How “The Way We Were” Flipped the Script

Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973)

By Merchys Diaz


With so many popular films, TV series, and other content available on streaming services, I often find myself having to make lists of everything I want to watch. I have to admit that it’s sometimes overwhelming because I also get suggestions from family members and friends in hope that we can either praise or criticize the content together. These days, it’s been harder to keep up with what everyone is watching; my days are filled with courses and my nights split between cooking and my son’s first-grade homework. This week, however, I decided to watch Sydney Pollack’s 1973 film The Way We Were which had been sitting at the top of my list for quite some time.

I spent the holidays rewatching Sex and the City because the reboot was going to air soon. In the eighteenth episode of the second season, Carrie finds out that her ex, Mr. Big, is engaged to Natasha, a hot and simple twenty-something. (Twenty-something girls are famously the enemy of the women in the show, so this was tragic on many levels.) The main characters are sitting at the dinner table trying to soothe Carrie’s pain. She explains that Mr. Big and his new fiancé are having their wedding shower at The Plaza, which prompts Miranda to shout: “Hubbell!”

Miranda’s reference to Robert Redford’s character in The Way We Were put it all into perspective for the ladies because of the heartbreaking and memorable scene at the end of the film. Barbra Streisand’s character, Katie Morosky, and Robert Redford’s Hubbell Gardiner run into each other outside of The Plaza years after their separation. Hubbell has a new, younger girlfriend, and Katie is with her group of socialist community organizers. Their interaction gives the understanding that there are no hard feelings, that they both know they are better off apart, and that they are just as youthful as they were during their college days. The Way We Were is not your typical romance movie: It’s less sentimental and more complex than many of the love stories we often see depicted onscreen.

The film is set over a twenty-year timeline beginning during the 1930s when Katie and Hubbell are in college. In a time when the American movie had become overfocused on the male experience, Barbra Streisand’s character takes the lead as an intelligent, educated, passionately aggressive, and socially awkward communist activist. On the other hand, Redford’s character is an all-American athlete who although charming at times, is dispassionate as a result of how easy things fall into his lap. From the beginning, we see the distance between these two characters’ worlds. Hubbell’s popularity is evident in many scenes, while Katie is often shown walking alone from school to work. Still, from the long gazes to the obvious admiration for each other’s talents, we can’t help but hope for some kind of middle ground between the characters. When they meet again after college, their encounter is not exactly what Katie hoped for. An ambiguous sexual encounter left Katie feeling as non-existent as she felt back in their college days, yet it doesn’t prevent Katie from going after what she wants.

It’s the decisions of Streisand’s character throughout the film that makes the story shy away from traditional gender roles. Streisand’s character makes her own luck: She chases after opportunities instead of waiting for them to find her. We can see this gumption in full effect when she gets a call from Hubbell and offers him her apartment for the night. As she gets home with the intention of cooking him dinner, she sees Hubbell leaving her building and crossing the street. She calls out to him and when he reaches her, he tells her he wasn’t sure when she’d be home and doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Katie responds by shouting “No you can’t, you can’t, you can’t!”, and has an outburst about the food she was hoping to prepare for him. Her slightly aggressive enthusiasm leads Hubbell to respond by asking “what kind of pie?” and he returns to the apartment with her. In a time where women are expected to be gatekeepers when it comes to sexuality, it’s extraordinary to see Streisand’s character not afraid to express her desire.

Barbra Streisand’s approach to this scene is impeccable because you can feel Katie’s fear of losing Hubbell and the longing behind her voice for this man to be in her life. However, the scene undoubtedly foreshadows what their relationship will be like. Although he admires her, Hubbell looks at Katie as if she was this untamable creature with radical political views he’ll never be able to fully understand. Katie also has admiration for Hubbell and believes him to be a talented writer, but feels he lacks conviction. Thus, we can’t help but feel let down when she chooses to follow Hubbell to Los Angeles to live the “Hollywood wife” life. Although Katie makes the grand gesture of changing her ways to make him happy, our couple’s time in L.A. was like watching a ticking time bomb because as adults, it’s difficult to change one’s values and goals overnight. Katie’s feelings towards Hubbell’s friends have not ceased to strain their relationship, whereas Hubbell continues to feel overwhelmed by Katie’s outspoken attitude towards the politics of their time.

After getting blacklisted due to Hubbell’s cooperation with the House Un American Activities Committee, Katie decided to leave him and move back to New York City with their child, years passing before they see each other again outside of The Plaza. After watching how the relationship between Katie and Hubbell comes to an end, it’s hard not to feel the sadness of a love that couldn’t triumph against all odds. In most romance movies, people who are polar opposites are supposed to find a way to stay together, to sacrifice the things they’d thought they’d never sacrifice for the one person they feel is worth it. Yet, it’s nice, I suppose that in The Way We Were, we got to see two people who had really known one another—two people who shared an intimacy, lost it, and lived to smile about it in the end. After all, isn’t that what we wish all breakups looked like.

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