Although they have quieted down somewhat since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Hollywood Left had been up to their usual tricks for months before that, mounting a vociferous campaign against the war, and, indeed, against virtually everything America did in its own defense after the September 11 attack. In December 2002, a group of nearly 100 actors including Anjelica Huston, Jessica Lange, Matt Damon, and Martin Sheen organized Artists United to Win Without War to oppose any pre-emptive strike by America against the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction. Many of these same film stars signed their names to the huge ads taken out by Not In Our Name, an aggressive anti-war collection of artists and writers. Dustin Hoffman has decided that Bush's motives for the war are "hegemony, money, power, and oil"; Susan Sarandon calls upon Americans to hate war in all its forms, whether the weapon used is a missile or an airplane," thus equating 911 with Operation Iraqi Freedom; and, topping them all, Sean Penn actually paid a sympathetic visit to Baghdad.
Some observers have expressed surprise and wonder at the arrogance, self-righteousness, naiveté and (let's face it) downright stupidity of these Hollywood pacifists, as seen, for example, in Martin Sheen's remark at the press conference announcing the formation of the Hollywood artists' anti-war group that he'd like "regime change" in Iraq to come from the Iraqis themselves and not from the United States, as if the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein were a free people calmly preparing for their quadrennial election instead of an oppressed populace living in fear of reprisal and torture. For those familiar with the psychology of the American Left and of the Hollywood Left in particular, however, there is nothing surprising here. For those who need a refresher course, may I suggest viewing Sydney Pollack's 1973 movie The Way We Were, starring Robert Redford and the doyenne of the Hollywood Left herself, Barbra Streisand. The film has recently been reissued in DVD format complete with interviews of some of the major figures involved in its production.
To understand The Way We Were, you need to get beyond the old-fashioned star-crossed romance which is the film's ostensible subject, and which also supplies its pervading tone, with the lavishly scored title song by Marvin Hamlisch filling the soundtrack at dramatic points in the story. The film is indeed one of those lush, high-toned romances at which Hollywood once excelled. It is finely fashioned, vibrantly detailed, and bathed in nostalgia and melodrama. Intelligently scripted by Arthur Laurents, it features affecting performances from a flush, good-looking Streisand and a Redford in his gorgeous prime. But you have to get beyond that.
You must also clear your mind of the neofeminist angle--recently referenced in the popular (and vulgar) cable TV series Sex and the City--that Streisand's failure to keep a prize catch like Redford is the typical fate of the energetic, aggressive modern woman who always loses out to an uninteresting, less complicated female competitor. This interpretation is valid to some extent, as the movie repeatedly features pretty but utterly bland women as foils for the ripe, red-lipped Streisand.
Both the romantic and neofeminist angles are important, but only when seen in light of the film's true (if understated) theme, the relationship between WASP America, as represented by Redford's golden-haired Hubbell Gardiner and his circle of friends‑-"America the Beautiful," Streisand's Jewish character Katie Morosky sarcastically calls them‑-and the American Left, as represented virtually single-handedly by La Streisand, for whom the role was especially created. For the most part, the film sees everything from Katie's point of view, and so renders valuable insight into the self-understanding of the Left.
By the way, we should note that in earlier decades, Hollywood would never have produced a movie making such an explicit connection between Jewishness and Leftism. The Way We Were does so proudly--Laurents remarked in the interview featured on the film's DVD release that Streisand "is the first and I think the only openly Jewish movie star"--but gets away with it by portraying Communist activism as mainstream as apple pie, consisting of little more than having strong convictions and affection for FDR.
The story begins in New York City during World War II as Katie, an employee at a radio station connected with the Office of War Information, is entering a crowded El Morocco nightclub with her boss. When the doorman denies entry to two GIs, Katie makes a scene, calling the doorman a "fascist ropeholder." Once inside, to her surprise and joy, she spots Hubbell, whom she hasn't seen since their college days when, we soon learn, she started carrying a torch for him which she hasn't put down since. Just returned from a tour of duty, resplendent in his Navy officer's whites, he in somewhat magical fashion sleeps soundly while seated upright on a barstool, as she gazes at him lovingly. The scene fixes their characters. Katie will ever be ardent, pushy, "making waves"; Hubbell reticent, self-contained, and needing sleep.
In a flashback we see our protagonists in 1937 as college seniors at probably an Ivy League college. While Hubbell excels at sports and creative writing, Katie, president of the Young Communist League, writes anti-war propaganda, mimeographs fliers, distributes leaflets, and calls her fellow students "fascist" at every available opportunity. A picture of Lenin hangs in her room. Poorer than her classmates, she holds several part-time jobs (while apparently still managing to find time to manicure her long nails and apply a little discreet makeup).
