Mem'ries...light the corners of my mind; misty, water-colored mem'ries...of the way we were.
It's rare for a theme song to eclipse the film that spawned it, but 'The Way We Were' is a prime example of such a phenomenon. Impeccably performed by the movie's star, Barbra Streisand, and distinguished by a haunting Marvin Hamlisch melody and indelible lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, this passionate ode to a failed relationship soared to #1 on the Billboard pop chart in 1974 and won the Academy Award for Best Song. (It also later won a Grammy Award in 1975 as Song of the Year.) Simple, lilting, and brimming with emotion, 'The Way We Were' is an instantly recognizable and timeless tune that easily overshadows its cinematic namesake. Which is not to say Sydney Pollack's period romance is in any way an inferior picture. On the contrary, 'The Way We Were' is a literate, elegantly produced, and sensitively acted drama that has helped keep the tissue industry thriving for four decades. It's got warmth and heart and a bit of spunk...but it just can't compete with that immortal song.
Spanning about 15 years, from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, 'The Way We Were' recalls the lush, heartbreaking love stories of the same era as it evokes the innocence, traditional values, and sense of duty and morality that defined the nation during the World War II period. Arthur Laurents' excellent script, however, also plants the seeds of rebellion that would fully flower in the 1960s and sets up a doomed romance between Katie (Streisand), an outspoken, driven advocate for action, and Hubbell (Robert Redford), a passive, easygoing prettyboy content to coast on his looks and laurels. To complicate matters further, she's Jewish and he's a WASP; he's a blueblood and she's distinctly middle class. Though the odds are stacked against this odd couple, we hope against hope love will conquer all.
Opposites certainly attract, but the main problem with 'The Way We Were' is the two protagonists are so diametrically different their union appears doomed from the start. Both Katie and Hubbell seem to realize this as well, yet she refuses to let him go and he's too spineless to slam the door in her face. So what we have here, with apologies to 'Cool Hand Luke,' is not only a failure to properly communicate, but also a protracted and agonizing march to the relationship graveyard. And the only good thing about that is it brings us the ultimate reward of one of the finest farewell scenes in movie history, one that rivals the emotional adieus of Rick and Ilsa and Scarlett and Rhett. The term bittersweet takes on new meaning as we watch Streisand and Redford interact in front of New York's famed Plaza Hotel.
Yet one scene does not a movie make, and unfortunately for 'The Way We Were,' its guts were gutted after its first preview when Pollack decided to severely truncate the political plotline concerning the investigation of Hollywood in general and Katie in particular by the House Un-American Activities Committee and focus more on the love story. Audiences embraced the change and made 'The Way We Were' a blockbuster hit, but for a film to have staying power over the course of time it needs substance and requires its characters to remain consistent. Without outside events conspiring against Hubbell and Katie, which in turn magnify the inherent ideological conflicts that continually plague their relationship, only a nagging shallowness remains, and the fate of this couple ends up being decided by nothing more than a clichéd plot device. Talk about taking the wind out of a movie's sails...
Still, as a glossy romance, 'The Way We Were' is good old-fashioned entertainment, a they-don't-make-'em-like-that-anymore love story that harkens back to Hollywood's Golden Age. Even as the movie drives you crazy with all its bickering, break-ups, and make-ups, it exudes a cozy warmth and galvanizing spirit that makes it eminently watchable. The astute direction, lush cinematography, classy production design, and that Oscar-winning Hamlisch score all combine to create a glamorous movie experience. And though Streisand and Redford look as mismatched as their characters, the sparks they generate are impressive.
I run hot and cold with Streisand as an actress. In 'Funny Girl,' she's perfection; in 'A Star Is Born,' not so much. Yet here, Barbra combines the insecurity and sensitivity of Fanny Brice with the forcefulness and stridency of Esther Hoffman to craft one of her finest dramatic performances. It's obvious Streisand identifies deeply with Katie, and the gusto with which she portrays her makes it impossible to concentrate on anyone else while she's on screen. Rarely does she overact and only occasionally do a couple of patented Streisand mannerisms creep into her work. Without question, Barbra carries this film and takes it to the highest possible plane.
