Despite the fact that he is dating the beautiful Carol Ann, a series of episodes demonstrates that Hubbell also finds himself, on account of her wit, passion and commitment, drawn to Katie. He is mesmerised when she speaks powerfully at a peace rally, only to be first disappointed by, then irritated at her lack of humour when a prank is played. Later, on the night that Edward marries Wallis Simpson, Hubbell is sat outside a bar, drinking a beer on his own. He is celebrating his first publication – he has sold a short story. His friends are nowhere. Hubbell is clearly uneasy with his talent and achievement – he feels he can’t share this serious side with his flippant group. But Katie sees the significance of the occasion. She is both envious and admiring. They share a kindred moment. He criticises her for her lack of humour. She rebuffs the critique. He persuades a reluctant, uptight Katie to take a sip of his beer. He tenderly does up her loose shoelace. She leaves. In the final moments of their time at college, they share a brief dance at Commencement, before he walks off through the crowd: leaving Katie suspended in time and place, idealising him.
Years later, New York, and Katie is working at a radio station. She is still an ardent activist. Hubbell is in the navy, on shore leave. They meet, by coincidence, at a bar – he’s very drunk, so she takes him back to her apartment. He staggers into bed, where she discovers him – naked. She gets into bed and they begin making love. But Katie is aware that he doesn’t know it’s her he’s making love to – she doesn’t care. He has lived in her memory until now. The next morning they share an awkward moment, as Hubbell, hungover and seemingly in denial, is keen to get away. She implores him to contact her if he can’t find accommodation in the city when next on leave. Eventually, he does get in contact. It’s clear to her that the decision to call was purely pragmatic when he makes plans to go out that evening. But she won’t leave it at that – she’s too committed – and faces down all resistance with a promise of good home cooking. They end up talking after dinner about his first novel, which he had recently published to little notice. He is initially touched that the brittle Katie who he knew from college has engaged with his writing, but then he becomes enraptured by her intelligent and penetrating critique of it and his gift – and her insistence on his great potential as a major writer. The two become lovers that night, but Hubbell warns her not to be too serious. It is a remark that not only relates to their relationship at this point, but also to her intensity – which scares as much as it attracts him. He is aware from the outset, as she is not, that the differences that threaten their connection are not merely social or political, but temperamental.
They become a steady couple and Katie is reintroduced to his friends who she met at college and despised. Carol Ann, his college sweetheart, is now married to his best friend, JJ. They are, as Katie supposed they would be, seemingly much unchanged. They make tasteless jokes, are self-satisfied and view much of life in trivial terms. They seem, to her, to be untouchable and – though it is never directly addressed – anti-semitic. But, when Carol Ann comes on the receiving end of Katie’s barbs, she hints that Katie might be projecting her sense of difference onto their feelings about her. As much as she is an outsider, Katie reinforces her marginalisation with her fixed attitudes and, just as she does when talking about her political stance, denies others the possibility of their complexity and voice. Although a wit and strong thinker, Katie’s self-defence mechanisms detract from these natural talents. Po-faced, she is all hectoring and sulks. Hubbell breaks the relationship off after Katie has a tantrum at a party, lecturing the room on Yalta. He loves her, but realises that she cannot change – and he really doesn’t want to change himself. But Katie will not give up: she has invested too much in her dreams. She persuades him to come to her apartment and he is drawn back in. Her ardent belief in who he is, her need to believe in who he might be, one day, and his desire for her belief, amounts to co-dependency.
When JJ gets Hubbell a gig writing scripts in Hollywood, Katie does not want to be part of the machine. Katie wants him to stay with her in New York, be true to his gift and produce substantial novels, writing that will last. But she must not lose Hubbell, and so, when he insists, she goes with him. They live in Malibu and enjoy wealth. Hubbell leads an empty day-to-day on the studio lot. Then McCarthyism hits them and their fragile romance cracks up. Katie is pregnant and protests the blacklist. Hubbell sees that Katie’s beliefs will not be cowed by anything, even the risk to their unborn child – and, even more so, his reputation and place of safety. Nostalgic for his golden days at college, he has an affair with Carol Ann, now the ex-wife of JJ. Katie discovers the affair and the two agree to apart, Hubbell promising to stay with her until the baby – a girl – is born.
