Before embarking on more shrewd observations about director, Fred Zinnemann’s exquisitely crafted and penultimate movie, Julia (1977) it seems prudent to remind the reader of a proviso: that this film, reportedly ‘based on a true story’ is actually a lie; or rather, an elegant untruth, meticulously crafted by playwright, Lillian Hellman as part of her second memoir, but later exposed as an incident that – if it did occur - emphatically did not involve the authoress in an way, shape or form, or perhaps may or may not have even happened at all. Julia is a well-designed charade; an enigma for a life expertly played in half shadow without its title character ever stepping into the light. It’s too bad really, because the more interesting life – at least, as far as Alvin Sargent’s screenplay is concerned – is Lillian Hellman’s; or Hellman by way of Jane Fonda’s illuminating performance; ironically, the only one ‘not’ to win an Oscar. Exposed in her misdirection of the facts, the caustic Hellman, still very much alive and chagrined, would remain reticent about offering any alternative theories as to how or why she had come to tell such a noble fib. Fox clearly conceived of Julia as their ‘prestige’ picture in an era when Hollywood generally did not regard ‘prestige’ with the same anxious handwringing as say a blockbuster. Lest we forget, 1977 was the year of Star Wars; a picture Fox had absolutely no faith in that would prove to be anything but an under performer at the box office.
In the preliminary stages it looked as though Nicholas Roeg might direct the picture. But Roeg sought to heighten the lesbianism between Julia and Lillian; a plan leaving both Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave cold. Mercifully, Zinnemann’s approach to the material proved infinitely more tasteful. So, instead we get glimpses of girls just being girls; a lifelong intimacy without all the touching/kissing/heavy petting, etc. and loyalties derailed by the prevailing winds of change from a most violent chapter in history. But Julia…even before anyone knew of Hellman’s great lie, drew controversy; especially when Best Supporting Actress, Vanessa Redgrave, took to the pulpit on Oscar night, using the occasion of her acceptance speech as part of her cause célèbre for a politically charged diatribe that drew mixed boos and applause from the cheap seats. It also caused presenter, Paddy Chayefsky to depart from his prepared monologue, following up Redgrave’s comments with, “…there’s a little matter I’d like to tidy up if I expect to live with myself tomorrow morning…and it is, personal opinion of course, that I am sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave, that her winning an Academy Award was not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple thank you would have sufficed!”
But back to Julia; a tale of two women – one real, the other…well…if she existed, then certainly not as a main staple in Hellman’s circle of international friends, or perhaps so, but suffered not at the hand of National Socialism, or did and was never heard from again, or was imaginary to a fault and merely concocted by the creatively energetic Hellman, meant to fill a blank in her own muddled personal history, factually speaking – an on-again/off-again affair de Coeur with novelist/screenwriter, Dashiell Hammett. Hellman, whose left-leaning activism made her as many friends as it did enemies throughout her lifetime, smoked like a chimney, drank like a fiend and could be as passionate a lover as a fighter. What can I tell you? She was a writer; a woman, no less, at a time when all the highly regarded literary giants were men who also smoked, drank and screwed their brains out in between writing their great American novels. While Hellman’s plays were a constant, restless rebellion against some social injustice, her memoirs – even those later brought into question – would remain highly personalized accounts of an exhilarating, if turbulent (occasionally invented) vivacity behind the art. Julia picks up the legend before it actually existed; Hellman – or rather, Jane Fonda as Hellman – toiling and roiling over her inexplicable writer’s block on The Children’s Hour; Hellman’s breakout play about an abuse of power and the genuine casualties it inflicts on a platonic friendship between two young school teachers, one accused of being a lesbian; the other, actually a lesbian.
