Its story should be told from the perspective of its title figure, but is instead delivered from the point of view of her best girl friend, playwright Lillian Hellman. It should spend more time developing the friendship between the eponymous Julia and Hellman, emphasizing how life-or-death it is, but only throws in a couple flashbacks here and there to get the job done. It should be a cynical tale objecting the bitter truths of World War II, but it’s too fascinated by its material comforts to hit hard, wearing its frustrations and its setbacks romantically, like accessories to go along with its fur coats and its perfectly applied jungle red lipstick and nail polish.
This is frustrating, then, because Julia has interesting material to work with. It is based on a chapter in Hellman’s controversial 1973 memoir Pentimento: A Book of Portraits, which told of Hellman’s friendship with a woman named Julia, who fervently fought the Nazis before they became the most seismic villains of the 1940s. In the chapter, Hellman additionally recounted her experience smuggling money into Nazi Germany to aid Julia’s part in the anti-Nazi cause.
In the movie, Jane Fonda is Hellman, and Vanessa Redgrave is Julia, with the story beginning in 1934 and ending with the aftermath of the smuggling job. Also involved in the story is Hellman’s longtime lover and mentor Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), whom provides her with the confidence she needs to both live up to her talents as a writer and to continue existing prosperously in a world without the all-important Julia by her side.
As such, Julia is as much a story of female friendship as it is a wartime thriller to rival the works of John le Carré. But as either, the movie falls short. The relationship between Julia and Hellman is supposed to be so unnervingly close we’d be partial to suspecting romance. The interludes of suspense are ostensibly supposed to be so intense because we have no idea what direction they’re moving toward.
Yet all we see of the friendship are brief flashbacks which show Julia and Hellman as children, playing in the glittery house of Julia’s wealthy grandparents. A couple scenes see them as grown women, with Hellman admiring her friend’s “perfect” face. But they feel more like placeholders than substantial build-ups leading toward growth. Julia only exists in our mind as a person who’s obsessed over for reasons not all that persuasive.
In the scenes that force the movie to switch gears into spy thriller territory, we’re never able to empathize with why Hellman is doing what she’s doing; she would never be putting her life in such danger if not for the possible chance of a reunion with her best friend. As that said relationship is never well-defined, we liken her to a woman in way over her head for no reason, even though there is a good reason. We’re so overwhelmed by our skepticism our bodies refuse to cooperate and allow our adrenaline valves to be emptied.
There are many ways this particular chapter of Pentimento could be adapted more efficiently. Most obviously it might have stirred more if it were divided into a three-part miniseries, with the first fragment showcasing Hellman and Julia’s friendship from childhood to adulthood, the second Hellman’s relationship with Hammett and, by the end, her experience as a quasi-spy, and the last her short reunion with Julia and the repercussions of Hellman’s decision to take such an active part in the war. The movie would also prove to be effective if it gave equal weight to Hellman and Julia as narrators, perhaps lengthening the feature’s already lengthy running time but nonetheless making motivations clearer and Hellman and Julia’s fondness of one another more understandable.
Julia is too abbreviated and too sugar-coated; it is a story ripe for a careful unraveling and for immense pessimism, but doesn’t exploit either possibility. We ponder how much better the film would be if Zinnemann, better equipped to direct straightforward Hollywood pieces like war weeper From Here to Eternity (1953) and terse spy thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973), weren’t sitting behind the camera. Or if Alvin Sargent’s screenplay were more concerned with its characters and didn’t so heavily rely on the plot points to which they serve. At least Fonda (practically quaking with ferocity) and Redgrave (bringing necessary ethereality) are luminous.
Since Julia’s initial release has its veracity been called into question, though. In 1979, Hellman’s professional rival Mary McCarthy opted to Dick Cavett that “every word Hellman writes is a lie, including 'and' and ‘the,’” prompting a multi-million-dollar lawsuit from the latter. In 1983, psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner claimed she was utilized as a model for the Julia character, and that, while she had never met Hellman, the author had heard of her story through a friend and had used it to her advantage. Many years after the Oscar ceremony, Julia’s makers, including Zinnemann, held the firm belief that Hellmann did, in fact, fabricate the tale told in the film.
Given Hellman’s status in 1977 — that of a living legend — of course Julia was a hit at the time of its theatrical stay. How often do we see our favorite writers interlocked in a drama more cinematic than anything the Hollywood Golden Age could ever churn out? The film was nominated for 11 Oscars in total, scoring deserved wins for Redgrave and Robards.
But taking into consideration what we now know about Hellman, it seems reasonable that the movie not be as powerful as it was 40 years ago. Its falling short in so many areas might have been excused because of the belief that all presented really happened. Now that fictionalization seems plausible, the film’s weaknesses no longer can be glossed over. What we have is an "important movie" winded by Oscar-baiting bloat and a story never told all that conclusively. Well-made but, as it so often goes with expensive studio fare, lacking in substantiality. C
2 Hrs., 2 Mins.
Julia August 30, 2017
e can sense the great film swimming around aimlessly above the forceful current of 1977’s Julia. But, alas, its two-plus hours do not allot enough time for it to be the incendiary true story it so clearly could be. Perhaps it’d be better suited for a miniseries or an epic directed by someone who knows a thing or two about corporeal glam, like William Wyler or David Lean. But it is, starting with the enlisting of Fred Zinnemann as director, all wrong, the cinematic equivalent of a skinny chap with a head three sizes too big for his body.