“The Way They Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen” by Robert Hofler; Citadel (304 pages, $28)
It was a movie nobody liked making.
The producer worried it cost too much, yet the director felt he was spending too little. The leading man called the script “a piece of junk,” and the leading lady complained her best scenes were cut.
Even the screenwriter pronounced it a disaster. Yet the millions who saw “The Way We Were” disagreed.
Now, 50 years later — the official anniversary is in October — it’s an acknowledged classic romance film. How the movie was made, as Robert Hofler’s “The Way They Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen” details the struggle.
Its success shocked everybody.
The story starts with playwright and director Arthur Laurents, who met a radical Jewish coed at Cornell in the ‘30s. Later, in the ‘40s, he had an affair with actor Farley Granger and then with a blond sales clerk, Tom Hatcher, who became Laurents’ lifelong partner.
Over the years, those stories comingled in Laurents’ mind.
In 1970, Laurents began writing what would become “The Way We Were.” On the surface, it was a Hollywood romance about two people split by politics. Underneath, though, it was really about Laurents, a Flatbush boy born Arthur Levine, who kept falling for gorgeous gentiles.
Laurents identified with the heroine, Katie. He decided Barbra Streisand was the only one who could play her.
“I want this to be my next movie,” she informed producer Ray Stark.
Stark read the story on a plane. When he landed, he called Laurents and bought it.
Stark had a four-picture deal with Streisand, whom he first put in the stage version of “Funny Girl.” As Fanny Brice’s son-in-law, Stark controlled casting. Streisand then starred in the film adaptation for him and in “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
Both movies were hits, and Stark was convinced this would be the third. He brought on director Sydney Pollack, who loved that much of the story occurred during Hollywood’s communist witch hunt.
“This is dynamite,” he told Laurents. “This will be the first-ever blacklist movie.”
But Pollack said he would only do the film if his friend Robert Redford costarred.
“Barbra had never really worked with a really strong leading man,” Pollack argued. “She has a tendency to take over a picture, just by the size of her talent … Redford makes you come to him as a performer. He holds his ground.”
The only problem was, Redford hated the part, calling hero Hubbell Gardiner “a Ken doll.” And he wasn’t that crazy about Streisand.
“Her reputation is as a very controlling person,’ he said. “She will direct herself. It’ll never work.”
He had another worry, too.
“She’s not going to sing, is she?” Redford asked. “I don’t want her to sing in the middle of the movie.”
Pollack, who had already directed Redford in “This Property is Condemned” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” spent months assuaging the actor’s doubts.
The part would be fleshed out, he promised. Streisand would be managed. And this was not a musical. This was a serious movie about right-wing paranoia and political persecution. It was important.
Finally, Redford agreed to do it.
It was a casting coup, a first-time teaming of two of the era’s biggest box-office stars. But it also brought new problems. Making Redford’s part bigger resulted in Streisand’s part becoming smaller.
Also, signing a star the size of Redford — his agent negotiated $1.2 million, $200,000 more than Streisand — meant the budget had to increase. That meant the romantic element had to grow, too.
A big movie about the McCarthy era was risky. However, a film about whether the nice Jewish woman and the gorgeous blond man will connect was a safer bet.
And so the political themes were trimmed (and with those cuts went an angry Laurents, who, as the writer, couldn’t protect his screenplay from other people’s rewrites). As Redford’s part was pumped up, so was his ego. A line of dialogue where his character apologizes for being a bad lover was deleted.
Additional cuts came after filming. Still, the shoot went well.
Of course, Pollack and Stark continued to fight over the budget. Both unsure of herself and endlessly controlling, Streisand micromanaged everything. Redford coped by remaining stubbornly cavalier, often strolling onto set at the last minute.
But onscreen, the chemistry between the stars was obvious. And, later, Laurents suggested why.
“She was simply mesmerized by him,” he said. “She found him so beautiful. She was infatuated with Robert Redford, who handled it well.”
Redford — happily married to his first wife at the time, and raising four kids — was particularly careful. When he met Streisand before the shoot for a get-to-know-you dinner at her home, he brought Pollack for protection.
He was even more careful when it came time to shoot the big love scene. Before he climbed into bed with Streisand, he put on two jockstraps.
As besotted as she was with her costar, Streisand soon felt differently about the movie. After the picture was finished, Stark ordered the film be kept to a tight two hours. First on the cutting-room floor was anything that slowed the pace, which meant even more political material was excised.
So were two of Streisand’s best scenes — which could have been two of the biggest scenes in the movie.
In the first sequence, Katie is driving through 1940s Los Angeles when she sees a campus radical giving a speech — just as she once had a decade before. In the second, she convinces Hubbell they have to split up — because she had been named as a communist, and if they stay married, it’ll ruin his burgeoning career as a screenwriter.
Streisand fought hard to keep both scenes. The first, she argued, showed what Katie lost by going to Hollywood. The second showed what Katie was willing to sacrifice to protect her beloved husband.
“With that (second) cut, you’ve lost the reason why Katie makes the selfless decision to let Hubbell go, which means you’ve also lost the climax of the story and the essence of her character,” Streisand argued later. “And dramatically, you’ve lost the moment when the politics and the love story come together.”
But Pollack stood firm. The scenes remained cut.
In the end, the movie wasn’t what those making it had hoped it would be. Pollack felt he had to compromise a lot. Laurents complained this wasn’t the story he wanted to tell. Streisand wondered if those final edits might have cost her an Oscar.
Redford? He drove himself to the Times Square premiere – and didn’t stop. “I just drove right past it, and kept going and it felt so great,” he said. It was just another job, and it was over.
But producer Stark — and the audience — got exactly what they wanted: A Hollywood hit, with movie stars making out, Streisand singing (albeit only over the credits), and a bittersweet ending guaranteed to make everyone reach for the Kleenex.
It may be hard to imagine a time when movie audiences flocked to a period piece boasting nothing but two stars and a couple of kisses. It was a grown-up story with no superheroes.
But back then, that was the way we were.