In agreeing to play the part, Jane Fonda could likely hold a mirror up to herself as Hellman’s proto-feminist alter ego, zealously railing against and even more iconoclastic excelling in a man’s world. Amusingly, Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave agreed to set aside any and all discussions involving their political activism during the making of this picture. Perhaps Fonda’s own misguided encounter with using her celebrity to promote a cause she neither fully understood nor accurately assessed as having any sort of backlash in 1972 – Hanoi Jane, anyone – was root enough for the hiatus. Who can say? Fond, however, admired Redgrave and vice versa; the picture coming to represent a new chapter in their mutual admiration society. The character of Julia first came to prominence in Pentimento: A Book of Portraits – the second of three ‘memoirs’ Hellman committed to paper in 1973. In the years since publication, all three accounts have been heavily criticized for glaring inaccuracies. Exactly how much – or how little – of Hellman remains in these reflections is open for discussion. However, no one can criticize their literary value; perennially heralded as masterworks of modern-day feminist literature. Nevertheless, Julia remains the byproduct of two politically active women in their own time (Fonda and Redgrave) lending credence and ballast to one women’s advocacy from another. The fact none of it happened – or rather, happened to someone else – possibly, if not entirely as described by Hellman – should not diminish Julia as a finely wrought, tautly played and moodily staged magnum opus made by a master craftsman at the zenith of his picture-making prowess.
Austrian born, Fred Zinnemann, who became fascinated with the art’s culture in Germany in the late twenties, endeavoring to capture its sense of realism and authenticity in his own work, was later to become disenchanted by the perverse ostentation and luxury of Berlin, contrasted alongside the nation’s then crippling economic crises. This caused something of a rift from within Zinnemann’s own sense of morality. He reasoned he would never be a great man in Europe. He might, however, become one in New York, then Hollywood, arriving with the proverbial chip on his shoulder, but quickly disillusioned by what he deemed as ‘the limited talents of Hollywood's elite’. This grudge would continue well into Zinnemann’s professional career. However, Zinnemann was able to channel this modest contempt into a sort of uber-exposition on the arrogance and ignorance within the industry; camouflaged by the fictional stories he would tell. Among their many attributes, Zinnemann’s movies are almost universally about the angry, ignored or disenfranchised; frustrated by their inability to go beyond their natural talents, incapable or perhaps, unwilling to exploit them to their own advantage. There is, to be sure, a whiff of this in Fonda’s harried protagonist; Hellman set to toss her Remington out the window of the Cape Cod cottage she shares with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance) or cry and drink herself into oblivion, simply for misplacing a comma or ending a sentence with more than just one period. Fonda’s Hellman summarizes her predicament thus; “I think I have always known about my memory. I know when the truth is distorted by some drama or fantasy, but I trust absolutely about what I remember about Julia.”
Given Hellman’s incredulous misdirection, it is a little off-putting to accept what follows; an often morose and romanticized exodus of intermingling thoughts and ideas, brought forth from the annals of a grotesquely imperfect sense of recall; Fonda reconstituting Hellman as a somewhat morbidly clumsy and occasionally frantic narcissist, reveling in her newfound fame and fortune with giddy trips to the furrier, jet-setting all over Europe with fair-weathers, Alan (Hal Holbrook) and Dottie (Rosemary Murphy), driving her lover, ‘Dash’ half mad with frequently caustic emasculation aimed at his own stagnated writing career, and finally, endlessly – interminably – reminiscing about the affluent friend from her girlhood days, the mysterious Julia. But Julia…who is Julia: a girl who dared Hellman to venture onto a fallen log pitched across a raging stream, spent long hours playing word games with Hellman in her grandparents opulent estate, yet thereafter all but disappears almost entirely from the narrative of this movie; Zinnemann giving us snippets excised from a skewed playbook about a fervent freedom fighter caught in the crosshairs of a nightmare about to engulf the European hemisphere in flames. Julia gets her head and limbs bashed in after a particularly nasty assault on the Jewish ghetto. If any shortcoming can be levied against Julia – the movie – it is that we are never entirely certain what direction the picture is taking for a very long while; Zinnemann, dividing his time between Hellman’s flourish of success on Broadway and her helplessness to reconnect with Julia for a staggering amount of time. Instead, a series of intrigues begins to unravel; Hellman receiving cryptic phone calls in the middle of the night, inexplicably disconnected in mid-conversation. She learns about Julia’s near fatal confrontation with Hitler’s brown shirts from an anonymous ‘friend’; later, discovering the badly battered and heavily bandaged Julia inside an Austrian hospital whose staff is openly hostile to any and all of her more pressing queries; and finally, is left to follow a series of ever more obscure breadcrumbs, begun perchance when the cordial Mr. Johann (Maximillian Schell) explains no more than he has to for Hellman to board a train bound for Berlin, merely in the hopes of seeing her dear friend one last time. Yet, Fonda’s Hellman obtusely bungles this assignment at practically every turn.
