Directed by Sydney Pollack (1973)
Starring: Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford
I spent 90% of my time wondering what Streisand saw in Redford and the other 10% remembering when Sex and the City and Gilmore Girls referenced this (one better accomplished than the other).
The Way We Were is about career girl and activist Katie (Streisand) who hopelessly crushes over the talented, but slack Hubbell (Redford). Katie has to work to support herself through college, but finds out during their creative writing class that Hubbell has pure talent. They talk a few times before graduation and reunite during the war at a bar. Katie continues to act as emotional support for Hubbell when he’s in town, until he admits that he is attracted to her and they begin their relationship. The problems arise when Katie’s serious opinions about current events come in contrast with Hubbell’s rich friends’ jokes.
After the war, Katie and Hubbell are married and move to Hollywood so that Hubbell can work on the screenplay adaptation of his first novel. While Katie is able to make her own friends in Hollywood, she feels like working in the movies is going to harm Hubbell’s artistic drive. Hubbell continues to come at odds with Katie’s activism, especially during the Blacklist and McCarthyism. Katie accuses Hubbell of always taking the easy way out, and I completely agree with that interpretation. Possibly because the film is predominantly centered on Katie, it’s never obvious why Hubbell decides to go along with what’s happening around them. He doesn’t have much personality besides “pretty” and “attracted to Katie”. He doesn’t even participate with his friends’ jokes or conversations much.
The episode of Sex and the City that references The Way We Were explicitly is the finale of season two “The Ex and the City.” The conclusion involves Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) comparing Big’s new engagement to the ending of The Way We Were and decides that Big wants a simple girl with straight hair, because he can’t handle a wild, free woman (ostensibly with curly hair). I can’t deny that Parker has a passing resemblance to a young Streisand, but watching the movie makes any genuine comparison fall flat. Carrie isn’t an activist – if anything, she more closely resembles the friends of Hubbell that Katie has the most trouble with. She quotes the movie to Big and when he doesn’t catch the reference she treats that like a symbol of all the failures in their relationship, without any self-reflection that she probably isn’t the Katie she tries to color herself to be.
In contrast, the Gilmore Girls episode “Say Something” references the film in a very emotionally effective manner. After her break-up with Luke, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) calls him and gives him a rambling message about how she needs her best friend, just like when Katie calls up Hubbell. Not only does it reference a specific scene, but the emotional integrity between the two are more genuine. Lorelai isn’t a Katie-type anymore than Carrie Bradshaw is, but she is in pain and misses her partner. The emotional parallelism is just as strong as the original scene. In contrast, it doesn’t lead to the couple reuniting, possibly because the writers acknowledge that just by drawing strong comparisons to a classic movie doesn’t mean that that particular scene is without fault. Most of the scenes from the film where Katie has to beg for Hubbell to make the relationship work seem unfair to her as an equal partner in a relationship. Even her carrying their child to term makes Katie seem more like a martyr than an independent woman. The scene in Gilmore Girls updates that for Lorelai’s character, removing a lot of the condescension from the original.
What’s interesting about the legacy of The Way We Were in these references is how the film is presented. In Sex and the City, it is celebrated and lambasted as a “chick film.” The three characters who continue to believe in monogamous romance love the movie and can sing along to the theme from memory. It’s consumed as a group by women of a particular generation and so an important part of female culture. In contrast, Gilmore Girls references it as a movie that Luke and Lorelai had watched together, a more intimate experience of watching a film. Instead of assuming that it is a wholly female experience, it is used as a means of allowing communication between two characters. By referencing that scene, Lorelai is able to ask for Luke to come by, even though they are still in the early sections of a bad break up.