Julia (1977)
First screened and reviewed in Spring 1999 / Most recently screened in July 2016
Director: Fred Zinnemann. Cast: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary Murphy, Lisa Pelikan, Susan Jones, Maximilian Schell, Dora Doll, Elisabeth Mortensen, Meryl Streep, Cathleen Nesbitt, Lambert Wilson, Gérard Buhr, John Glover. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent (based on the memoir Pentimento by Lillian Hellman).

Twitter Capsule: I'm an ideal audience for a story about the best thing you ever did being a favor for Vanessa Redgrave. But! Hazy. Awkward.

VOR:   In theory, and sometimes in practice, a drama about two women's personal and then political commitments to each other is a rare, exciting prospect. But the delivery disappoints.

Photo © 1977 20th Century Fox
Sometimes people mean more to you, or something different to you, in memory than they did in person. Fred Zinnemann's Julia describes the process of one women's realization that a childhood friend not only had a greater impact on her personality than she had thought, but that the same woman grown up still has much to teach her if only she could be tracked down. Despite the implications of the title, Julia is the name not of the central character but of that remembered friend, half dream and half spectre, who inspires our heroine to actions and thoughts of which she did not think herself capable.

In that sense, Julia is a ghost story, since the idea of the left-wing political activist Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, permeates the picture, hovering all around the head of playwright and protagonist Lillian Hellman, portrayed here by Jane Fonda. Julia's screen time is little but her wispy, luminous, itinerant persona sets the mood for the whole picture. As might be expected from such a concept, however, Julia is lovely to look at but as faint and muddled as a daydream; Alvin Sargent's screenplay is full of plot points but the film as a whole is elusive and insubstantial, all despite the earnest efforts of a talented cast and a proven director.

Lillian Hellman exists in two versions in Julia, once as the up-and-coming and eventually celebrated playwright of The Children's Hour, but also as a tremulous, self-questioning society woman who wonders just how courageous she can be in pushing the liberalism to which she pays lip service into actual, effective practice. That these two concepts of Hellman do not hang together well is actually fundamental to Julia's explicit idea that who we are and who we would like to be are often quite different people—that the ideas we pretend to live by and the life we actually live can sometimes have astonishingly little in common.

What is disorienting from the get-go about Julia, however, is its almost complete negligence in fleshing out who Lillian Hellman is or what she represents before the action of the film transpires. Sargent's script relies too heavily on the audience's familiarity with Hellman as a playwright whose star was fast on the rise in the 1930s, as the live-in lover of gumshoe scribe Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards, who inexplicably won an Oscar), and as the notoriously outspoken, liberal-minded commentator who produced a series of bestselling memoirs in the 1970s, one of which inspired the story for Julia itself. The cursory evocation here of Hellman and Hammett's relationship suggests a mutual, deep affection coupled with a mutual, cross-generational professional rivalry, but a great deal of that reading is informed by outside knowledge of these two icons of the period.

The sum of their scenes at the outset of Julia is that Lillian has writer's block, prompting Hammett (as she calls him) to suggest that she visit Europe briefly to find out if the trip away from home will help unclutter her head. She actually unclogs her creative arteries and produces The Children's Hour before her trip, winning for herself great acclaim and making her upper-crust New York circle proud of her, but the idea to return to Europe and search for her Julia, her best childhood friend, has already taken hold of her imagination.

That kind of quick exposition is great for meeting Zinnemann's pacing purposes, but Hellman is fired off into the main narrative of the story before we have any concrete understanding of her personality, her beliefs, or her relationships with anyone in her life, past or present. Such lack of information is almost always crippling to any characterization, but in this film, where Lillian's awakening to political realities and her answer to the calls of friendship are the most prominent themes, we can hardly afford to understand our protagonist so little. The series of epiphanies and self-tests which Lillian experiences through the movie mean far less to the audience than they would if we knew where Lillian was coming from when the picture began.

Editor Walter Murch, who later handled memory and flashback sequences so beautifully in The English Patient, shows a similar deftness in inter-cutting scenes of the young Julia and Lillian with the dominant narrative of the adult women's interactions. Julia lost faith in her social privileges and material resources as early as childhood, disgusted with the grandparents who are her guardians for taking her to foreign locales and refusing to give aid to the needy populations they found there. "I didn't make them sick," her father insists to Julia when the family visits Cairo. Later, she is studying with Freud in Vienna when fascist uprisings are beginning across Europe and World War II looms on the horizon; she gives up her academic track and commits herself instead to a ring of anti-fascist activists. Julia wishes to retrieve the money saved in her home accounts so that the activists can use it as bribe money for the release of unfairly imprisoned Jews, politicians, and private citizens. Of course, she cannot travel freely back to get the money, and so she commissions Lillian's help to sneak $50,000 on a train to Berlin, one stop along a trip Lillian had designed only as a visit to meet her long-lost friend.

