Directors and screenwriters working in film today could learn a thing or two watching Julia (1977), Fred Zinnemann's film about playwright Lillian Hellman and her relationships with novelist Dashiell Hammett and a luminous but enigmatic political activist named Julia. The film overflows with the kinds of things that have become extremely rare in Hollywood movies today: subtlety, unspoken emotion, ambiguity, richly-woven characterizations expressed with a minimum of action and dialogue. It also is a very good example of how a particular time and its settings can be expressed without the use of epic but phony and overdone computer graphics.** It's also a great film from an underrated talent long overdue for a major retrospective.
The film is a shadowy memoir told by Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda), who was in her seventies at the time the film was released. The story freely moves from Hellman's early teenage years up to the beginning of the Second World War. As a teenager Lillian spends summers with the older Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), who lives with her obscenely wealthy grandparents in cloistered opulence. Julia becomes politically active after a trip to Cairo where she was shocked by the poverty there - and appalled by her grandfather's advice at the human suffering before them: "Don't look at [it]." Julia, we learn in the limited exchanges Lillian has with her, eventually moves to Vienna and becomes involved with the anti-Fascist underground.
Lillian, meanwhile, under Hammett's guidance writes The Children's Hour (though Alvin Sargent's superb script never mentions it by name), is fashionably liberal but basically naive, spending her days fretting over whether to use part of her royalties to buy a sable coat. When Julia is beaten near the point of death, Julia races to be at her side. Eventually Lillian is tested when asked by Julia to help the cause.
There have been two major complaints lodged against the film, one a misinterpretation of the movie's aim, the other quite beside the point. The later concerns the story's authenticity which, though billed in the trailer and elsewhere as a "true story," may in fact have been fabricated along the lines of James Frey's controversial A Million Little Pieces or appropriated from something that had actually happened to a woman who shared Hellman's lawyer. Ultimately, however, it doesn't really matter: whether real or not the story and its characters are grippingly effective.
Some critics at the time (Roger Ebert to name one) seemed to think that the movie was about Julia (well, it is the title of the movie), or least Julia's relationship with Lillian, and complained that the movie never really gets inside Julia's head. In fact the movie is told entirely from Hellman's point-of-view and is entirely about Hellman's search for identity and meaning in her life. She draws inspiration from both Hammett and Julia, yet by design is never fully connected to either one of them. It would be interesting to know just how much Redgrave is actually in the film, but it's probably less than 15 minutes in all. (She ended up winning the Academy Award over nominee Fonda anyway).
The three leads share many obvious similarities with their characters; whether this helped their performances is unknown, though it probably helped some. Like Dashiell Hammett, Jason Robards was an alcoholic in real life, though apparently a recovering one when the film was made. Vanessa Redgrave was famously politically if not radical at the time - remember her notorious "anti-Zionist hoodlums" Oscar speech? Incredibly, Faye Dunaway was first approached to play Julia, which probably would've been a disaster. Jane Fonda, like Hellmann in the mid-1930s, was working hard to be taken seriously as an artist and had, like Hellmann under Hammett, worked in the shadow of more respected mentor figures, from director Roger Vadim and then-popular politician Tom Hayden to her respected actor father.
She was never better, though she followed this with equally fine work in Coming Home (1978) and The China Syndrome. Both Robards (who won the Best Supporting Actor Award) and Maximilian Schell, in a small but unforgettable role as an agent of the Underground, give superb and understated performances that tell the audience a lot about their characters with a minimum of action: little gestures, short bits of dialogue. One of the pleasures of the film in general and with Schell's character in particular is that it leaves many questions unanswered - it doesn't spell everything out in BOLDFACE the way big studios do today. The fates of several characters go unsolved, and better than just about any American film Julia addresses that haunting agony of not knowing what happened to people that have vanished from one's life.
Indeed, just about everything in this film works, from Douglas Slocombe's superb cinematography to Georges Delerue's score, both nominated. Delerue's score is especially evocative. The film cost $7.8 million (fairly big money for 1977) but it's all up there on the screen.
Video & Audio
Julia and Douglas Slocombe's cinematography look great in Fox's new 16:9 transfer (1.77:1, approximating the original 1.85:1 release version), which has great color and clarity; only the overuse of filters give away the picture's late-'70s origins. The film is offered both in a mono and stereo track, though the stereo track had little in the way of separations. Mono tracks in Spanish and French are also offered, as well as subtitles in English and Spanish.
The only extra is a Trailer, 16:9 and complete with text and narration, which includes a single shot from a large scale battle sequence apparently shot but never used.
This reviewer has no idea why the DVD release of Julia was put on hold for so long, but the wait has been worth it, transfer-wise, though the lack of extras is disappointing, and indeed the only reason it falls short of DVD Collector Series status.
**Basically, the film deemphasizes the '30s iconography (period automobiles, Nazi flags, etc.) to the point where they really seem part of the landscape and become more real. Sweeping CGI effects in movies like King Kong cry out: "LOOK! It's 1933!!!"
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.