At a campus peace rally, Katie sports a hat reminiscent of the kind always worn by Bella Abzug, New York City congresswoman in the 1970s. (Was this the style for female Stalinists in the 1930s?) She gives a fiery speech praising the Soviet Union for aiding the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. She assures her listeners that they have nothing to fear from the "red bogeyman," as she mockingly puts it, and touts the Soviet Union's call for world disarmament now. While her fellow students make good-natured jibes at her expense, nobody points out the obvious contradiction between supporting the Spanish Loyalists and calling for disarmament, nor for that matter do they question anything that she says. Encouraged, she warms to her pitch and badgers this crowd of privileged young people into taking a shocking oath: "I refuse to support the government of the United States in any war it might conduct." It is most questionable that this paraphrase of the infamous vow by Oxford students in the early 1930s not to "fight for King and Country" was ever uttered on any American campus, not en masse, at any rate, but the movie manages to make such an unlikely event‑-along with the air of piety that has begun to accrue about the Communist Katie, despite some student mockery‑-seem plausible
Even more astonishingly, after the movie returns from the 1930s flashback to the wartime present, scarcely ten words of dialogue are devoted to the monumental developments that should have made Katie cringe in guilty embarrassment over the self-righteous positions she took in college: the Communists' betrayal of the Spanish Loyalists, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and the now utterly evident folly of the disarmament talk of the previous decade. The United States is engaged in a world war against the darkest barbarism in history, yet no reference is made to the shameful oath Katie prompted her classmates to take a few years before. Instead she is as fresh and blooming as ever, and as self-regarding and impatient with the unenlightened mediocrities around her. She carries no baggage from her past, and evidences no sense of responsibility for the horrors caused by her former positions. She is now channeling her abundant energy into activities on the home front. She has also "ironed" her naturally curly hair, glamorized her make-up, and replaced the picture of Lenin with one of FDR.
In Katie's effortless mainstreaming of herself, and the movie's effortless mainstreaming of Katie, we begin to discern the profile of the contemporary Left--enamored of its superior virtue, always on the right side even when it turns out to be wrong, and (being the Left) never having to say it's sorry. The title song proves apt, if inadvertently so: "What is too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget." On second thought, inasmuch as that line bespeaks a flash of painful memory that occurs before being extinguished in convenient forgetfulness, the song is not so apt after all; Katie hasn't even that much awareness.
But Katie's self-righteousness cannot thrive in a vacuum; it needs compliant WASPs to serve as both its targets and enablers. Katie and Hubbell begin an affair. She adores him, admires his talent, and believes he has the potential to be an important writer. He is drawn by her passion, energy, and certainty, not least her certainty about him. At the same time, Katie is uncomfortable with his Republican pals. At their gatherings at a beautiful apartment on Beekman Place, she stands out in her glowering intensity, her political urgency, and (on one occasion) in her vivid black and orange dress; they wear neutral tones, have bland, almost indistinguishable personalities, and express no opinions about anything. She sounds off, makes scenes, and hurls insults; they seem to have advanced little beyond their college fraternities and sororities, and want "no demands," as Katie puts it, "just fun, laughs."
So absorbed are we by Katie's heroic vocality that it takes a while for us to realize the unstated significance of the fact that all the men are in uniform and that Hubbell's is adorned with "a lot of ribbons." They may not all be combat heroes, but they have obviously been doing their part in the war against fascism, as has the whole country, though Katie never deigns to acknowledge it, and they never rouse themselves to remind her, notwithstanding her hectoring. Nor do they remind her that if they and other college students had stuck to the vow she coached them into taking a few years back, most of the world would be speaking German by now.
In their relationship as opposites that attract yet can't get along, Hubbell argues for her to take an easier-going attitude toward life, not always pushing, demanding, lecturing. He stands for the personal against the political, for people rather than principles. But for Katie, as for her descendents on the Left, "people are their principles." Although the movie allows Hubbell to score some points in their exchanges, Katie is presented as right.
In fact, when it comes to Katie's actual political stances, Hubbell has no counterposition at all. He neither agrees with her leftist politics nor opposes them. Whenever he summons sufficient energy to answer one of her harangues, his remarks are off-point or even cynical. "You make fun of politicians; what else can you do with them," he asks while they're still in college. "Stalin's for Hitler, Stalin's against Hitler, it's all a lot of political double talk," he says as the war rages. "We don't have free speech in this country, we never will have," he shouts at her later, during the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
It turns out that Hubbell, symbol of the contented America that it is Katie's mission to shake up, has no specific allegiance to the country he is meant to represent. He and his friends are comfortable people who thoughtlessly do what they're asked and never question anything. As Hubbell, showing more self-awareness than his chums, wrote in one of his college short stories, "In a way he was like the country he lived in; everything came too easily to him." They are vacant, as Katie accuses them of being, but not because they vote Republican and make jokes about the Roosevelts, but because they seem no more aware of the special character of America than Katie herself is.
