March 25, 2010
Julia (1977)
Grade: 76/100

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Stars: Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, Vanessa Redgrave

What it's about. Set primarily in the 1930s. Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is an aspiring playwright who lives with the much older Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), who has retired from a remarkably successful career as a writer of pulp detective stories (e.g. "The Maltese Falcon", "The Thin Man").

Hellman has a huge New York success with her first play, "The Children's Hour." Her second play flops. At this point, she is recruited by her dear childhood friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), to smuggle a large sum of cash to Berlin where it can be used by the resistance movement against the Nazis. The mysterious Julia is a medical student in Vienna who has for several years risked her life covertly opposing the Nazis. But will Lillian risk her own life for Julia?

How others will see it. Julia has a great cast. (It is notable as the first film in the award-studded career of Meryl Streep.) It is also directed by Hollywood legend Fred Zinnemann (High Noon, From Here to Eternity). The script, by the able Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People, Paper Moon), is excellent.

Julia was highly acclaimed upon release, and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Sargent, Redgrave, and Roberts won Oscars. BAFTA, the British version of the Oscars, named Fonda Best Actress, and named Julia Best Film.

Decades later, the user ratings are very high, particularly for women over 45, who undoubtedly sympathize with the characters of both Fonda and Redgrave.

How I felt about it. Hollywood is interested in telling a story. It has no particular interest in the truth, when the lie makes a better movie. Julia is a very good movie. It is likely possible to make an even better movie based on the truth, but it would certainly be difficult to do so, and then there is the matter of whether anyone would pay to see it.

This movie, it seems, is a nearly complete fabrication. It is based on "Pentimento", one of Lillian Hellman's three memoirs. Apparently, Hellman based the character Julia on the real-life story of Muriel Gardiner, who outlived Hellman and claimed to have never met her.

In Julia, Hellman's literary success is based on her play "The Children's Hour." The movie omits that the 1934 play was plagiarized from William Roughhead's 1930 novel "Bad Companions," and that Hammett had heavily edited "The Children's Hour", practically to the point of co-writing it.

After Hellman's 1984 death, criticism of her nine plays, which was restrained during her lifetime, became virulent. In 1986, John Simon of New York magazine wrote that Hellman was "one of the least pleasant persons and most mundane writers who ever made it big in American theater."

Hellman also purportedly committed her father to a mental institution, and swindled the two Hammett daughters out of their father's lucrative estate. She was also much less physically attractive than Jane Fonda, which is relevant because beauty makes her character more sympathetic within the film.

Hellman was not perfect, but she was also not a villainess. Although portrayed as apolitical in Julia she was a devoted communist, but apparently well intentioned. She was an ardent supporter of the anti-fascist movement during the 1930s. She was blacklisted from Hollywood after she refused to name names during a 1952 subpoena appearance at the Congressional communist witch hunt hearings. She financially supported Hammett in his declining years. And whether they were good plays or not, she did have three major successes in "The Children's Hour", "The Little Foxes", and "Watch on the Rhine."

To that list we can also add Julia, a significantly better movie than any based on her plays. (We must admit, though, that it is great fun to watch Bette Davis leering sadistically at Herbert Marshall during the latter's prolonged death scene in The Little Foxes.)

Now that we have dispensed with the real Lillian Hellman, we can move on to her character. She is a successful playwright and minor celebrity who performs a dangerous (albeit simple) act of espionage as a favor to her beloved friend.

In real life, of course, the ruthlessly efficient Germans would search both the proffered candy box and her ostentatious hat, find and confiscate the money, and interrogate Hellman until they had drained her dry of information. Then they would likely release her unharmed, rather than create an incident with the powerful and technically neutral United States. Perhaps, if this was the way the film was made, it would have made an even better movie.

But even as it is, the train scenes, and those shortly before with the wonderful Maximilian Schell, are highly suspenseful and the best of the film. Certainly, more so than watching Fonda fend off clumsy passes from wealthy socialite clods Hal Holbrook and John Glover.