Redford is good, too, using his easygoing charm, matinee idol looks, and quiet conviction to their best advantage. Though the 36-year-old actor doesn't make a very believable college student early in the film, he turns in some of his best work as the more mature Hubbell later on. Bradford Dillman, Lois Chiles, Patrick O'Neal, and Viveca Lindfors supply competent support, and film buffs will spot James Woods, Susan Blakely (billed here as Susie), and Sally Kirkland in small, early roles.
Many of us fondly remember 'The Way We Were,' but like the misty, water-colored memories alluded to in the theme song, what we recall are fleeting moments, not the film as a whole. Forty years later, those moments still resonate, yet Sydney Pollack's romantic drama fails to ignite the same degree of passion that stoked audiences upon its initial release. The unsatisfactory story - made worse by misguided cuts - doesn't possess the depth we crave, and even stellar performances can't salvage the frustrating narrative, despite that humdinger of a denouement. But in the end, it's the chemistry between Streisand and Redford we will remember, whenever we remember - or should I say, if we remember - 'The Way We Were.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Way We Were' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet, featuring a few photos from the film and an in-depth essay by Julie Kirgo, accompanies the disc. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Like buttah. That's exactly what this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Twilight Time looks and feels like. Smooth as silk, with gorgeously saturated hues, exceptional contrast, and wonderful clarity, 'The Way We Were' seems like a brand new movie and comes closer to replicating the lushness of Technicolor than almost any other modern movie. Harry Stradling Jr.'s cinematography beautifully honors the film's period setting and romantic nature, bathing the principals in a dreamy glow that oozes Hollywood glamour. The spotless source material remains free of any nicks, marks, or scratches, and aside from the Columbia logo and opening New York City establishing shot, only a hint of grain is visible. Still, the image appears natural, and any digital enhancements have been so delicately applied, they escape notice.
Black levels are rich and deep, Redford's white Navy uniform sports a vibrant crispness, and fleshtones are stable and true. Reds especially pop; take a gander at Streisand's lipstick and nail polish, both of which make a bold statement, while the verdant landscapes and crystal blue sea add panache to the picture. Background elements show up well, patterns are rock solid, and close-ups highlight Streisand's creamy complexion and Redford's ruddiness.
Though I don't have any previous home video editions of 'The Way We Were,' I can't imagine this classic love story looking more luscious than it does here. Fans will be unequivocally thrilled with this superior effort, and shouldn't think twice about upgrading.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track delivers solid sound, but it isn't much of a surround mix. The rears remain largely quiet, except when Marvin Hamlisch's Oscar-winning score kicks into high gear. Stereo separation, however, is quite good, with distinct elements emanating from the left and right channels, widening the soundscape and adding a bit of sonic interest to the talky drama. Ambient effects are a tad muted, but crisp interior accents perk up many scenes. Dialogue, of course, is the main attraction, and all conversations are clear and easy to comprehend.
Streisand's theme song comes across well, thanks to a wide dynamic scale that handles her sublime vocals with ease. Even during the song's most passionate portions, distortion is never an issue, and Hamlisch's score benefits from fine fidelity and nice tonal depth. Music is a major player in this production, and no surface noise, hiss, or static disrupts its purity.
Though this track won't test the limits of your system, it complements the film well, and provides a seamless listening experience. An isolated music track is also included on the disc for those who wish to enjoy the film's classic strains in all their romantic glory.
A nice supplemental package graces this Blu-ray release. The most essential extras from the 1999 25th anniversary DVD have been ported over, but additional Streisand trailers and text-based talent files did not make the cut.
'The Way We Were' enjoys a devoted following and remains one of the most beloved romantic films of the 1970s, yet despite an enduring theme song and classic final scene, this glossy, nostalgic love story has lost some of its luster over the past four decades. The star power of Streisand and Redford has not diminished, but the story's palatability has, and this drama about an oil-and-water couple who try to overcome their differences now seems a bit stiff, stilted, and too preciously constructed. Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation, however, beautifully honors the film with a sublime video transfer, excellent audio, and a couple of noteworthy supplements that make this release a slam-dunk for fans who can't wait for those memories to light the corners of their minds.