The movie presents them from Katie's point of view as virtual nonentities, and to a present-day audience they look like mild progenitors of the freakishly repressed middle-class caricatures of Pleasantville and other hateful movies like it--in other words, how the Hollywood Left sees America. Nevertheless, whether intentionally or not, The Way We Were hits on a dark truth about America's post-war middle class in general and its privileged WASP ascendancy in particular--lacking any strong commitment to true values, it is being hollowed out by complacency and destined to surrender in the coming decades to the forces of radicalism. Indeed, Hubbell's first novel, reflecting what Allan Bloom would later call "a speechless, meaningless country," is titled A Country Made of Ice Cream.
As their affair progresses, Hubbell finds Katie an incredible handful, always demanding too much, expecting too much, never able "to relax and enjoy living." He calls off the relationship after one of her scenes, but she wins him back almost immediately by telling him that she has to keep pushing, in order to make things better, in order to make him better, and that she will "keep pushing until you're every wonderful thing you should be and will be."
Although it's clear that Katie does love Hubbell, we can discern in this passionate avowal another possible parallel with the Left‑-protesting its devotion to America, mainly to press for the country to become better, to live up to its high ideals right now, to fulfill its supposedly unfulfilled promise, and to allow itself to be remolded according to the Left's specifications for how that promise should be fulfilled. And perhaps at times WASP America is like Hubbell, stirred by the sense of ever-greater possibilities and some enormous unfulfilled potential.
Hubbell, at any rate, capitulates. Tired of fighting her, convinced by her importunacy, he marries her. They move to Hollywood where he will turn his first novel into a screenplay. They enjoy a halcyon period, while also entertaining the idea of moving to France where he will work on his next novel. True to form, this proves to be more her dream than his; he would like nothing more than to be a successful screenwriter.
Their happiness is brief. As the Cold War gains steam in the late 1940s, Katie becomes angry at Hollywood, because it's the wrong Hollywood, the Hollywood of the blacklist, the Hollywood of anti-Communism, the Hollywood that forces talented writers like Hubbell to sell their souls, the Hollywood that cares about nothing but making a "blessed buck," the Hollywood that makes heroes out of the "stool pigeons" (an allusion to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront) who cooperate with the congressional investigation of Communist influence in the film industry.
As this latter part of the film takes shape, Katie's previous Communist loyalty is once again made to seem as American as motherhood--in fact she is pregnant by now--and barely worth mentioning. Through all this, the reality of Communist subversion and espionage in the post-war world, of the Communist influence in Hollywood as in other American institutions--and thus the very reasons for the legitimate fear of Communism that was awakened during that period‑-is wholly ignored. The HUAC hearings are portrayed as nothing but an exercise in paranoia and a violation of civil liberties, providing yet another chance for Katie to advertise her virtue and courage. When she participates in a protest against the Congressional hearings that turns violent, Hubbell realizes finally that she is too much for him, a threat to the private, peaceful, successful kind of life he wants, and he decides, regretfully, to leave her.
When we last see Katie, some years later in the late 1950s, she is back in New York, remarried, this time to a Jewish man. She has allowed her straightened hair to grow curly again and is busily involved in the latest fashionable cause, to Ban the Bomb. As at the beginning of the film, she spies Hubbell by coincidence, emerging from the Plaza Hotel near (a little unbelievably) the petition table she is manning. They talk for a few difficult minutes and catch up on their lives. He is writing for television, and has at his side a female companion so bland and colorless she appears to have been sprayed with gray mist. Clearly, Hubbell has not fulfilled his great promise. He still seems half awake, half-engaged in reality, half conscious of the undistinguished shape his life is taking, and dimly aware of what losing Katie has meant. Again, this is emblematic of what America looks like in the most liberal bastions of Hollywood--always missing its chance at greatness by departing from the disciplines laid down by the Left.
He asks about their daughter whom he has apparently not seen since her birth. Katie, though her eyes fill with tears as they exchange a good-bye embrace, is content and thriving, following her bliss. We are touched by the heartbreak of their parting, but she has gone on without him, on to the next cause. Indeed, as in the 1930s she is once again trying to disarm America, with no recognition of the folly of the previous such effort. Hubbell's spiritual descendents are still among us, uninvolved, unaware, vaguely guilty. And so are Katie's‑-tireless, energetic, noisy, demanding, never content with the world, and utterly, utterly unreflective about themselves and their beliefs.
According to recent reports, Redford is thinking of making a sequel to The Candidate--his 1972 film about a shallow man who runs successfully for the Senate--but that he has no intention of doing so for his other political film, The Way We Were. No effort to tell us, for example, what the Venona files have revealed about Communism in America in the post-war years. No revelations from Ken Billingsley's book The Hollywood Party about the Communist blacklist in Hollywood and the extent of the party's influence in the industry. From the point of view of the Hollywood left, no follow-up or sequel or remake or updating is necessary. That's the way they were, and the way they'll always be.