Hannah Gibson looks back on Hollywood's seismic year through its strikes—and how The Way We Were had been looking back all along.
“At some point, the jig is up,” SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher said at the press conference on July 13th when she announced the commencement of the now recently ended actors’ strike. “How far apart we are in so many things. They plead poverty whilst giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting.”
Her delivery is assured and pointed. Until the specific terms of the SAG-AFTRA strike are mentioned, the speech is a timeless call to strike that could be from any era in industrial action history. “This is a moment of history. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble,” Drescher said.
The prolific SAG-AFTRA and Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) strikes this year strengthened a punch upwards for the wider American labour movement. When SAG-AFTRA members joined their WGA colleagues (who were on strike from 2nd May to 27th September) on the picket line over the summer, it was the first time the unions representing actors and screenwriters had gone on strike concurrently since 1960.
These strikes addressed how, with the onset of streaming, those working in the creative industries have no longer been able to rely on royalty payments contingent with a show’s reruns. Both actors and writers have faced these declining residuals, alongside wages that haven’t kept up with inflation. Streaming has also complicated job opportunities, as TV shows now run for shorter seasons over longer periods of time, meaning there is less work available for actors and writers.
Sydney Pollack’s 1973 film The Way We Were captures another historical political moment in Hollywood and reflects on the landscape left behind for filmmakers. The film is woven together through a series of vignettes and spans nearly two decades, framing the love story of Jewish anti-war activist Katie Morosky (Barbra Streisand) and the WASP-ish gentile Hubbell Gardener (Robert Redford) as they navigate their pre-war college years up to the McCarthyism of 1950s Hollywood. As with this year’s strikes, Hollywood in the film acts as a weathervane for the apolitical class. When issues infiltrate the film industry, it is a clear marker of what is happening across the rest of American society.
Early in the film, Katie Morosky holds the focus of her peers at a peace rally as she calls on the US government to stand with Spain during its civil war. “What are you scared of?” she asks a heckling crowd. It is a sentiment she repeats throughout the film, when confronted by those who will not stand up for what is right. In her college speech as a member of the Young Communist League, Katie has none of Drescher’s authority, but the language she uses is the same as she calls for solidarity from her classmates.
As part of the 50th anniversary release this year, an extended 4k cut of The Way We Were was made available on Blu-ray with two previously unseen scenes. The addition of these scenes responds to long-standing criticism of the film which argues that it straddles politics and romance whilst being unable to fully commit to either. This re-release has been championed by Streisand herself, who, in her 2023 memoir My Name is Barbra, dedicated a chapter to her interpretations of and frustrations with the project.
In one of the deleted scenes, Katie hears a young girl giving a speech about how the McCarthy witch hunts have infiltrated her university. “Lecturers and staff have already started being informed on,” she implores. In post-war America, the ‘Red Scare’ pushed people to ‘inform’ on their neighbours and colleagues to the authorities if they sympathised with communism. The most prominent government committee involved with anti-communist investigations was the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC).
As Katie watches the young girl stand up for what she believes in, Katie is confronted with the hypocrisy of the life she now leads, rubbing shoulders with powerful filmmakers and executives. “What hit me first was how much this student reminded me of my younger self in college. [Katie is thinking], ‘My God, did I look like that? Did I sound like that?’” Streisand recalls.
The second deleted scene shows that Katie herself has been informed on by a former comrade from the Communist Youth League. “It’s the climax of the story, it’s the catalyst for everything that happens next,” Streisand writes.“Without those two crucial scenes, there’s nothing about what forced her decision [to leave Hubbell]. You think [Katie and Hubbell] split up because he shtupped this other girl one time.”
For Katie, the personal is political. Even in her most domestic moments, she experiences the world through her lens as a lower-class, Jewish woman, working too hard for too few results (“You’ve only got eleven jobs,” a friend jokes to her in one scene). Her love story with Hubbell plays with the classic archetype of opposites attract, and subverts the trope of the Jewish man who falls for the ‘shishka’ (a non-Jewish woman).
Early drafts of Arthur Laurents’ script drew criticism that the character of Hubbell was two-dimensional, but Redford uses this to play the character with a deliberate sense of inaccessibility. Katie first sees something admirable in Hubbell when she reads a short story he wrote during college, and when their paths cross at the end of World War Two, she again compliments his writing.
