Who, for instance, was the auteur behind “The Way We Were”? The (mostly) fondly remembered 1973 drama began life as an Arthur Laurents screen treatment, which he then converted to a novel and screenplay. From the start, Laurents envisioned it as a politically steeped love story, tracking Jewish communist Katie Morosky and WASP dreamboat Hubbell Gardiner from the 1930s to the 1950s and using their doomed romance to explore the still hot-button topic of the Hollywood blacklist.
That was not entertainment.
As Robert Hofler expertly documents in “The Way They Were,” Laurents’s screenplay was soon lateraled to hired hands David Rayfiel and Alvin Sargent. By the time it went into production, it had been gawked at or zhuzhed by such luminaries as Paddy Chayefsky, Herb Gardner, Francis Ford Coppola and blacklist martyr Dalton Trumbo. At the last minute, the miffed Laurents was brought in for additional rewrites, but when audience members at a test screening wandered away bored, director Sydney Pollack began hacking away at the film’s midsection, ultimately scissoring off nearly a third of the picture and reducing the blacklist plotline to a passing complication.
In this broth of too many cooks, let’s not overlook the film’s producer, Ray Stark, whose opinions boiled over in a daily roux of memos and who was convinced no movie should run longer than two hours. And don’t underestimate the star chefs, Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, who were then at the height of their box-office power and whose combined salaries claimed 70 percent of the film’s budget. They were an odd couple: she chronically anxious, he chronically late; she needing to prepare, he inclined to wing it. Both were vain in ways that would spill over into their characters. Katie would forbear from showing her right side; Hubbell would forbear from admitting, as an early draft had him do, that he wasn’t always great in the sack.
By rights, the whole enterprise should have collapsed, but the two stars, by some fluke, wound up getting along off-screen and cohering on-screen. The communism of the heroine mattered less in a countercultural America than it did in the days of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). And there was that title tune, a smash hit for Streisand and, as Hofler writes, “an instant advertisement” for the film. Sing it with me, people of a certain generation. Mem-ries ….
Fifty years later, “The Way We Were” still holds together by pretty much the same gum and string: two glorious camera subjects circling each other and gradually letting each other in. The politics are the least convincing part, but Pollack’s original take on the film — “a girl who thinks she isn’t pretty, and a guy who is afraid that he is only pretty” — thankfully evolves into something more complicated: a man who suspects he isn’t worthy of a woman’s love.
Is it a good enough movie to merit a full-length book? I would have been dubious but, in his thoughtful and deeply researched final chapter, Hofler — whose previous works include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson” and “Money, Murder and Dominick Dunne” — reintroduces us to the original auteur. Laurents may have been persona non grata through most of the film’s production, but he was already an accomplished playwright (“Home of the Brave,” “The Time of the Cuckoo”), screenwriter (“Rope,” “Anastasia”) and, most imperishably, the book writer for both “West Side Story” and “Gypsy.” He was also, writes Hofler, “a vast storehouse of unsettled grievances, complaints, and resentments,” a self-hating gay Jewish man who sprinted away from his family name Levine and told people he’d been blacklisted when he probably hadn’t been and who antagonized virtually everyone he met. Even Larry Kramer found him rude.
Yet “The Way We Were” couldn’t have existed if there weren’t something molten at his core. In 1955, at the suggestion of Gore Vidal, Laurents walked into a Beverly Hills men’s clothing store and feasted his eyes on the manager, Tom Hatcher, a gorgeous blond blue-eyed out-of-work actor (and sometime truck driver and hustler) in need of a protector. Their partnership lasted until Hatcher’s death in 2006, and it may be that Laurents never ceased to marvel at having landed the object of his fantasy. “I saw Arthur as Katie,” said one friend, “and Hubbell as Tom. Most people did.” It may be, too, that when Laurents died in 2011, he took comfort in knowing that he and Tom had been immortalized by Hollywood without its knowledge. Call it the auteur’s revenge.
Louis Bayard is the author of “The Pale Blue Eye” and “Jackie & Me.”
How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen
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