Julia (1977)

“I assure you, I would never try to be heroic.”

Synopsis:
Shortly after receiving accolades for her first play, writer Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is asked to carry out a dangerous mission to Nazi Germany on behalf of her lifelong friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave).

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “superb adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s beautiful, suspenseful story, contained in her memoir Pentimento,” is “truly a well-made film, with provocative characters and relationships, a unique view of Europe in the 30s and great performances from the three leads”. Interestingly, he seems either unaware of — or unconcerned with — the swirl of debate concerning the veracity of Hellman’s story: a woman named Muriel Gardiner, who employed the same lawyer as Hellman but never knew her, claimed to have been the very woman Hellman referred to as “Julia”, and wrote a memoir in 1985 detailing her experiences. However, while I find it strange that Peary doesn’t even mention this notorious controversy in his review, I agree with him that Julia remains a powerful, finely acted film, one that is “now too easily forgotten”.

Peary points out that this movie allowed Fonda “another chance to play a woman who becomes politicized and who has a special bond with another woman”; he notes that you can “see the love these women have for each other”, and argues that “the most interesting point of the film” — given that “it breaks with movie stereotyping” — is how “being a leftist has not deprived Julia of her warmth, her humility, and her concern for people like Lillian who are not as politically dedicated as she is”. Regarding their special relationship, some have taken issue with the fact that the theme of lesbianism in the play (The Children’s Hour) Hellman is seen slaving over in her Cape Cod beach house — where she’s mentored by her older lover, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) — is never openly discussed. While there is a later scene in which a character (John Glover) mentions the “gossip” surrounding the play, some critics believe a chance is missed to more concretely connect the play’s theme of strong female friendship and accused lesbianism with Lillian and Julia’s own story of intense love and devotion.

However, while those familiar with Hellman’s work may find deeper meaning in these earlier scenes, those viewing the film without such literary insight will still appreciate the fact that Fonda’s character is not only being asked to risk her life to help Julia’s cause, but to leave behind a clearly defined world of newfound fame and fortune — thus highlighting the magnitude of her “sacrifice”. Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent incorporates just enough flashback scenes from Lillian and Julia’s youth to help us understand why Lillian would feel such intense loyalty for her friend; and while some complain that the title character (Redgrave won an Oscar for her supporting work) is on screen far too little, I believe this merely adds to one’s sense of her commitment to a world far, far removed from the comforts of Hellman’s existence. The climactic train journey into Berlin is especially well-handled, nicely highlighting the magnitude of the dangers Fonda is exposing herself to — and while it may or may not have happened to Hellman herself, it certainly makes for good storytelling.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Vanessa Redgrave as Julia
  • Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett
  • Maximilian Schell as Johann
  • Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography

  • Fine attention to period detail

Must See?
Yes, as a powerfully acted and scripted memory drama. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in Alternate Oscars.

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One Response to “Julia (1977)”

  1. A no-brainer must – a remarkable film, perfectly realized.

    Not that long after first seeing ‘Julia’ in its initial release, I became aware of the controversy surrounding it. I’ve seen the film from time to time over the years (I’ve probably seen it about ten times, at least) and since – to me – there is no satisfying proof re: who is telling the truth about who really did what (I’ve not read Gardiner’s memoir), I tend to just see the film as fiction. As such, it still works marvelously well – since, more than anything else, it is depicting universal truths emerging against the background of turmoil.

    What stands out above all is how beautifully Zinnemann has directed; it’s the work of a director at the top of his game. Sharp attention has been given to every aspect of the storytelling – from period detail to camerawork to acting. Every single time I see ‘Julia’, the film never fails to pull me in almost immediately. Sargent’s script is wonderfully economic, smart and filled with highlights. (I especially like how Sargent captures what a writer goes through while writing.) Of course, the film’s centerpiece comes late, when Lillian and Julia finally re-unite briefly in a crowded, public setting – the two of them unable to do much more than establish how Lillian will accomplish her ultimate act of loyalty.

    Though the acting is quite good on a uniform level, I find (among the supporting players) that I’m particularly impressed by Schell in his very controlled portrait of a messenger. As well, though she is not given much to do, Meryl Streep naturally takes what opportunity she can to make something out of a small role early in her career. (I remember thinking that when I first saw her. Even in her earliest roles, Streep very much made her cinematic mark. …And, though the two did not work together in this film, it’s somewhat eerie to note that, many years later, Streep and Redgrave did work – significantly – together in what is perhaps the best sequence in the otherwise-tepid ‘Evening’.)

    Of course, together, Fonda and Redgrave are stunning – and theirs is certainly among the best on-screen portrayals of unconditional friendship and love ever.

    Simply put, ‘Julia’ is a powerhouse drama, almost guaranteed to move your heart and soul.

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