Throughout the film, Katie compromises to fit herself into Hubbell’s apolitical world. She irons her curly hair and socialises with people she does not like. In a repeated visual device, Katie crosses the street towards Hubbell whilst he waits for her on the opposite footpath. Whilst Katie presses for him to travel to Paris to write another novel, Hubbell chooses the sandy beaches of Miami where he pursues work as a scriptwriter, adapting his Great American novel for the silver screen.
Despite her best efforts, Katie struggles with how Hollywood prioritises profit over principles. She clashes with the director and producer of Hubbell’s film. As socialist screenwriter Paula Reisner (Viveca Lindfors) comments kindly to her, “You are like these damn palm trees. They don’t belong here either.”
The film’s backdrop of the Hollywood blacklist creates tension within Katie, as she is once again faced with a cause she believes in. The Hollywood blacklist was made up of workers based on their membership in, alleged membership of, or sympathy for communism. In 1947, a group of writers and directors were subpoenaed to give evidence to the HUAC, but refused to testify. They were subsequently blacklisted, and became known as the Hollywood Ten.
While Katie speaks out in support of the Hollywood Ten’s right to freedom of speech and beliefs, Hubbell bows to the whims of his studio executives. Hubbell’s writing acts as a barometer for his integrity. As the script adaptation of his novel changes with little resistance from Hubbell, we can start to understand his lack of conviction. Hubbell is a member of the lost generation, believing in nothing but also failing to recognise his own privilege and power.
In an explosive argument with Katie, Hubbell finally reveals his political slant. “Nothing's gonna change,” he insists, “and after years of bad blood, when it’s practical for a fascist producer to hire a communist writer because his movie’s in trouble, he’ll do it. They make movies, have dinner. They’ll play tennis and make passes at each other’s wives.” Katie responds grimly: “People are their principles, Hubbell.”
During this year’s SAG-AFTRA strike, the union called for the shutdown of ongoing productions, delay in starting new projects and for actors to not to promote their work on any public platform. Many high-earning celebrities, recognising their power, showed support for their co-workers and put pressure on studio executives. A-listers joining the picket lines made clear that their goal was to raise the standard of work conditions for lower-paid workers, rather than better their own lot. However, over the course of the strike, several celebrities were criticised for breaking the terms of the picket.
Ryan Murphy did not shut down the production of the latest instalment of American Horror Story. Kim Kardashian received backlash for tweeting whilst on its set. Selena Gomez shared the trailer for her latest acting project on Instagram, later deleting the post when she received negative comments online. Perhaps most notably, Drew Barrymore used non-union writers to continue running her talk show. A picket outside her studio soon forced the production back into hiatus.
The widespread coverage of the SAG-AFTRA strike allowed for access to the picket from across the world. This meant that there was little tolerance for scabbing, and those who did break strike terms were quickly arraigned. Previous strikes in Hollywood pre-date the information age we live in now. During the Hollywood blacklist, informants were not faced with such criticism or direct reactions to their testimonies.
When The Way We Were was being made in early 1970s, the legacy of the blacklist still made people nervous. The blacklist lasted officially until 1962, well within living memory for those working in Hollywood. Studios did not want to offend Republicans in power as Richard Nixon, president at the time, had been a persecuting member of the HUAC. In an interview in the mid-1990s, Pollock admitted, “There was resistance from the studio. We had to emasculate the picture so it did not blend politics and love story to the extent it could have.”
Hollywood is an industry built of legacies. The pressure experienced by those making The Way We Were in 1973 offesr a cautionary tale of the fallout of political action, even decades after the fact. Yet, as the beating heart of the film, Katie shows how when the goal is building a better world, the fight is never really finished. “All this doubletalk, but you hold on,” Hubbell says to her at one point, “I don’t know how you do it.”
“I don’t know how you can’t,” she returns immediately.
At the beginning of the SAG-AFTRA strikes, Dreshner described the work stoppage as a pivotal movement which would define the future of acting and writing as workplaces. With the union reaching a tenuous agreement with the studios in November after 118 days, the legacy of this political action will be instrumental in continuing to build protection of workers’ rights and fair pay in Hollywood for decades to come.