When they do eventually meet again, Katie is out on the streets of New York, where the two spent their happiest time together, handing out Ban the Bomb leaflets. Hubbell is in town, making a sitcom for TV. He spots her and the two engage in small talk. They farewell. In a mirror of their on-again, off-again love and attraction, he cannot leave it at that, and comes back to her moments later. They speak of their child, who he has not seen since her birth. Hubbell wants to know whether her new husband is a good father. And he is. She informs Hubbell that she is a ‘very good loser’. To which Hubbell replies: ‘better than I am’. And we believe him.
The film has been criticised for its sense of incompleteness, its lack of integritas. The McCarthy era is reduced in the film to mere minutes (much of this due to the fact that a great deal of footage landed on the cutting-room floor). The film, which was originally conceived with a much more overtly political message by writer Arthur Laurents, became focussed almost completely on romance, one which used politics as a device to highlight difference between two complex, extreme characters. There was tension between Laurents, director Sydney Pollack and lead Robert Redford on set. The end product can sometimes feel as if the audience is intermittently being introduced to another film altogether. And we are. The Way We Were was, and is regarded as such by many involved in the making of it, a failure.
But the story of Katie and Hubbell remains urgent and resonates with its audience, nonetheless. Why? The audience shares something important with its leads, something less common than one might expect from a Hollywood studio. One-time lovers only realise much later how much was illusory and how much narcissism. Although the title song hints differently, and although tragic romance is often depicted differently, this is not a film about consecrated, perfect, lost love (the film might more aptly be titled The Way We Weren’t) – this is a film about two people who come to know that they got it wrong from the very beginning. And, despite their passion, that so much was folly. Beautiful – but folly, nonetheless. In Katie, Hubbell sees someone who recognises his potential – and the difference between himself and his friends who, despite his allegiance to and defence of them, he nonetheless feels, because of his latent talent, superior to. And, then, she offers him the one thing life hasn’t bestowed and which he cannot generate within himself: drive. His life has been pure good fortune; like the character in the story that made Katie fall in love with him, things come too easy to him. Katie offers resistance, difficulty. She challenges. But she also strokes his ego. In Hubbell, Katie sees a way to possibly realise her own dreams by proxy. Insufficiently gifted to be the writer she wanted to be once and to say things which could make a difference to the world, her fixation on his writerly efforts are not without considerable self-interest: it is anticipated gilt by association. And although Katie is strident in her political views and seemingly comfortable in her identity as a Jewish woman, her vitriol towards the WASP lifestyle – with its attendant surface mainstream simplicities – very often comes off as an ego injury, rather than politics. She rejects the world that she has been rejected by already. Her winning of him seems to, provisionally, ease her pain – although it ultimately brings her greater suffering.
Their match is tragic because both parties entirely lack moderation – he has no conviction, she is all passionate intensity. But, on a more straightforward level, their basic story is one which we can all relate to, and this only compounds the sense of tragedy – its inherent ordinariness. They are simply incompatible with one another, despite (and because of) the attraction. While they may feed each other’s egos in direct and indirect ways, neither will ever be able to give way in order to develop a lasting union – and yet they meet and fall, nonetheless. So goes romance – and how many of us know that at personal cost.
In her insistence on the need for an uncompromised life, Katie shuts out others and their voices, too. Her radical tendency to idealise in all matters makes Hubbell a better and more capable man than we – almost immediately – know he is. In Hubbell’s insistence on an easy, comfortable life and narcissistic supply, he fails his own gift, runs away from responsibility and loses his daughter – and the one person who saw in him, however misguided she may have been in so many things, what was, what we do know, real possibility.
Love endures, but all romances end. And this film is, if nothing else, a great romance.