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Released in 1977, audiences who had read American playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman's autobiographical novel "Pentimento", were thrilled to watch this tale unfold with fine performances by Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave and Jason Robards. Director Fred Zinneman (From Here To Eternity, The Nun's Story) recreates a time in Lillian Hellman's life with vivid intensity and powerful emotional impact. Jane Fonda as Lillian is possibly her greatest performance. She captures the spirit of the Louisiana-born playwright quite well and Hellman herself must have been impressed. Hellman was still alive at this time (born 1905 died 1984). Among Miss Hellman's finest works include "The Children's Hour", "The Little Foxes", "The North Star", "The Dark Angel" and "Toys In The Attick" . The film follows the life of Hellman and covers areas that are well-known, such as her long-term relationship with mystery writer Dashiel Hemmett, played by Jason Robards, her professional relationship with author Dorothy Parker (portrayed by Rosemary Murphy), and her love of the city of Paris. But the film focuses on her little-known relationship with a childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave in a magnificent performance). Julia studies medicine in Vienna but World War II breaks out. Julia becomes a socialist and political activist who zealously opposes Nazism and Fascism. She goes as far as to rescue the lives of Jews and other victims of Hitler's regime. As such, she is always in mortal danger. She maintains contact with Lillian through letters and eventually asks for her help on a mission. Lillian travels to Moscow via Berlin, the heart of danger at this time. Will Lillian reunite with Julia ? Will the mission be accomplished ? Will things ever be the same now that WWII has begun ? While the film is long, bittersweet and somewhat scary in its powerful account, it's a well-written film and Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, two noted stars, do their roles justice. Look for a brief cameo by Meryl Streep, not yet a big star, as Julia's care-free friend Ann Marie. Lillian Helman is finally vindicated in this fine tribute to her as Hollywood of the late 70's was far more forgiving and liberal than the old Hollywood of the 40's and 50's which had blacklisted Hellman as communist and kept her from writing plays or film scripts. With somewhat "stern" cinematography by veteran film-maker Douglas Slocombe and haunting music by Georges Delerue, this is an emotionally charged film that will move you and stir your soul. It's a beautiful, tragic tale of two friends, full of the power of human love.
Lillian Hellman was a radical and unorthodox character in her life and times. She was the first major American writer to bring a lesbian theme to the stage in The Children's Hour. What she gives us in Julia is a look at her life and how she was able to create the characters of Karen and Martha the schoolteachers from The Children's Hour.
In this story Karen and Martha are Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman and Vanessa Redgrave as her most intimate friend Julia. Both are Jewish, but Redgrave is British and Hellman is American. Their destinies seeming to be fated for togetherness are driven apart as Julia decides to go to university in Vienna to study under Sigmund Freud.
But while Hellman struggles to create a play under the tutelage of lover and mentor Dashiell Hammett as played by Jason Robards, Jr., Julia gets herself involved in the anti-fascist activities in an Austria already preparing for Anschluss. While Hellman is visiting Julia sustains some very serious injuries during a Nazi inspired riot.
As the story continues Hellman meets great acclaim with her first major hit which turns out to be The Children's Hour, but her communications from Julia become more and more infrequent and somewhat bizarre. Then she's asked on another trip to smuggle money into the Third Reich to aid Julia and others fleeing Hitler's tyranny.
Director Fred Zinneman who was also a refugee from the Anschluss of Austria knew his subject well. He successfully transfers his memories and visions of a frightened people with good reason to be frightened. Fonda's American experience doesn't prepare her for this, but as Hellman she adapts to the environment well for her survival. Her budding celebrity no doubt helps insure her survival.
But the one you will remember is Vanessa Redgrave who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Julia. The last scene of her and Fonda together at a Berlin train stop café is no doubt what won her the Oscar. It will haunt you long after you've seen the film.