There are more than a handful of suspenseful moments feathered into this second act (actually, the best part of the movie) and mostly because Hellman – a Jew – cannot seem to make her way to Berlin at the height of its occupation without damn near tipping off the Nazis she is on some undisclosed mission involving appropriated funds sewn into the lining of her newly acquired fur hat. It is Fonda’s failure to play fear as anything more or better than nerve-frazzling ineptitude that really begins to wear thin during Hellman’s cross-country sojourn through the Alps; also, her rank incompetence even to follow the most rudimentary instructions repeated to her ad nauseam to throw more suspicious minds off the scent (wear your hat, leave the chocolates on the seat next to you, take off your hat, stand up, sit down, don’t look around the room, don’t look nervous, pretend you are going to the washroom, etc. et al). Even an organ grinder’s monkey would get it by now; cloak and dagger: a game best played by positioning one’s self under a strict set of rules outlined at the start. The problem herein is perhaps not even Fonda’s cross to bear, or her fictionalized version of Hellman, but squarely situated on Redgrave’s frizzy-haired freedom fighter who, knowing Hellman’s weaknesses, would still gamble with her life. Even so, Julia is really not about Julia; nor Hellman per say, or this supposed bond of reunion repeatedly thwarted, unexpectedly blossomed, but now destined to end in a sort of Morse code without really saying ‘goodbye’. Auf wiedersehen then, or perhaps good riddance to both the idea and the notion Julia is a character-driven study derived from Hellman’s own life experiences. It is, instead, a ‘tribute to memory’ flawed and severely misappropriated by time, a very fertile imagination and, of course, curiously disjointed vignettes that play out of sequence, and as such, even further complicate our appreciation as to exactly what is going on.
What is Lillian to Julia? And who is Julia anyway? Despite Zinnemann’s best efforts to will a clear-cut past for these two girlfriends, what we actually get – mostly…well, partly - is one snotty spoiled rich girl espousing her moral indignations to the starry-eyed best friend, naïve enough to believe the other has the more enviable life. Julia shares her abject hatred of the two affluent grandparents, having reared her in absence of a willy-nilly mother who diddled off to start a new life in Paris. As a teenager, we get flashes of another Julia – the risk taker, the adventurist/moralist, crusader for the common man, repulsed by the abject poverty she encounters while on a trip to Egypt. Julia is also something of a drifter who stumbles upon Zionism almost as an afterthought, then takes it to the extreme by taking as much advantage of Hellman; using her as a courier for her undisclosed freedom-fighting liberation movement. But this is not the Julia who greets Hellman inside a Berlin café for the smooth exchange; the cool – very cool, as it were – one-legged spy, calculatingly putting Hellman through the paces; a series of quick commands with the precision of a military drill sergeant, albeit, calmly and with a low, sustained dictation to test for obedience; itself, tested when Hellman momentarily resists walking away for the last time. In this regard, Fonda’s Lillian is a much more compassionate creature; matured beyond the astringent edginess that dogged her at the outset of our story. By contrast, time and experience have only served to harden Julia’s heart if, indeed to begin with, she ever possessed one.
