“Because of the sordid injustices to the blacklisted, and their suffering, it’s easy for new generations to get the idea that what they stood for politically was an intelligent and moral position. This movie doesn’t actually say that, but it’s the impression that the audience may come away with, because there appears to be nothing between Communist commitment and smug indifference. Hubbell makes valid points against Katie’s blind faith in Stalin’s policies, but since he represents polite cynicism and defeatism, her allegiance to those policies seems to be the only form of activism. (Implicitly, the movie accepts the line the Communist Party took—that it was the only group doing anything, so if you cared about peace or social injustice you had to join up.)” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1973
I had never seen Sydney Pollack’s The Way We Were (1973) until this week, and though I knew to expect a three-hankie romance starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, with Marvin Hamlisch’s piano tinkling away in the background, I certainly hadn’t known to expect a political movie, too. It starts in the 1930s, with student activist Katie (Streisand) handing out anti-Franco pamphlets and ends with her handing out ban-the-bomb pamphlets in the early ’50s, and in between there’s a lot of stuff about Roosevelt and McCarthy’s purges in Hollywood. Nor had I read Pauline Kael’s review before; I wanted to write about a film and a review that were both new to me, chosen almost blindly, on the chance that doing so would reveal something about Kael almost at random. Lo and behold, her reluctantly positive review of the film actually links up with her comments about Salt of the Earth written nearly twenty years earlier, because one of her problems with The Way We Were wasn’t so much its schmaltz as its simplistic endorsement of leftist politics.
Kael’s favorite part of the movie was Streisand, for whom she’d been advocating tirelessly since Funny Girl (1968). She wrote that Streisand had “miraculous audience empathy,” and that she was so likable that she “puts the audience on Katie’s side” almost without trying—but this was also one of the faults of the film, because it turned her opponent, the moderate, non-committal Hubbell (Redford), into a straw man, and made everyone who wasn’t picketing and pamphleteering out to be cowards. The review is an unlikely but useful reminder us of Kael’s moderate politics (even if she had gone to Berkeley), and of her disdain for cheap, rah-rah political positions in the movies. In her opinion, the McCarthy witch hunts would have lent themselves better to “high irony” and instead were “botched and overwrought.” She never liked movies being used as a platform; the only way McCarthyism would have appealed to her in a movie was if it had been treated cleverly, or perhaps as outright comedy, instead of one that turned the victims of the blacklist into martyrs. Better that The Way We Were know its place as a star vehicle without also thinking of itself as a history lesson.