Because Julia has been absent from Lillian's life for such large spaces, the film requires that whoever plays Julia be possessed of such warmth, mystery, and obvious conviction that Lillian's ongoing commitment to her—indeed, Lillian's decision to jump into subversive political action after ducking such a move for so long—may be understood by the audience. As such, Vanessa Redgrave is perfectly cast, her real-life associations with leftist politics an ideal penumbra to cast around Julia, and her radiant, otherworldly beauty that is exactly the sort we could expect to survive in Lillian Hellman's mind for decades. "I thought it was the best face I had ever seen," Lillian remembers about Julia/Redgrave, and we believe her. Thankfully, Redgrave—who, like Robards and screenwriter Sargent (Ordinary People), also won an Oscar for her work here—is also a consummate and rigorous performer, and she refuses the temptation to sentimentality when Lillian and Julia have their long-postponed but abbreviated reunion.

Fonda's work as Hellman is less successful, as the actress seems so focused on projecting her anxiety and self-doubt along the high-stakes train ride through Germany—Hellman is Jewish, so the threat to her is maximized—that we can hardly believe no one would notice her jittery hands, or her nervous mouth, and view her with suspicion. Indeed, why would Julia have selected a friend so unaccustomed to such bravery and secrecy to fulfill this dangerous mission? Julia comes across as far too invested in her cause to have taken the risk on Hellman merely to teach her friend a lesson about commitment and courage, or just to facilitate the climactic reunion.

Director Zinnemann, familiar with such intrigue plots from films like The Day of the Jackal, creates a laudable level of suspense along the train ride, but the longer the film continues, the more we realize how in the dark we are about Lillian and Julia's character, and even more so about the nature and the history of their friendship. Late in the movie, when a loathsome member of New York society tells Lillian that "everyone knows about you and Julia"—clearly conveying a widely-held perception that the two have been lovers—we have no idea how seriously to take his assertion. Hellman swats him across the face and upends the restaurant table on top of him, but is this the behavior of a wrongly accused woman or a woman shocked to have her secrets so callously exposed?

All of the charismatic supporting performances in the world, including those of Redgrave and of Maximilian Schell as an agent of Julia's organization, cannot make up for the prodigious holes in the film's portrayal of Lillian Hellman, and since the precise historical accuracy of more than a few episodes from her memoirs has come into question, we cannot even rely on our existing "knowledge" of Hellman or her past to fill in the holes in Sargent's script. Nor do the meticulous recreations of New York and Europe compensate for what's missing dramatically in Julia, a film which professes to criticize the complacency and indulgence of the rich but which nonetheless makes conspicuous use of expensive costumes and elaborate sets in a way Julia herself would no doubt have found hateful.

There is a shot that both opens and closes Julia of Lillian Hellman's silhouette as she sits in a boat, holding a fishing rod, remembering at dusk it seems the entire story that Zinnemann's film relates. Like much in Julia, the shadowy palette of the shot and Georges Delerue's mournful music project the kind of mystery and sadness that Zinnemann and his colleagues would like the film to possess. Sometimes, however, one can overdose on enigma, and that seems to be the case with Julia. We realize as the film closes that we are in no better position than we were at the beginning to fill in that opaque silhouette of Lillian Hellman. Grade: C+

(in July 2008: B–)
(in Spring 1999: C)

P.S., July 2000: A reader named Robert S. Helfman has written me to say that Pentimento, the Hellman memoir from which the story of Julia was derived, contains all the ambiguities and problems that I have identified in the film—or at least, that the screenplay of Julia reproduces the dialogue and structure of Pentimento so exactly that I should perhaps be reserved in faulting the filmmakers for aspects of the story that existed in the book. I thank Mr. Helfman for his insights about the book, though I hold fast to my disappointment in the picture. If the screenplay of Julia is so wedded to the memoir as to back away from resolving structural problems or narrative vagaries, I take that hesitancy as yet another proof that director Zinnemann and screenwriter Sargent have failed to give their film a specific point of view or interpretive insight; their film settles for showing us what Hellman wants us to see, without actually saying anything about the characters or actions it depicts.

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Fred Zinnemann
Best Actress: Jane Fonda
Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave
Best Supporting Actor: Jason Robards
Best Supporting Actor: Maximilian Schell
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alvin Sargent
Best Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Best Costume Design: Anthea Sylbert
Best Film Editing: Walter Murch & Marcel Durham
Best Original Score: Georges Delerue

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Fred Zinnemann
Best Actress: Jane Fonda
Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave
Best Supporting Actor: Jason Robards
Best Supporting Actor: Maximilian Schell
Best Screenplay: Alvin Sargent

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Best Adapted Screenplay (Drama)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actor (Schell)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Redgrave); Best Supporting Actor (Robards); Best Cinematography
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Actress (Fonda); Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography

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