How Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford’s ‘The Way We Were’ Was Inspired by a Real-Life Gay Romance (Book Excerpt)

In his new book, “The Way They Were,” TheWrap theater critic Robert Hofler recounts how screenwriter Arthur Laurents based the film on his own love life

Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford in a publicity still for "The Way We Were;" (inset) Arthur Laurents and Tom Hatcher (Columbia Pictures/Photofest; Getty Images; Photofest)

“Arthur remembers it being a 125 pages. I remember reading a 50-page treatment,” said Barbra Streisand. Regardless of how many pages of a synopsis, or an outline or a so-called “treatment,” that Arthur Laurents had written, Streisand wanted those pages, titled “The Way We Were.” Better yet, she wanted them now. “I fell in love with it!” she gushed.

More important, Streisand put her enthusiasm into the only words that count in Hollywood. “I want this to be my next movie,” she told the producer Ray Stark. Stark had produced “Funny Girl” on Broadway and also brought it to the screen, with Streisand reprising the role of Fanny Brice, who happened to be the producer’s mother-in-law. The New York theater had long been home to Jewish artists who refused to hide their heritage. The movies, not so much. Streisand in the movie “Funny Girl” was historic, a Jewish actress playing a proudly Jewish character. “The Way We Were” would build on that breakthrough, providing Streisand with her first dramatic role in which being Jewish was again central to the story. With “The Way We Were,” she was going back to the well of “Funny Girl,” only she was delving deeper. Much deeper.

Again, it was the fairy tale of Cinderella, who, falling in love with the handsome Prince Charming, sheds her drab persona and is made to feel beautiful. The fact that Omar Sharif in the movie version of “Funny Girl” wasn’t Jewish, despite playing a character named Nicky Arnstein, diluted the romance’s Semitism to make it more palatable to general audiences. What Laurents delivered with “The Way We Were” would be radically different due to the male lead character. What he wrote put on display the various tropes of what it meant to be Jewish in America and how different it was to be Gentile in America. He then let his two protagonists, Katie Morosky and Hubbell Gardiner, meet in the most intimate of contexts: love and marriage. Katie, the Jewish political firebrand, represents discrimination, morality and a fraught past. Hubbell, the gorgeous Gentile jock for whom everything comes “too easily,” represents privilege, aestheticism, and a wide-open future.

The political split embodied by the two characters is obvious. More subtle is the aesthetics divide, which has Katie telling Hubbell, “I’m not attractive in the right way, am I? I don’t have the right style for you, do I?”

What could go wrong when such a couple fell in love and got married and had a baby?…

It was a subject Laurents not only knew well. He lived it, his many male lovers being as Gentile as they were gorgeous.

Laurents wrote a lot about his love for Farley Granger in his first memoir, “Original Story By.” He wrote even more about the movie star’s “beauty,” which he called “striking and improbable.” Regarding Granger’s personality and intellect, he used the somewhat more earthbound word: uncomplicated. Laurents worshiped good looks because, as he put it, “I never liked what I looked like.” As he aged, Laurents often commiserated with friends, saying, “The good thing about never being physically attractive is that no one will ever call you ‘a former beauty.’”

Long before anyone ever called Granger “a former beauty,” he and Laurents lived together in the Hollywood Hills, and they attended all the best weekend afternoon parties hosted by Charlie Chaplin and Gene Kelly. They even traveled to Europe together, a trip to Venice, Italy, being especially memorable, since it led to Laurents’s writing his one and only Broadway hit as a playwright.

“The Time of the Cuckoo” tells the story of a single middle-aged woman, Leona Samish, who visits the city of canals and tacky glass figurines to find love there with a handsome Italian man.

“Arthur was a lot like Leona,” said the playwright’s longtime assistant, Ashley Feinstein. “He had this thing in his mind that he was not good looking. And when he went to Europe, he probably thought of himself as plain and single, and he liked good-looking people. He wouldn’t admit it, but he certainly did like good-looking people.”

Besides being “uncomplicated,” Laurents described Granger as “[g]uiltless, gorgeous and gentile” with regard to why the two men broke up when the movie star had sex with the couple’s mutual friend Leonard Bernstein. The only word missing in all that glorious alliteration is the word golden to describe the man who replaced Granger in the arms of Laurents.

Tom Hatcher got around in Hollywood, despite being an out-of-work actor who worked first as a truck driver for Pabst Blue Ribbon and then as a manager at William B. Riley, a high-end men’s clothing store in Beverly Hills. Hatcher counted the author of “The Berlin Stories” and his very young artist partner as close friends.

“I don’t know how Chris [Isherwood] and I first met Tom,” said Don Bachardy. “Probably we met at cocktail parties. Tom was so incredibly handsome.”

