There’s a really unfortunate New York Post piece from 2015 that posits that women are incapable of understanding Goodfellas because we’re incapable of understanding the minutiae of male fantasy. Rather than deconstructing why that’s silly, I’m going to write that unfortunate piece’s feminine equal, one that won’t be as controversial because men will agree with me: they don’t like this movie. They say they don’t like this movie because it is schmaltzy and talky, and because “nothing happens.” Goodfellas (which I happen to like very much) is talky and schmaltzy in a crime nostalgia sense, but it’s given “objective” masterpiece status because men like it and see versions of themselves in its larger than life characters. Something like The Way We Were gets relegated to the bargain bin because women like and see themselves in Barbra Streisand, the perennial Woman Who Is Too Much For Men To Love. Gangsters are cooler than college communists. And, before you tell me, I know: you can’t really compare an auteurial triumph (where the goyishe lead has a Jewish partner) to a little romantic drama (where the Jewish lead has a goyishe partner). But that doesn’t mean I won’t ruffle some feathers by trying.
There is no way for me to be “objective” about The Way We Were, so I’m not going to try, because I think it’s sort of nonsensical and patriarchal to insist on objectivity when talking about something that hits so close to home. I don’t think it’s possible to be “objective” about movies; I think the best movies make you feel specifically.
A comparison more realistic than Goodfellas is to Normal People, Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel turned 2020 TV series about two Irish teens whose friendship and love story defies class and social capital. As I told Twitter, Normal People the book made me want to tear my heart out of my own chest and throw it on some railroad tracks, and Normal People the TV series made me want to physically claw every last bit of skin from my body. That’s not typically how I experience TV! I’m never chill, but I’m usually MORE chill than a series actually sucking the life out of me.
Normal People and The Way We Were tap into the darkest recesses of my heart: the part of me who romantically views myself as somewhat of a loner and an outsider who’s listened to Lorde’s “Liability” one too many times. The Way We Were is sort of my Revenge of the Nerds, minus all that gross stuff that’s in Revenge of the Nerds. There are not a lot of movies with loud, lefty, Jewish leading ladies, much less loud, lefty, Jewish leading ladies who get well-deserved, complicated, and ultimately beautiful love stories. Nothing comes easy for Katie and Hubbell (or Marianne and Connell from Normal People, for that matter) — nothing except their continued fascination with and unconditional love for each other.
The thing that sticks with me about The Way We Were is the way Katie (Barbra Streisand) yearns, freely and openly, for a love she’s never had without compromising on her values. She wants Hubbell to love her, but she doesn’t need him to love her — she has a fulfilling professional and personal politics without him. She is strong and funny, but utterly humorless when it comes to causes that matter to her. While Hubbell’s terrible friends belittle her and her beliefs for years, she is unmoved; all she cares about is the way Hubbell changes when they aren’t around.
Hubbell is your classic handsome, rich, WASPy coward, who suffers from caring too much about what his friends think about who he loves. Katie may be the first person who’s ever told him the truth, but she can’t fit in with his vapid, apolitical, rich, WASPy friends, so it was never going to work out. That’s the earth-shattering, skin-clawing tragedy of The Way We Were: no matter how much we see that these people love each other, their irreconcilable differences aren’t ever reconciled. Katie will always be a mouthy Jew, and Hubbell ultimately needs to be married to someone more neutral and submissive; someone who’s just like him.
I cannot think about the end of this movie without crying, so I won’t. But The Way We Were is a beautifully-packaged, tragic romance that ends more heroically than Normal People does, with Katie and Hubbell happier apart than they ever were together. Great love stories may span decades, but sometimes it’s better for all involved if they don’t work out in the end. I can accept that this movie may not appeal to everyone, but it’s a masterpiece in my very subjective eyes, and I think everyone would be a lot happier if we let go of the narrow criteria we think make a movie “objectively” perfect.