On February 2, 1974, “The Way We Were” by Barbra Streisand hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The nostalgic ballad from the 1973 film of the same name also became Billboard’s No. 1 song for 1974 and won an Academy Award for Best Song in 1974 and the Grammy for Song Of The Year in 1975. Although specifically written about the relationship between Katie Morosky (Streisand) and Hubbell Gardiner (Robert Redford) at the center of the film, the title song also has an emotional appeal beyond the film’s premise. The lyrics – and Streisand’s performance of them – encapsulate our longing for a more innocent time, before life got complicated.
“The Way We Were,” with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, appears in both the beginning and the conclusion of the heart-wrenching film. Directed by Sydney Pollack, “The Way We Were” revolves around the story about the star-crossed lovers, Katie and Hubbell. With its now-famous opening line, “Memories, light the corners of my mind,” the song sets the nostalgic tone for one of the most romantic, yet tragic, relationships ever chronicled in modern film history. In an interview, Hamlisch explained his goal was to capture “the sorrow and despondency and pain of the relationship and its outcome, the frustration and yearning of the woman in the relationship, and the star-crossed nature of it all.”
When audiences first hear “The Way We Were,” the opening film titles roll as we watch Katie and Hubbell in action on their Cornell University campus. Although the audience has yet to watch their story unfold, the song provides an emotional weight to the film from
the start. Katie is Jewish and a headstrong activist, handing out pamphlets and delivering Marxist speeches. Meanwhile, we see Hubbell, a carefree WASP, getting cheered on by his friends as he engages in his various athletic pursuits. The two seem to be the most unlikely of romantic matches. Despite their differences, it is established that they are attracted to each other even in college. Years later, they are reunited, fall in love and get married. However, their ideological differences ultimately tear them apart, even though they have an inherent fondness for one another and even a child together, which brings us to one of the most tear-jerking movie endings.
At first, the iconic final scene between Katie and Hubbell in front of The Plaza Hotel was edited without music in the background. However, in order to elicit the full sobbing effect from the audience, it was decided to include “The Way We Were” at the film’s conclusion. As Katie and Hubbell run into each other in front of the New York City hotel, Hubbell is with a new woman, while Katie is participating in a “Ban The Bomb” protest. Katie sweeps Hubbell’s hair from his face like she used to do when they were a couple, and says, “Your girl is lovely, Hubbell. Why don’t you bring her for a drink?” The title song begins to soar as the former lovers embrace, expressing the unspoken moment between them: “Memories/May be beautiful and yet/What’s too painful to remember/We simply choose to forget/So it’s the laughter/We will remember/Whenever we remember/The way we were.”