James MacArthur, Jane Fonda, Tom Hatcher and Arthur Laurents in publicity still for “Invitation to a March” in 1960 (Photo: Friedman-Abeles/Photofest; courtesy of Citadel Press)

Gore Vidal was yet another famous homosexual bedazzled by Hatcher’s looks, and knowing Laurents’s taste in handsome Gentile men, the novelist recommended that his fellow writer friend pay a visit to William B. Riley to check out the Blond. That meeting led to Hatcher becoming Laurents’s boyfriend, and it was only a matter of weeks before the one introduced the other to the most famous same-sex couple living in Santa Monica Canyon or, perhaps, the whole world in 1955.

“There was an electrical current between them,” Bachardy said of Laurents and Hatcher. “They weren’t just two men together. Something was going on, very high energy.” By comparison, the 30-year difference in age between Isherwood and Bachardy turned the 12 years separating Laurents and Hatcher into a mere blip.

But it wasn’t a blip, and as with so many relationships involving lovers of vastly different ages, it is the older person who often provides the security, stability and wisdom, as Granger described the situation in his memoir, “Include Me Out.” Unlike that affair with the movie star, Laurents also provided the money, as well as the career opportunities, for his newer and younger boyfriend, since Hatcher never fulfilled his dream of becoming a movie star – or ever landing a role in the movies.

But then there was always Broadway.

It wasn’t long before Laurents got his new boyfriend cast in a small role, credited as simply the Boy, in a play he had written. The year 1957 was especially busy for the writer. Not only had he written “A Clearing in the Woods,” set to open on Broadway that January with Kim Hunter in the lead, he was also working on the book for this great new Broadway musical. By the time “West Side Story” opened in September, Hatcher had long been out of work, “A Clearing in the Woods” having closed after only a month of performances the winter before. The actor had to wait three long years for his second Broadway credit; it came when his lover wrote and directed “Invitation to a March.”

Hatcher’s two Broadway roles weren’t demanding, but they posed problems, especially “Invitation to a March.” “Tom had a lot of trouble with the part,” Feinstein recalled. “Arthur did everything he could to help him, but Tom wasn’t much of an actor. I think he was happier when he gave it up.”

Not long after “Invitation” closed three months into its run, Hatcher ended his affair with Laurents to return to Los Angeles, where he booked a small role on a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone.” In “It’s a Good Life,” he is one of a few guests held hostage at a bizarre birthday party hosted by a young boy, played by Billy Mumy, who exerts extraordinary powers over the frightened adults.

Deeply in love, Laurents didn’t wait long to follow his ex-boyfriend to California and, as he explained it, put his pride “in cold storage” to bring Hatcher home. It was not a difficult rapprochement. Laurents facilitated it by making Hatcher the manager of Arthur Laurents Enterprises as soon as the couple returned to New York together. It was during this period that Laurents also bought 9 St. Luke’s Place, which led to Hatcher’s career as a renovator of houses. After that Greenwich Village purchase, Hatcher encouraged Laurents to buy other old buildings in need of repair, and soon the couple owned several properties near their beach house at 220 Dune Road on Quogue, Long Island. The lover of Laurents put to good use his degree in architecture from Oklahoma University.

Zvi Howard Rosenman recalled walking into the recently renovated 9 St. Luke’s Place in the spring of 1968, and he immediately took a step back. “Wow, this house is incredible!” the future film and TV producer exclaimed. His first impression of Hatcher himself was somewhat less enthusiastic.

“When I first saw Tom, I thought, typical shegetz,” he recalled. “You know what a shiksa is? A shegetz is a male shiksa. It’s Yiddish. It’s taken from the Hebrew word shikootz, which means ‘bug,’ which gives you an idea of what some Jews think of a shegetz.”

The shegetz became a romantic obsession for Laurents.

“Arthur had a lot of Jewish friends. He didn’t have Jewish boyfriends,” Feinstein noted.

Rosenman went on to describe the Laurents-Hatcher relationship, which is the story of Katie and Hubbell in “The Way We Were.” “The Jew is the dynamic one, and when you fall in love with a vapid shegetz, it’s because he’s the one you want to be, the beautiful one. That’s what attracts some Jews to Gentiles, the vapidity. There’s no drama,” said Rosenman.

The shegetz throws the stereotypical American concept of the woman as sex symbol or love object on its head. Now it’s the man who is displayed as a trophy, turned into a thing of beauty, a love object. What Rosenman thought when he first met Hatcher was something Feinstein never dared express to his boss.

“Arthur did not want to face anything but that Tom was God’s gift to the world,” said Laurents’s assistant. “I wouldn’t say anything bad about Tom, because Arthur had put him on a pedestal, although Arthur started realizing that all his fancy friends treated Tom shabbily.”

