Director: Fred Zinnemann
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In voiceover, Jane Fonda as American playwright Lillian Hellman, approaches a person, a story from her past as a painting that, through fading, shows lines of the artist’s original ideas revised and reshaped to form the final image, or even an entirely different picture. This is, of course, the definition of the word “pentimento,” which is the title of Hellman’s 1973 memoir in which she recounts the story of Julia. It has since been reported that while “Julia” was real, Hellman never knew her. According to Collin Kelley in his review of the 2006 DVD release of Julia:
Muriel Gardener, a psychologist who shared an attorney with Hellman, claimed to be the real Julia and that the playwright lifted her story for Pentimento. The similarities between Gardener’s tale and Julia are striking: both studied pre-med at Oxford, went on to Vienna to study with Freud, became active in anti-fascist groups and helped smuggle money and people in and out of Nazi-occupied territories. Rather than $50,000, Muriel had a close friend smuggle fake American passports into Germany in a stylish hat. Gardener, who wrote her story in Code Name Mary and told it in the documentary The Real Julia, said she believed the lawyer they shared gave Hellman details about her World War II adventures (who) then appropriated them for Julia. Gardener and Hellman never met.
However you approach this lie, which is more serious when presented in a memoir than it would be in, say, the self-referential spoofs of Guy Maddin, there’s no question that Hellman had a eye for a great story and the dramatic flair that made her such a sensational playwright. Screenwriter Alvin Sargent took this story and spun a taut, absorbing screenplay that garnered him an Oscar. Add the Oscar-nominated work of director Fred Zinnemann, who takes his affinity for trains, close-ups, and ability to coax iconic performances to dizzying heights, and the cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, which evokes nostalgia and melancholy without ever entirely succumbing to them, and Julia becomes more than a story about two women. Julia stands as a monument to courage and compassion by helping viewers understand what it might feel like to risk everything for a cause.
When we enter Hellman’s life, she is living with writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) in a beachfront idyll and struggling to write her first play. Hammett, singularly unhelpful in the writing area, suggests that she get a change of scene. “Why don’t you go visit your friend Julia?” Memories of her girlhood basking in the world of privilege, but, more importantly, in the gently strong company of Julia come flooding back. A scene of the young Julia (Lisa Pelikan) and Lillian (Susan Jones) dining at a massively long table in the mansion of Julia’s grandparents telegraphs a world of stiff formality distanced from the problems of everyday life. Julia is a creative, lively girl with whom Lillian enjoys playing word games and fashioning narratives. Rather surprisingly, Julia says she hates her grandparents. On a trip to Cairo, they told her to ignore the poverty and suffering around her. Her deep humanity not only was offended, but also mobilized into action. Eventually, she goes to medical school at Oxford.
When Hellman takes Dash’s advice, she remarks that the year she visited Julia in England was, for Julia, what I always call the dewy moment in a woman’s life—the one in which the purest essence of a woman’s inner beauty corresponds with her outer form. Slocombe shoots the adult Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) walking directly into the camera, a rather goofy grin on her face. Sorry, she didn’t look dewy in that shot, and it is only through Redgrave’s great charisma that Hellman’s words approximate the image we see. The pair have a wonderful time together, playing the same word games they did as children and talking about relationships. Julia tells Lillian of her plans to go to Vienna to study with Sigmund Freud.
Lillian returns to America and continues her writing odyssey. Julia sends her disturbing letters from Europe about the rise of fascism. In a horrifying scene, young men in oddly festive hats storm Julia’s medical school and begin attacking the largely Jewish faculty and student body. Swarming like red ants, they rip one young man from the hold he has on a faucet and toss him over a railing. The sound cuts off as we watch his body fall out of the frame. Julia and several others march into the middle of the mob, swinging boards and furniture. Lillian receives a call asking her to come to Paris; Julia is in the hospital. Lillian visits the very badly injured Julia in Vienna and is told she will have to have surgery. The next day, the hospital denies that Julia was ever a patient.
Lillian returns to the States, completes her play, The Children’s Hour, and becomes the toast of Broadway. She is invited to a theatre festival in Moscow and accepts. Stopping in Paris, she is contacted by a Mr. Johann (Maximillian Schell), an emissary from Julia, who asks if she will help them smuggled $50,000 into Berlin to bribe officials to release some prisoners. The mission is especially dangerous because Lillian is a Jew, but the underground is willing to take the risk if she is. After an afternoon of soul searching, Lillian agrees. The rest of the film concerns the smuggling operation and its aftermath.
Jane Fonda is not my favorite actress, but she brings a lot of shading to this role. Her friendship with Julia really feels close and heartfelt, and a scene in which a frustrated Hellman throws her typewriter out a window is so true that it has stuck with me ever since I first saw the film in 1977. I like her scenes with Robards, which, with their minimalism, show an easy, underplayed bond between the two writers. When she waits nervously for Hammett’s assessment of her second draft, you can feel the expansion and relaxation of her moods.
Most spectacularly, Fonda handles Lillian as amateur courier with just the right blend of fear, frustration over not knowing exactly what she is expected to do, and curiosity. Lillian has been given a hat and a box of candy: “Wear the hat. Leave the candy on the seat.” Her instinct is to take all her belongings into the dining car with her, but two women (beautifully played by Dora Doll and Elisabeth Mortensen) who are sent to watch over her correct her mistakes. Lillian, her nerves frayed to breaking, leaves the dining car and goes to the toilet. There, she removes her hat and feels the lining. Perfect. She’ll never really know what’s going on—and that is for her own safety—but she wants to assert some control.
Vanessa Redgrave projects her usual air of authority and commitment, a perfect fit for the character she is playing. She switches gears from strong to vulnerable in the reunion scene in a Berlin café in which Lillian delivers the hat to her. She seems depleted physically and emotionally. The warmth that characterized the characters’ earlier scenes is muted and only emerges—very effectively—when Julia reveals that she has a baby daughter whom she has named Lilly.
I mentioned Zinnemann’s affinity for trains, for using them to create and build emotion. We all saw it in High Noon (1952), when the train carrying Gary Cooper’s nemesis began as a dot on the horizon and grew in size, billowing black smoke as it pulled close to the station. In this film, Hellman travels by train from Paris to Berlin to Moscow. Through judicious cuts that quicken the breath, Zinnemann uses the train’s movements to up the ante for us. By the time Lillian alights in Berlin, we feel the menace. The crowd through which she moves is a potential mob, the café she enters, a mousetrap.
Julia was a controversial undertaking at the time, pairing as it did two politically outspoken actresses, particularly Redgrave, a vocal critic of Israel’s Palestinian policies. It is possible that the personal convictions of these two women helped infuse their performances with urgency and power. Whatever the reason, this highly honored film works on all levels.