Julia won two other Oscars, one for Best Screenplay adapted from another source and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards, Jr. as Dashiell Hammett. Sharing sex, literature, and politics wasn't enough for the Hammett/Hellman duo, Robards as Hammett knows well that he runs second as will anyone else in Fonda's life to her lost Julia. But he's secure enough to realize it and enjoy what he has.
Maximilian Schell was also up for Best Supporting Actor in a small, but vital role as an anti-Nazi German who gives cryptic guiding instructions to Fonda on her last visit to Julia. It's through him that the fright of the opposition is seen mostly. Meryl Streep made her screen debut as an upper class snob of a friend that Fonda has and Strepp has a brother in John Glover. Glover specializes in portrayals of truly hateful people on the big and small screen. He confesses a breaking a major taboo to Fonda while drunk and then snickers at her relationship with Redgrave. Jane handles him appropriately.
Julia was also up for a flock of other Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director for Fred Zinneman and Best Actress for Jane Fonda. It's a beautiful and haunting film about Lillian Hellman writing from the heart about a lost love.
Gorgeously photographed, costumed and written, with some of the finest acting on film, "Julia" succeeds in capturing the texture and truly world shattering issues of a time and place, Europe between the wars and on the brink of cataclysm. Everything about it shines, from the scenes of childhood in flashback to the suspenseful and tense train trip, I watch this film over and over waiting for one scene: the scene between Fonda and Redgrave in the Berlin restaurant. I just saw it again two hours ago and once again I was in awe of the acting, from both stars, some of the finest work of their careers, the direction of the scene and the spare, intense writing.
Whether the story itself was factual or not (Hellman might just have made it all up!) it works on so many levels that it's still worthy, and its truth or falsity just doesn't matter.
The screenplay blends the two longest episodes in Lillian Hellman's PENTIMENTO, the third, most engaging, and most imaginative of her memoirs. It traces the (largely factual) struggle of Hellman to develop her talents as a playwright under the tutelage of her long-time lover, Dashiell Hammett, and the (largely fictional) course of her friendship with an anti-Nazi activist. The character of Julia seems to be part fantasy, part composite of women Hellman admired.
The film suffers from this blend of fact and fiction and even more from the episodic nature of the intermixed stories. In addition (and to its credit), it does not minimize Hellman's famously abrasive personality. But the characters are so compelling, the performances so outstanding, and the pacing so canny that it holds the viewer's interest for a full two hours.
A flawed but fascinating flick!
The story focuses on an episode near the end of the friends' lives, when Fonda goes to Europe to visit Redgrave, now completely consumed in underground resistance activities and (summoning up bravery of her own) smuggles in money to support the underground movement.
The movie succeeds on several levels. The cinematography, though shot in color, successfully evokes a world of muddied browns, shadows and murkiness. The screenplay, based on Hellman's own memoir is translated well, capitalizing on Hellman's unique talent for imbuing simple moments with heroic significance. The personal drama of the friendship is heightened against the intrigue and always threatening possibilities of war.
Julia provides a rare opportunity to see two female characters conducting their lives not as appendages of men, but as independent protagonists. Furthermore, social relationships, both on a personal and political level, are presented, for a change, from a woman's point of view. Though not a Streep showcase, it is a compelling movie that will haunt you.
This movie does a masterful job not only showing the takeover by the Nazis, but it also puts some other things in perspective. Since I saw it a few days before the US invaded Iraq, I got the feeling of a similarity in that way. Maybe the fact that someone in my dormitory was playing a somber song on the piano (it may have been the "Schindler's List" theme music) also contributed to that. But either way, the perfect direction, script, cinematography, and performances by Fonda and Redgrave, plus Jason Robards Jr as Dashiell Hammett and Maximilian Schell as Julia's friend Johann, make this a perfect movie.
