Julia (1977): Zinnemann’s Oscar Winning Version of Lillian Hellman’s Memoir, Starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave

Handsomely made but superficially written and directed, Fred Zinnemann’s Julia was a commercially success but artistically disappointing, a movie that lacks sharp dramatic focus, a result of the filmmakers’ confusion as what the memory film is about and also too frequent jumps in the story’s timeframe.

Based on episode from Lillian Hellman’s best-selling memoirs, the story takes place in the early 1930s, when the author (played Jane Fonda) lives with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robard) in a beach house. Lillian (or Lili) is writing her first play, “The Children’s Hours,” which will premiere in 1934 to great acclaim. Insecure, she turns to the famed writer Hammett for helpful comment.

Aging and in considerable decline, Hammett is by turns cruel in his criticism and supportive of Lili’s effort. The age difference between Fonda and Robards is considerable, much wider that it was between Lillian and Hammett, thus making Hammett more of a father figure.

After the play is produced successfully on Broadway, Lillian decides to visit her childhood friend, Julia (played as a mature woman by the luminous Vanessa Redgrave), with whom she had shared some wonderful moments in their youth.
Julia, it turns out, rebelled against her aristocratic family to become a martyr in the anti-Fascist movement. These sequences are shown in flashbacks that get increasingly tiresome and disruptive, with the two women played by Pelikan and Jones.

Julia then moves to Austria to study medicine with Freud and in the process becomes a political activist, joining the anti-Fascists camp. Injured in a battle with the Hitler Youth, she is sent to the hospital in Vienna. Lillian visits Julia and she seems to be recovering.

Later, on a trip to Moscow, Lillian is asked by Julia’s friend (Maximillian Schell) to smuggle a large sum of money (in her hat) from Russia to Germany, where it will be used to aid the effort against the Nazis.

Lillian’s relationships with Hammett and Julia are more like a little girl who’s hero-worshipping both figures. “I love you Julia,” says Lillian on a romantic hillside, when they two girls have a picnic.

Done in a glossy romantic way, “Julia” trivializes the politics as well as the central friendship. In the name of liberal humanism, Zinnemann has made a “fruit cocktail” out of Hellman’s text, which was not great in the first place.

The film fails as a psychological drama and a thriller. There’s a generic train sequence that strangely lacks any danger or suspense, one that Hitchcock could have done in his sleep. And it also fails to capture what made Hellman such a feisty and original figure.

The two women at the center are both sympathetically portrayed. Lillian is a famous writer, and Julia a courageous revolutionary. Neither Julia nor Lili are ordinary, and the casting of major stars underlines that. On the plus side, we have, for a change, two women who care about political issues and their career than about love or relationships with men.

However, the yarn is safely situated in the past, in the early to late l930s, during Hitler’s rise to power, and the tale is told in conventionally Hollywood style, with soft-focus lighting, predictably inserted flashbacks that often feel like a dream.

The narrative purports to be about the relationship between the two heroines as children and mature women, but the sequences with Hammett are more interesting, and we wish the movie to dwell on them.

As the scholar Annette Kuhn pointed out, the film’s discourse is pivoted on two layers of memory. First, there’s the voice-over narration of Hellman’s memoir, with Lillian as an old woman looking back 9she sits on a boat and talks). Then, there’s the childhood’s memory within the memoir. The film takes a subjective point of view of the past, seen from Lillian’s eyes, the way she remembers Julia.

Julia is glorified with-attributes of generosity, intelligence, nobility, and political commitment. Lillian is diminished with attributes of shyness and insecurity, though se could rise to the occasion. Lillian slugs a drunken male friend, when he remarks, “the whole world knows about you and Julia,” suggesting that the two women may be having a lesbian affair. The scene is rather ambiguous: It could be interpreted as Lillian’s real reaction to the slur of lesbianism, or the accusation of lesbianism is itself a slur on the relationship.

The film’s title is deceptive since most of the narrative is about the relationship between Lillian and Hammett. As she rises in fame, he declines in power, but he proves to be supportive throughout in a paternal way.

Screen death seems to have “solved” the problem of having to deal with women as equal partners, particularly women who are political activists. Julia killed off in the course of the narrative, thus becoming a more of a symbol of political heroism than a real-living woman. Screen death has often functioned as a safety valve, permitting audiences to admire courageous and independent women as martyrs, but relieving men of the burden of dealing with women as equals on a realistic level.

Most of the casting, particularly the actresses are good. Jane Fonda plays Hellman as a prig with a writer’s block and low self-esteem. Her acting is burdened with clichs, as when she’s seen seated in front of a blank page, or throwing her typewriter out the window.

Vanessa Redgrave, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar, shines as the noble martyr and mother of baby, born out of the wedlock, who later disappears, despite Lillian’s efforts to find her.

The film’s most memorable scene is set in a Berlin restaurant, when the two women meet for the last time, showing strong emotions without a taint of sentimentality. It’s also a testimony to the different acting style used by Fonda and Redgrave, with the former more cerebral and calculated and the latter more instinctive.