Laurents noted, “For years, people were cruel to Tom as the less notable half of a couple. At least they lusted after him, so there was that.” He gloated when his friends were “lusting after” Hatcher. It was a pride reflected in the novel “The Way We Were,” when one of Katie’s wartime buddies wonders aloud, “How did Little Red Riding Hood get Prince Charming?”

In that novel, published a year before the release of the movie, Laurents also refers to Katie as a Sleeping Beauty who is made to feel beautiful by a kiss from her Prince Charming. Feinstein saw similarities between the two fictional characters and the real-life couple. “Arthur was always doing more to keep the relationship going, and [regarding] that dichotomy, Robert Redford is more like Tom, and Arthur is more like Barbra. There’s something about Tom being Gentile and Arthur being Jewish. Redford is more dashing. Tom was not dashing. He was a hunk. The Ken doll thing is there,” Feinstein observed. As with Katie’s pursuit of Hubbell in the movie, Laurents never stopped working to energize his real-life relationship, and that one-sided commitment created tension in the couple. “Arthur was afraid Tom was going to leave him, because he did leave him a few times,” said Feinstein.

Boyd Gaines, Patti LuPone, director Arthur Laurents and Laura Benanti take their curtain call at Broadway’s opening night of “Gypsy” at the in 2008. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

Laurents’s assistant wasn’t the only one to see it. Before he was a Broadway producer of shows like “Wicked” and “Kimberly Akimbo,” David Stone worked behind the scenes on the Laurents-directed revival of “Gypsy” in 1989. “I saw Arthur as Katie and Hubbell as Tom. Most people did,” said Stone.

Scott Rudin remained friends with Laurents despite his not bringing the writer’s 1999 play, “Jolson Sings Again,” to Broadway. “Arthur was never judgmental with Tom the way the movie is with Hubbell,” said the producer.

That lack of judgment is why Robert Redford initially rejected Laurent’s script. The actor thought Hubbell came off as a “Ken doll.” Redford also complained, “And all I am supposed to be is this blond, blue-eyed hunk of romance that all the girls go crazy over, and I have absolutely nothing else to do in the picture.” The movie star’s criticism reflects Laurents’s “lusting” remark regarding Hatcher.

Much to Laurents’s dismay, a troop of writers was hired by Ray Stark to beef up the Hubbell role, to give him some depth, to convince Redford to costar in the movie. But Rudin was right: In his three memoirs and in the plays “The Enclave” (1974) and “Two Lives” (2005) with their two thinly disguised Hatcher characters, Laurents is entirely supportive, never critical of the man he loved for 52 years.

“Arthur’s writing about Tom is so fulsome,” said Jesse Green, chief theater critic for the New York Times. Green and Laurents clashed over the journalist’s 1999 profile of the playwright in a New York magazine piece slyly titled “When You’re a Shark, You’re a Shark All the Way.” Deeply distraught by the profile, Laurents went on to call Green “a souped-up Rottweiler.”

Those people who knew Laurents around the time he wrote “The Way We Were” tend to see not only Laurents as Katie but Hatcher as Hubbell. “Arthur believed in love, and he wanted a love story, and ‘The Way We Were’ is a story of mismatches,” said Mary Corliss. “How could it not be about them?”

“Arthur and Tom always came together,” said Corliss. “They were very modern, very open.” On the subject of how much Laurents borrowed from their relationship to write about Katie and Hubbell, Corliss believed the film romance to be “a very idealized” version of the two men’s life together. “Hubbell is patrician. He is an idealized Tom. Tom was an Oklahoma boy. He was a fun kid.”

Beyond the blond hair and the incredible great looks, both Redford and Hatcher sported amazing smiles that could not have been more dazzlingly unique. They exemplified the difference between being patrician and being fun. Redford’s smile communicated that he could be admired, but not to touch. Hatcher’s was an invitation for full engagement. As the MoMA crowd learned that summer on Quoque, Laurents was gay but his lover was a very bisexual man.

Ashley Feinstein also noted similarities and differences between Hatcher and Hubbell. “Robert Redford is more like Tom, and Arthur is more like Barbra, Tom being Gentile and Arthur being Jewish,” he recalled. When Feinstein’s boss was working on “The Way We Were,” he told him, “I’m writing something for Barbra, but it is really a lot of me from my college days.”

Excerpted from the forthcoming book “The Way They Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen,” published by Citadel Press. © 2023

Robert Hofler discusses “The Way They Were” at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Jan. 25 at 7 pm PT.

robert hofler
Robert Hofler, TheWrap’s lead theater critic, has worked as an editor at Life, Us Weekly and Variety. His books include “The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson,” “Party Animals,” “Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange, How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos” and “Money, Murder, and Dominick Dunne.” His latest book is “The Way We Were: How Epic Battles and Bruised Egos Brought a Classic Hollywood Love Story to the Screen.”