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The Way We Were

"Can it be it was all so simple then
Or has time rewritten every line.
If we had a chance to do it all again
Tell me,
Would we, could we?
What's 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

 

 

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