To make something like this work, you need a really superlative cast, and fortunately Julia features some of the best of their era. Jane Fonda is one of those performers who just has such an effortless realism about her. She gives an impression that she is really living that life, more convincingly than the finest method actors, and yet she is also as captivating as the most theatrical of players. Maximilian Schell gives a short but memorable performance, putting on an act of tender shyness, beneath which lies a real sense of urgency. Jason Robards gives a kind of stable anchor to the movie, confidently playing the one major character slightly to one side of events. Vanessa Redgrave gives a delightfully mysterious turn, with this continual eager, earnest look in her eyes, as if she is perpetually on the brink of laughter or tears. And this is very apt for a picture of such uncertainty and emotional turmoil.
This was one of the final pictures of director Fred Zinnemann, an old pro whose quiet, thoughtful style had survived amid the new generation of filmmakers. And he shows the benefit of years of experience. Never afraid to break the cinematic conventions, Zinnemann opens the first flashback with three close-ups, the young Julia, the young Lily and then a profile of Julia's grandmother. This odd sequence of shots nevertheless engages us instantly, impressing the characters upon us and, with the shot of the grandmother, giving us a hint of her character and the context these girls are in. In contrast with those heartfelt close-ups, at other times his camera is agonizingly far from the action. When Fonda visits Julia at the hospital, the camera stays at the foot-end of the bed, refusing to give us a closer shot of Redgrave – as would be conventional. Zinnemann is also very good at covertly planting a thought in our heads with something that looks innocuous. For example, when Fonda wakes up and notices Julia is gone, a soldier walks across the shot, giving us the idea that perhaps something sinister is going on, without actually stating anything.
But none of this would be anything without the right story. Hellmand's work, adapted for the screen by Alvin Sargent, is simply exquisite. The flashback structure, so often a cliché, does not just serve to give the story background, it supports the main line of narrative. Lily's reminiscences have such passion and life that it seems Julia is saved through them, as if past and present could almost co-exist. Julia is a story of devastating effect on many levels. It is the telling of a horrendous chapter of history on a most personal, intimate level, a painful tale of loss and regret, and yet also one of the most moving studies of love and friendship ever created.
All that said,though, it was quite a great testament to the power of friendship (and that's ALL it was but that alone was strong enough) that saw Lillian seek out acceptance and accolades in the very society that she'd first been dazzled by via her girlhood visits with Julia- yet this aerified society was exactly what Julia herself would spend her entire life fleeing and trying to do right by the larger world. Strange that even in their girlhood, the cars and wardrobe was depicted as being no earlier than the 1920's- yet the movie makes it clear that at least 20 years had elapsed when everything came to a head c.1938!
So many unanswered questions raised here! Why were Julia's grandparents and mother so estranged from her that they refused to recognize her best friend or even acknowledge her death? Who was Mr. Johannes and what would he have done had Lillian not opted to volunteer for the mission- even with her obnoxious friends trying to tag along/talk her out of it? Quite fitting that they used one of the last steam engine locomotives from that time for that movie- the steam added to the sinister and mystery of the operation! What exactly did Lillian's train compartment companions know about the mission and Lillian herself? Was it more than just the importance of Lillian wearing the lambskin hat and using the fine chocolate bon-bons to divert the German Customs' attention? Who was it who removed the money from the lambskin hat while she and Julia were in the beer hall? The fact that these are fictional characters doesn't mean these questions aren't worth pondering!
What a remarkable reunion between the Lillian and Julia- as though they both knew they had so much to say to each other but too little time to say it yet still were able to communicate more in that single conversation than many friends who have a lifetime together! And an interesting touch that the single trainride and meeting of Mr. Johannes seemed to have impacted Lillian even more than all the years she'd survive Julia and Dashell yet would continue to dominate her life!
The only thing that brings it down any is Miss Hellman having pretended her remarkable story was fact.
