By Paul-John Ramos
An Austrian who emigrated to the United States for better career prospects, Fred Zinnemann is one of a few directors who are tough to associate with a single particular film since they have created so many that are both popularly acclaimed and of a high critical standard. Zinnemann’s CV, which extends from People on Sunday, a 1930 German documentary that involved Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Billy Wilder, to Five Days One Summer a half-century later, is staggering and easily ranks him with the most distinguished names of cinema lore. His work includes – to name just a few – High Noon, The Member of the Wedding, From Here to Eternity, Oklahoma!, A Man for All Seasons, and The Day of the Jackal. It is a goal for aspiring filmmakers to work on just one title of such importance, but they were common fare in Zinnemann’s prime years.
Equally impressive is that in Julia, Zinnemann’s penultimate film before retirement, we see a director whose creative powers have not diminished a quarter-century after High Noon and From Here to Eternity. Julia, besides its notable performances by Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jason Robards, shows an obvious gift for storytelling and conveying environment while not being particularly heavy in its message or overtly stylized. In short, Zinnemann achieves a balance between empathy for his characters and allowing the story to live and breathe on its own.
Julia, a politically charged but intimate drama, is based on a controversial account by author Lillian Hellman, whose portrayal by Jane Fonda earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The account was published in Hellman’s 1973 book Pentimento: A Book of Portraits and remains a question of artistic integrity. Years after Julia‘s release in October 1977, a New York psychiatrist named Muriel Gardiner argued that Hellman’s story was taken from her experiences. When Gardiner’s elite background, schooling, and involvement in antifascist espionage (as detailed in her 1983 memoir Code Name Mary) are compared to the film’s titular character, these two figures are uncannily alike.
Gardiner said that she had never met Hellman; they were indirectly connected through Wolf Schwabacher, a long-time friend who served as Hellman’s lawyer and may have described Gardiner’s history in conversation. Gardiner wrote an inquiring letter to Hellman but never received an answer. Whether Hellman cribbed from Gardiner’s life, used her as a vessel to infuse with elements of someone she actually knew (and perhaps wanted to keep anonymous), or was the unlikely victim of pure coincidence, will probably never be known. And with Hellman having died in 1984, ¬Julia will remain an historically questionable, yet finely crafted, picture.
Running 1 hour and 57 minutes, Julia is basically split into two parts. The first part tracks Hellman in her relationship with crime author Dashiell Hammett, whose portrayal by Jason Robards won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and her struggles to become a successful writer of the American stage during the mid-1930s. Hellman is introduced as a fiery yet self-doubting individual who toils through rewrites of her scripts only to have Hammett, 11 years older, judge them not good enough. Hammett, depicted by Robards as a slow-moving, stoic mentor, offsets Hellman’s wishes to quit until her first staged play, The Children’s Hour, becomes a major success in 1934.
While viewing Hellman’s literary endeavors, there are flashbacks to her and Julia’s ‘friendship,’ spanning from when adolescents to the latter’s time as a medical student at Oxford. Julia, as an adult, is played by Vanessa Redgrave, who received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Hellman and Julia are portrayed as girls by actresses Susan Jones and Lisa Pelikan, respectively. With the controversy surrounding Hellman’s story, we cannot accept any of this as truth, but there is a relatable undercurrent of friendship and loyalty between women. We do not know how much of ‘Julia,’ if any, was genuinely present in Hellman’s life, yet the film effectively portrays her as a more profound source of motivation than Hammett.
On face value, Julia is a free spirit whose desire to escape her background is tempered by a strong intellect and sense of discipline. Born into a family of elites, she was either left by or taken from a bohemian mother to live with grandparents who, while not materially neglecting her, were extremely cold. The fictional Hellman, less monetarily well off but friendly and caring, provided her with an important emotional outlet. Eventually, Julia goes to Vienna and studies psychiatry with Freud before dedicating herself to the antifascist movement at a time when only those with keen insight, such as George Orwell and Walter Winchell, see this as a necessity. The Lillian of this film, not sensing an urgent situation in Europe like Julia does, falls into and out of contact with her.
These political realities hit home with Lillian when she visits Julia in a Vienna hospital. Members of the emerging fascist movement and their opponents have clashed and the city is under martial law. Julia, not at all squeamish, joined in the fighting and was severely hurt, putting her in a body cast. She will never fully recover from her injuries, which leads to the film’s second half, when we see Lillian, who is Jewish, become an ad hoc member of the antifascist underground. She is approached by one of Julia’s acquaintances, Johann (Maximilian Schell), while meeting fellow artists in Paris with whom she plans to attend a Moscow theater festival.
The second half follows Lillian as she joins operatives on a train who, we are told, will give her cash for delivery to Berlin. The cash – assuming it’s truly cash – is concealed in a hat that she must wear; we never actually see what is being transported. Regardless of what the hat contains, she experiences a tense journey from France into Germany and is able to meet with Julia for the last time in a restaurant. With Lillian having done her duty for the antifascist cause and a close friend, we move into the film’s epilogue; this includes Julia’s murder, Lillian trying to locate Julia’s daughter (who was supposedly entrusted to a boulangerie-owning couple in Alsace), and a failed attempt to communicate with the now-disowning grandparents.
