Julia (1977)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Rick Olson spoke:
    8th/05/2009 to 6:01 pm

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen it that I barely remember it, but I do remember liking it a lot. I’m going to have to go back and see it again. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Greg spoke:
    8th/05/2009 to 7:23 pm

    I’m with Rick. I saw this about 25 years ago and can’t remember much except lots of fuzzy, soft-focus gel shots of Lily and Julia which you don’t mention so maybe I’m remembering it wrong. I do remember Redgrave and Robards though, their presence at least. I tend to block out Jane Fonda in most movies because I’ve never liked her voice. If someone could just dub her I’d have a much easier time. But anyway, I digress. Like Rick, I’d like to give this another look now. I think it’s time I revisit most movies I saw 25 years ago. They’re quickly fading from my memory.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/05/2009 to 7:31 pm

    There’s not much soft-focus in here. Redgrave’s hair is windblown and lit from sunlight from time to time.
    This is actually an exquisite movie in many, many ways, and certainly Fonda’s best film, to my tastes anyway. If you have Starz, Retroplex has been showing it. If not, I’ll bet Netflix has it. It’s worth checking out.
    I noticed I have four Zinnemann films reviewed on this site. I guess I really like him.

  • Greg spoke:
    8th/05/2009 to 7:48 pm

    Do Five Days One Summer next. I never saw it when it came out because it got blasted by the critics but if you tell me different I’ll give it a look.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/05/2009 to 8:56 pm

    The one I want to see is Zinnemann’s first, People on Sunday. I caught a clip of it in a special on Germans in the American film industry, and it really looked fascinating.

  • Collin Kelley spoke:
    9th/05/2009 to 10:58 am

    I think this is a great review, and I appreciate your citing my review about the Muriel Gardener issue. I think I also said in my review that whether Hellman made it up or not, it doesn’t distract from this brilliant film. It’s one of my favorites.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/05/2009 to 11:04 am

    Thank you, Collin, and thanks for stopping by. I agree with you about the brilliance of the film and thought your review was excellent, too.

  • John spoke:
    9th/05/2009 to 3:55 pm

    Terrific review! And not just because it squares with my take on Julia. It’s encouraging to see Fred Zinnemann given some credit. Too often these days, he is shunted to the trash heap by the auteuristas.

  • Pat spoke:
    11th/05/2009 to 12:05 pm

    Marilyn –
    A fine review. I’ve seen this kicking around the Starz channels lately, but haven’t had time to sit down and watch it. I have good memories of the film from seeing it on its initial release.
    I do remember how everyone held their breaths when Redgrave won the Oscar for it, and how she confirmed everyone’s fears by decrying “the Zionist hoodlums” in her acceptance speech – to widespread boos from the audience.
    As it did for you, the throwing-the-tyepwriter-out-the-window scene has stayed with me, vividly, for over 30 years. Even now, I have fantasies of hurling my laptop out the window on bad days when I can’t seem to get a blog post past the “drivel” stage. I think that scene reasonates with anyone who’s a writer.

  • Lydia spoke:
    28th/08/2009 to 3:14 am

    Julia and Reds are my two favorite movies.
    It’s devastating for me to read that the story may not have truly been Hellman’s! Even if this is the case, it in no way detracts from the movie for me. I will continue to watch it once a year…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/08/2009 to 7:29 pm

    Lydia – I quite agree. This is really a great film.

  • Steve Chapman spoke:
    25th/01/2012 to 8:49 pm

    A new friend casually asked my favorite film…after 35 years it’s still “Julia.” In some scenes it is an illuminist film…almost ethereal…just like the definition of pentimento. Political near and far, violent and fearsome in memories of the world before atoms were split, “Julia” thrust me into the lives of Hellman, Hammett, and the privileged and persecuted. I can’t wait to see it again…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    29th/01/2012 to 9:15 am

    Steve – I quite agree. Thanks for stopping by.

  • J.D. spoke:
    12th/01/2015 to 2:37 pm

    My wife turned me onto this film years ago and I finally picked it up for her on DVD. To me, it is one of the best films about being a writer and, as you pointed out in your excellent review, some of my fave scenes are between Lillian and Dashiell Hammett. Sometimes I imagine another film that focuses just on their relationship.

    Never been a huge Jane Fonda fan or Vanessa Redgrave fan, but boy, do they both hit it out of the park in this film with terrific performances that stayed with me long after the film ended.

    It’s odd that for such an acclaimed film back in the day it has become somewhat forgotten. You rarely read about it or people rediscovering it but I think that it deserves to be brought back into the spotlight, which your review does a nice job of doing.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2015 to 10:35 am

    Hi J.D., and thanks for your comment. I have read a lot of criticism of this film in recent years, none of which I agree with — obviously. Fonda has risen in my esteem, but she’ll never be at the top of the pantheon, but Redgrave is one of my favorite actresses. I’ll admit that she doesn’t always choose great projects, but she always makes them better in my estimation. It would be great to see a Hellman/Hammett biopic sometime. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

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