Sydney Pollack’s 1973 film The Way We Were is a landmark of a well-explored tradition in romantic cinema: the heartbreaker with a foregone conclusion of two people who are helplessly in love but hopelessly different. It also exists, in tandem and in contrast, with a trope born from American ’70s film that has remained well-tread ever since. It’s a shiksa–Jewish romance, which pairs a gentile woman (usually gorgeous, blonde, and of little substance) with a Jewish man (archetypically overwhelmed by his neuroses, insecure, and entirely self-serving). The idea is that the shiksa is a dream girl — a seemingly unattainable aspiration — for someone who exists outside of her exclusive cultural orbit.
In a divergence from its contemporaries Annie Hall and The Heartbreak Kid, The Way We Were flips the script. Its protagonist is Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand), a brash Jewish communist and unrelenting intellect, alienating to the gentile majority of her college peers — among them Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford), a squeaky-clean WASP and poster boy of the American Dream who, although aware of his privilege, never properly reckons with it. In this story, the shiksa-Jewish pairing is gender-flipped and explored as the struggle of an outsider, Katie, to romance an insider who floats through life with a fraction of the effort that she does.
We get to see a generous slice of that life. The film is set over a 20-year timeline, beginning in the ’30s when the characters are in college, to their post-war lives in New York City, to a brief stint in Los Angeles at the height of McCarthyism and then back in New York, sometime in the late ’50s. Katie’s CPUSA membership and Jewishness qualify her for pariah-like treatment during this trying era, by Hubbell’s crowd especially. He has the kind of fluffy, all-American brand of masculinity that could be mistaken as something worth aspiring to — but Hubbell doesn’t regard it as such, knowing himself to be infuriatingly feckless and dispassionate.
Katie lives on the outside of the privilege and apathy — or is it resignation? — that Hubbell embodies. There is a real physical distance between her social sphere and his; in one scene the camera pans, not subtly, from the inside of a sorority house to outside where Katie is walking by herself. She’s literally locked out from this space of conventional American existence, but she also shows signs of wanting, even just a little, to live alongside Hubbell and feel the luxury of his reality. In turn, Hubbell is struck by her fierce intelligence and ambition, but there are certain concessions that he just won’t make. Katie alone bears the burden of having to break into his world without comprising the values of her own.
How does one go about doing such a thing? In Katie’s case, it’s a matter of cosmetics. She can’t give up her convictions or dilute her personality, but she can make changes to her appearance that mean something in these ritzy social spheres. When we meet her in college, she’s mocked by her classmates for her politics but also for her looks and supposed lack of sex appeal. “Any peace but Katie’s piece!” reads a sign at a campus anti-war rally where she is a speaker.
Years later, the humiliation is internalized, even in a new setting: New York, where Katie works at the Office of War Information. When Hubbell stays at her apartment for one night, falling asleep before an ambiguous, basically non-consensual bedroom scene occurs, Katie weeps, “Hubbell, it’s Katie. You didn’t know it was Katie.” The implication is clear: a sexual encounter wouldn’t have happened had he been awake enough to know who he was in bed with. A few encounters later, Hubbell asks her, “Do you know you’re beautiful?” It’s an acknowledgment that she’s attractive, but — as Katie bluntly puts it later on — “not in the right way.” That’s the cruel pseudo-truth: She is unconventional and therefore remains an outsider to Hubbell’s world of glossy good looks.
And yet, quite notably, her physical appearance changes between college and adulthood. “Do you remember what she looked like in college compared to what she looks like now?” Hubbell’s friend J.J. says at one point. The big difference? “It’s your hair,” Hubbell remarks in awe as he leaves her apartment. “That’s what’s different.” The frizzy curls are leaps and bounds away from the sultry waves we see on girls like Hubbell’s ex, Carol Anne, who says, “You what?” when Katie describes getting her hair ironed.
That kind of labor is unimaginable for Carol Anne, whose hair presumably falls naturally in the style that Katie has to go across town to achieve. It’s the same kind of bewilderment that Hubbell has worn his whole life: “everything came too easily to him.” Perhaps that’s why people like him and Carol Anne belong on the inside and Katie remains on the fringes. When we meet Katie again in New York, years after her relationship with Hubbell, she has returned to her natural curls.
Even the physical changes can’t hide the frustrating labyrinth of Katie’s life. Unless she makes space for herself, as she does in her campus activism or, years later in Los Angeles in opposition to the Hollywood Blacklist, she won’t find room reserved for her. She must continually be invited: Hubbell invites her to sit and have a beer with him, Hubbell invites her to his friend’s home, Hubbell invites her to dance at the prom and Hubbell is a fixture at a party that she fights to get into. Such is the consequence and downfall of their romance.
There’s something so unrelentingly different about Katie that she’ll always remain on the outside looking in, no matter how hard she tries. “I’ll change,” she says to Hubbell, desperately wanting to make things work. He tells her she should not. “But then I won’t have you,” she says. “Why can’t I have you? Why?” It’s not because Hubbell is cruel, or because she’s too good for him, or because they’re lying to each other about what they want. It’s because Katie has been an outsider her whole life — and she’s not going to stop now.