Julia (1977, Fred Zinnemann)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 defining of the Oscar bait ideal looks worse with each passing year. Stilted, artificial, entirely dreadful, this sort-of-biopic of Lillian Hellman is built on a chapter of her memoir Pentimento that was subsequently alleged to have been wholly fabricated. It depicts a dramatic relationship between Hellman and a mysterious wealthy activist named Julia. They’ve been intimate friends since childhood and while Hellman pursues her career as a screenwriter and playwright (most famous, her far-left politics aside, for The Children’s Hour), Julia goes to Vienna to study and becomes an all-around do-gooder enigma when she moseys into German territory and joins the Nazi resistance. When Hellman gets called to a conference she’s recruited by Julia to smuggle some money, a dangerous proposition for an American Jew, and is brushed up into a whirlwind that ends in Julia apparently being killed by the SS — though details are murky — and Lillian finding that her BFF has been evidently disowned by her millionaire family. The film ends with Hellman standing in a hallway stomping her foot and demanding justice.
The events shown in Julia have never been outright disproven, and Hellman was a heroic figure in many ways who deserves our continued respect — as anyone who fell under what she called “the ax” of McCarthyism and the Blacklist does — but most sources these days allege that the Pentimento chapter is a work of fiction inspired by the life of Muriel Gardiner, who indeed survived the war. It’s basically irrelevant to one’s opinion of the film version anyway; Zinnemann and screenwriter Alvin Sargent only take the most painfully obvious tactics to tug the outrage heartstrings and the film is like sentimentalist pornography promoting renewed rage at the injust events of WWII, whether this particular part of them really happened or not. Perhaps that really doesn’t matter — as the bookshop owner in Vertigo says when elucidating what was possibly a myth, “there are many such stories.” This particular sledgehammer of a story as executed by these filmmakers and performers would become unfortunately influential over the sort of material fed during awards season to adults over the decades to follow. Its superficial smugness is onerous and irredeemable.
Julia has an air of infuriating self-importance that’s only partially explained by Jane Fonda’s intolerable ACTing in the lead. Fonda, portraying Hellman with no bold stroke she finds unworthy of painting, has no discernible relationship with the lines she’s asked to read, and her snarling, griping, unbelievably loud work feels like a stray moment from a high school play that accidentally made it to celluloid. Worst moment of all (maybe in the history of cinematic shorthand?) is when she literally growls and throws a typewriter out of a window, during a rare respite from howling about her IDENTITY as a WRITER. I’m no fan of Fonda — finding her tolerable at best in Coming Home and pretty much painful in Klute and On Golden Pond — but this performance is so inexplicably bad that the problem must at least partially come down to misdirection by Zinnemann. (Evidence in our favor is mixed; High Noon features terrible performances by movie stars, but those in From Here to Eternity are uniformly good.)
The rest of the cast fares little better, including the two members who walked away with Academy Awards. Since the usually brilliant Jason Robards seems barely awake in his part as Dashiel Hammett (!), his scenes with Fonda’s Lillian are so tonally off-putting as to be nearly unwatchable. Like the lead actress, he sees his real-life character as a one-note crank whose two abilities are to give speeches and to scream speeches. As the mythical-by-design Julia, Vanessa Redgrave has more perceived flexibility. Because she has fewer scenes than Fonda, she has to make a stronger impression in shorter term. It works, kind of, though mostly because Douglas Slocombe shoots her like she’s a 1940s leading lady. Her actual performance is very unnatural but at least displays more than one emotion.
An eclectic but often uninspiring filmmaker, Fred Zinnemann was capable of competent work — The Day of the Jackal is excellent; A Man for All Seasons and From Here to Eternity both quite good, The Search an example of how to make a film like Julia well — so why this is so amateurishly mounted with awkward close-ups, perfume commercial photograpy and generally hokey dramatics it’s hard to say, but Alvin Sargent’s horrid dialogue may deserve more of the blame. Did we mention that his freakishly on-the-nose script was an Academy favorite too? Speaking of which, Redgrave’s Oscar win occasioned this film’s most interesting footnote, indeed the only reason to remember it: a batshit acceptance speech railing against the “Zionist hoodlums” protesting her pro-Palestine stance, followed by a brilliantly cool-headed rebuttal from Paddy Chayefsky. This bit of Hollywood bickery is more compelling drama than this entire awful movie that terrifyingly forecasts the terminal, sheltered overseriousness of future Oscar favorites like Ordinary People and Out of Africa. It’s on Youtube; watch it instead.