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Viewer Guide: The Way We Were and Damsels in Distress

July 29, 2019 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña. 



This week’s classic is The Way We Were, the 1973 romantic drama written by Arthur Laurents and directed by Sydney Pollack.

The Hollywood blacklist era, dominated by the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-communist “witch hunt,” was the most devastating political crisis in the history of the American film industry. Officially extending from 1947 to 1960, the blacklist ruined scores of careers, and caused untold personal damage to friendships, marriages and families. We’ll also never know all the great movies—or at least the better movies—that the world was deprived of as a result of those terrible years that turned old friends and colleagues into informers and enemies. Yet for an industry that loves to make movies about itself, only a handful of feature films have been produced that incorporate the blacklist into a “behind-the-camera” storyline.

One of the most prominent, and one of the first, of those films is tonight’s presentation, The Way We Were. Opening in New York City in the midst of World War II, the film chronicles the star-crossed romance of Katie Morosky and Hubbell Gardiner, two 1930s college classmates who unexpectedly re-encounter each other at a wartime Manhattan nightclub. While they may have attended the same college, the couple, as played by Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, are polar opposites: Katie is a passionately committed Jewish Marxist, constantly fighting for the working class; while Hubbell, is a privileged golden boy, coasting through life on family wealth and cynically detached from the world’s troubles. So of course it seems obvious that two people could not be more ill-suited for each other—except that Hubbell also happens to be a talented writer, an artistic gift that Katie initially regards with jealousy before deciding to accept Hubbell’s literary promise. Soon after they re-connect in New York, Katie’s interest in Hubbell starts to move past his literary gifts. But as the unlikely couple enters the postwar period, with Hubbell’s career leading them to the clubby world of Hollywood, the blacklist era begins to emerge, steadily creating an increasing strain on the original fault lines in Katie and Hubbell’s relationship.

Also featured in supporting roles are Bradford Dillman, Lois Chiles, Patrick O’Neal, Viveca Lindfors and James Woods in an early film role as a fellow member of Katie’s Young Communist League.

The Way We Were screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ relationship with Barbra Streisand dated back to 1962, when he cast the-then 19 year-old aspiring singer and actress in her first Broadway show, I Can Get It for You Wholesale. Trying to devise a new movie project for her nearly 10 years later in 1971, Laurents remembered a politically passionate classmate from his alma mater Cornell University, the president of the university’s Young Communist League with the prescient name of Fanny Price. From there Laurents created the character of Katie Morosky, weaving in other characters and incidents from his college days as well as his career in Hollywood to write an extensive treatment that was enthusiastically received by Streisand and producer Ray Stark. While there was initial discussion of Ryan O’Neal to play golden boy Hubbell Gardiner, Streisand’s off-screen relationship with O’Neal had cooled by the time casting got underway. Impressed with his work on They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Laurents suggested Sydney Pollack to direct, with Pollack’s old friend Robert Redford fast becoming everyone’s first choice to play Hubbell. Redford initially resisted, feeling the role was too thin and secondary to make sense for him, yet after much persuasion he finally agreed.

Now, with more cooks now in the kitchen, work continued on the script, but the surfeit of opinions led to the ironic outcome of Laurents being fired off the project, and a parade of eleven writers brought in to make revisions, including such illustrious names as Alvin Sargent, Paddy Chayefsky, Herb Gardner and actual blacklist survivor Dalton Trumbo. Now faced with a disjointed script that nobody liked, Pollack asked Laurents to return to the project, which he did—but only for a hefty fee. Once in production, Pollack then had to contend with the opposing techniques of his stars: Streisand liked to discuss her character in depth, but Redford did not, concerned it would undermine spontaneity. Yet despite the production challenges, the chemistry of the two stars surmounted it all, with Pauline Kael famously quipping in her review in The New Yorker that the film was like “…a torpedoed ship full of gaping holes which comes snugly into port.” A box office hit that has remained beloved by audiences for almost five decades, the film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Actress for Streisand, with Marvin Hamlisch’s score and theme song with lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman taking home the year’s Oscar statuettes. In addition to becoming a #1 hit, Streisand’s recording “The Way We Were” went on to be one the leading signature songs of her career.


This week’s indie is Damsels in Distress, a romantic comedy from 2011 directed by Whit Stillman.

Greta Gerwig stars as Violet, a student at the fictitious Seven Oaks College, where she is the ringleader of a group of friends who have dedicated themselves to an unusual social mission: rather than focusing their attention on the attractive and successful “best men on campus”—a species they dismissively refer to as “playboy operators”—these young women concentrate their energies on the underachievers who don’t appear to have much inner or outer qualities, and then set about trying to help their hapless subjects realize their full potential. And at Seven Oaks, the industrious trio finds a limitless supply of young men—or “doufi” as Violet and her friends refer to them—in desperate need of rehabilitation. Determined to do their altruistic duty to make the world a better place, Violet and her posse spot a new, just-arrived student named Lily whom they suspect might be of a like mind. They proceed to indoctrinate the skeptical Lily into their quirky philosophical beliefs, embarking on a droll comic quest with unexpected forays into tap dancing, Fred Astaire movie musicals and the creation of a new international dance craze.

Also featured as Violet’s cohorts are Megalyn Echikuwoke and Carrie MacLemore, along with Analeigh Tipton as new recruit Lily. Among the various “doufi” they struggle to rehabilitate are Adam Brody, Hugo Becker, Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen.

Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan was one of the most memorable debuts in independent cinema; as in so many of the best indie films, suddenly a spotlight—or was it a microscope—was focused on an American sub-culture most of us knew little about. Yet this was a subculture hiding in plain sight: the children of the Park Avenue rich, moving between events on the social register as they try to figure out their emotional lives. The film was a considerable success, and cast Stillman as a kind of “preppy Woody Allen,” writing and directing films with a drily comic point of view on the angst of America’s upper crust youth. Yet following the release of Barcelona in 1994 and The Last Days of Disco in 1998, we had to wait almost 12 years for Stillman’s next missive from America’s culture war front. Damsels in Distress marked Stillman’s return to the movies, and showed that in all that time he hadn’t lost his keen sense of character and analysis of social interaction. In 2016, Stillman ventured of into somewhat new territory—more or less—with a British costume drama, Love & Friendship, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella “Lady Susan,” starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. Damsels also gives you a chance to enjoy a fine performance by its star, Greta Gerwig, who of course scored a major critical and audience hit last year as the writer-director of Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.


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