Fonda’s Hellman will do anything for Julia’s love and respect. Yet, it is exactly this sort of childhood idolatry, transfixed and transposed into the adult relationship we get in the movie that gets fairly old and dreadfully pretentious very fast. By contrast, the vignettes devoted to Hellman and Hammett’s sporting affair seem more unexpectedly genuine, zestier by far, and, with more meat on the bone than anything transpiring between Hellman and Julia. Alas, what really comes through is the real Hellman’s desperate yearning to have known someone like Julia (come out, come out wherever you are) better than she actually did – or rather, imagined she might have. But what exactly has the fictional Julia gotten out of their friendship; this lifelong crusader, handicapped, abused, and soon to be brutally murdered in her squalid little hotel room; a martyr by her own design. Again, why the martyr? We are never quite certain, primarily because this penultimate exchange between Julia and Hellman is riddled in long stretches of meandering insider tipoffs without any payoff. There is no denouement to this piece de resistance; Julia’s veiled promise to visit Hellman in New York when ‘this’ (whatever it is) is all over, to place her newborn baby in Hellman’s care while she toddles off on another crusade; another assignment the put upon Lillian is willing to accept – except, it is not to be; Julia killed and Hellman left searching in vain for the missing child, presumably left in the care of an Alsace baker and his wife.
In retrospect, Hellman’s colossal ineptitude at remaining closed-lipped, even suggesting to a Nazi border guard, when questioned, that she might write about her ‘impressions’ of Berlin, has likely contributed to Julia’s murder. After all, she is about as undetectable as a cockroach crawling across a white bearskin rug. And the Nazis are not stupid - nor blind. The real Hellman may have been an exceptional playwright, but as re-conceived by Fonda in this movie, she is woefully unschooled in the art of subterfuge or pretend, and certainly, no Mata Hari. Julia ought to have been a subtler critique about how difficult it was for women forty years prior to its release to express themselves frankly or even share in their 20th century emancipation as intellectual equals. Instead, it devolves into a pseudo-intellectual manumission from character study into cheaply routine ‘cloak and dagger’ nonsense. There are far better movies out there devoted to the bond of sisterhood; more revealing, in fact, about the sanctity of genuine friendship, and, finally, infinitely more affecting because they adhere to truth in their fictional accounts because they do not have to lie to the audience beforehand about their premise or the characters soon to be introduced at the outset. Julia is not altogether a flop. But it ultimately fails because it lacks the integrity, humility and the ability to know the difference between truth and truthfulness. Instead, it is a bona fide fake in a Tiffany-sized setting of verisimilitude. Zinnemann and his cinematographer, Douglas Slocombe, along with composer, Georges Delerue, gild the lily as it were. This gives Julia an air of sophistication and class. Yet, upon closer inspection, it’s still only an air, less refreshing with repeat viewings, and, in hindsight, a very faint whiff at that.
Julia gets a quality 1080p Blu-ray release via Fox through Twilight Time (TT), revealing the full breadth and sumptuousness in Douglas Slocombe’s Oscar-nominated and intentionally gauzy, soft focus cinematography. Using diffused lighting and evocatively shimmering shadows to mood-evoking effect, Slocombe’s efforts are the real star of this presentation; the warm misty river, sunlit/windswept beaches, crisp autumns in France and pasty gray dawns in Nazi-occupied Germany all appropriately feature within this spectrum of full color saturation. Contrast is dead on and film grain is reproduced looking indigenous to its source. Slocombe’s palette frequently favors brown, beige, gray and murky green/blues. But fine detail has been extraordinarily realized and age-related artifacts are nowhere to be seen. Julia gets a crisp sounding DTS mono audio, perfectly showcasing George Delerue’s Oscar-nominated score. TT sweetens the deal with a superb isolate score and an audio commentary featuring the company’s co-founder, Nick Redman, affectionately waxing with the film’s star, Jane Fonda. Fonda’s crisp correction of some of Redman’s misconceptions about the movie suggest she has lost none of her vim for setting the record straight on a project she clearly continues to regard as one of the high points in her career. I suppose Fonda’s performance is the best thing about Julia. So, kudos, heartily given herein. But the movie, alas, is imperfect as an entertainment. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)