We can put the factual questions aside for a moment – the cast and crew did not initially know of Muriel Gardiner’s existence, after all – to say that Julia is a highly professional piece of filmmaking, yet another in Zinnemann’s extensive career. Needless to say, the film would have been nowhere without top performances from its leads and the roles of Fonda, Redgrave, and Robards are very hard to forget. All three fully deserved their award nominations in portraying how the fictitious Hellman character draws her inspiration from a man and woman she is closest to. The scenes with Fonda and Redgrave together are particularly remarkable. With Redgrave, you are guaranteed an energy that can enliven or crush; Fonda – more vulnerable, less steely – is an ideal foil. The performances of Lillian and Julia as girls by Susan Jones and Lisa Pelikan also deserve more recognition, as both are excellent.
The screenplay – another Oscar-winner – was written by Alvin Sargent, a latecomer to Hollywood after many years in television. Attention to period detail, including costumes by Anthea Sylbert, is outstanding. Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Great Gatsby, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, amongst many others) engineered the atmospheric photography and the soundtrack was written by Georges Delerue.
The only noticeable flaws in this movie are a second half that runs slightly too long and a few uneven performances from the supporting cast. Julia’s second hour is essentially a step-by-step following of Lillian as she serves as courier to Berlin. There are sequences where Zinnemann and editors Marcel Durham and Walter Murch chose to linger on tense moments aboard the train. These sequences could have been tightened, making the film perhaps a few minutes shorter. The dramatic impact would probably not have been lost, as they usually involve Lillian in different states of nervousness. Zinnemann, however, may have been so impressed by Fonda’s overall performance that he was reluctant to take out any of her work.
Zinnemann’s supporting cast is quite good, but we do get an affected performance from Hal Holbrook as writer Alan Campbell, a collaborator with Hellman in the movie industry. Holbrook is only in a handful of scenes, but his exaggerated Eastern Seaboard drawl (Campbell was bisexual and from Virginia) sounds painfully contrived and kind of pulls things down around him. Ubiquitous character actor John Glover appears as Sammy in a flashback where he starts a perverted discussion with Lillian while drunk and she denies there being a Lesbian friendship with Julia. This conversation serves no purpose to the story at all (at least from today’s point of view) and Glover does not give a particularly memorable turn, either. Meryl Streep – here’s one for trivia quizzes – makes her film debut as Anne Marie, a theater acquaintance of Lillian’s. It’s great to see where Streep began her illustrious career but, in all honesty, the small role could have been played by anyone else.
Four decades after its original screening, Julia is still held in high regard while being marked with an asterisk, one that points to an issue of historical falsehood. It is unclear why Hellman, an author who had become so successful after working hard for so many years, would wager her credibility on total lies in one section of a book. Was it simply terrible judgment on her part? Or was there an underlying motive, such as feeling the need to tell her story while wanting to conceal elements of that story inside of another person? These questions will probably never be answered. Hellman was known to bend and conflate facts during a paranoid time (she, like Hammett, was under scrutiny for Communist Party affiliations during the McCarthy Era) and her reasons would best be known by a long-passed group of intimates.
Zinnemann expressed misgivings after the situation with Muriel Gardiner broke out. However, his work on what is strangely a very good film cannot be undone. What we have is a film whose director and cast were making solid use of the material they were given while at the heights of their creative powers in the late 70s. Critics and the award committees appreciated this fact; Julia received mostly good reviews and went on to win three Oscars (Robards, Redgrave, Sargent), two Golden Globes (Fonda, Redgrave), and four BAFTAs (Best Film, Fonda, Slocombe, Sargent), besides many others. The film was nominated for 11 Oscars in total. Fonda was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role, which went to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. She would, however, receive the award one year later for Coming Home. Maximilian Schell was a candidate, besides Robards, for Best Supporting Actor, though he only appeared briefly in a rather generic part.
Another kind of controversy reared its head before Muriel Gardiner was first heard about. Redgrave, ever a political firebrand, received her award and made the infamous ‘Zionist hoodlums’ speech at the Oscars ceremony in April 1978. In the same year that Julia premiered, Redgrave funded and narrated a documentary, The Palestinian, which was sympathetic to creation of an Arab state independent from Israel. Jewish groups criticized her nomination (despite the fact that she plays an agent working to save Jews from persecution) and the Jewish Defense League, under Meir Kahane, picketed on Oscar night. The voting body refused to buckle under pressure and selected Redgrave. Yet the speech, which perhaps came from an overload of frustration, hurt her acting career for several years.
Hellman – the real-life version – created more of her own troubles when she filed a $2.25 million defamation suit against novelist and critic Mary McCarthy, a longtime rival, in 1980. McCarthy made a notorious appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in which she said that “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” McCarthy, nowhere as financially sound as Hellman, received backing from supporters to cover her legal fees. The lawsuit continued until Hellman’s death, after which her estate dropped it.
The controversies surrounding this film have faded somewhat and Julia can, in a strange way, exist on its own. If audiences can somehow accept it as a film of vague historical connection whose story was birthed for unknown reasons, that may be the key to appreciating Julia as a fine work of the screen. It will be left to individuals, much like the ones inhabiting Hellman’s world.