Paul Robeson, Lenin and Stalin,
decorating her New York apartment, moves to Malibu
with her books. I thought I caught a glimpse of Bessie's
book on Spain, "Men in Battle"*, going up on the shelves;
after all, what could be more authentic for an old
Loyalist lady? Doggedly trying to track down all
relevancies and irrelevancies leading away from the
typewriter, I called Producer Ray Stark's office.
When a woman at the other end recovered from the
shock of having some stranger invade Stark's own
private line, I asked if that was indeed Mr. Bessie's
book or were my poor old contact lenses deceiving
me. She was appalled, indignant and angry. "We
would never get involved politically like that," she
declared. "We wouldn't proselytize by putting
up books by well-known Communist authors."
I kid you not. Hello, Hollywood; goodbye.
*Years later, Laurents told me it was
indeed his copy of "Men in Battle" on the shelf.
Ramparts Magazine 1973