This story is set in the 1930's. Lillian Hellmann is a playwright, living in a New England beach house with her grouchy lover, Dashiell Hammett, and invited to a writers' conference in Communist Russia. While en route, she is sent on a dangerous mission by her old and dear friend, Julia, who has been studying in Vienna and has involved herself in the anti fascist underground movement. Julia has persuaded Lillian, who is herself Jewish, to smuggle American currency into Nazi Germany to assist her cause. The two meet briefly, and Lillian learns that Julia has a daughter which she has named Lilly. Back in the States, Lillian is informed of Julia's mysterious murder and sadly travels to England to seek out this namesake child, which she has promised Julia she will care for.
The film has a gripping plot, suspense and intrigue, particularly Lillian's train trip through Germany. However, it is the courage of these two women and their bond of friendship that is the thrust of this movie, flashing back to their early years as schoolgirls but especially as it is tested now. Lillian shines here as an extraordinary and loyal friend, willing to embark upon such a journey at the behest of her friend and exposing herself quite unquestionably to danger for Julia. Not to mention undertaking the responsibility of raising Julia's child.
As for Julia, in retrospect, though she is courageous in her anti Nazi efforts, she comes across not quite so goldenly as a friend. She has embarked upon a risky cause for her life path, her own choice. However, I now ask myself... what kind of friend would ask the Jewish Lillian (living such distance away) to involve herself in this cause, however worthy, at such potential danger to herself? In any case, the film has an appropriate title as Lillian's actions are all triggered by Julia. There is a certain air of mystery about the present adult Julia throughout much of the film, very effectively done. When we do finally see her at her meeting with Lillian, Redgrave gives Julia radiance and sparkle, making her a sympathetic character. This actress deserved her Oscar.
In any case, this theme of friendship portrayed here has remained fresh with me for many years. I saw the movie long ago in my college years at the theatre with a good friend of my own, so it was particularly poignant for us both at the time.
There are also movies - not as many, but still too many - that make every effort to connect with the art of cinema but not enough effort to engage the audience. That, in my opinion, is not so fine, but as long as I don't have to sit through them, I can't complain.
And then there are movies - never enough - that connect with and advance the art of cinema not to impress critics but to enthrall audiences. Those are masterpieces, and they keep you riveted to your seat as they unfold.
Julia is one such film. I first saw it in 1977 when it was released, and all these 35 years since I remembered enjoying it. This evening I watched it again, and had a chance to marvel at how well it was made. The language is often beautiful, which is appropriate in a movie about a great writer, Lillian Hellman. The images are also sometimes beautiful, which is something to be thankful for. The acting is uniformly fine. It presents Hellman's recollections of a childhood friend of hers, Julia, and her efforts to reconnect with her during the late 1930s, by which point Julia had become involved with anti-Fascist groups in Germany. We never get the details. They don't really matter, or at least didn't to me. There is no great apotheosis at the end; Hellman is not transformed by her experience. It is painful. We are made to feel that pain. The story ends.
This is one of the best movie experiences I have had in quite some time. Good script writing, fine acting, and good direction can come together to make a very fine movie. Would that they did more often.
I've actually for many years been an admirer of Hellman's writings (as well as that of her "beau", the hard-living crime-writer Dashiell Hammett), which should have added an extra piquancy to an on the surface anyway, interesting story, but really this was a film which thinks that lots of pauses and meaningless scenes, no matter how beautifully shot or professionally acted, add up to a convincing drama.
In truth the film would have been better called "Lillian" as it's Fonda's character who's barely ever off the screen and whose struggle to write her first play hardly seems the stuff of a major plot device. And so we're presented with her adventure in war-threatened Europe ostensibly seeking out her conscience-stricken poor little rich girl childhood friend Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave (perfect casting there!) and a drawn-out train journey to Berlin opposite two other females who may or may not be on her side. For me however, I found almost no tension in said journey nor did I get any sense of dramatic relief when she fulfils her mission and briefly meets up with a now battle-scarred Julia in a bar.
The period recreation is fine, the performances competent enough, although hardly Oscar worthy, indeed Fonda's face seemingly displays only two expressions throughout - fraught and confused.
Quite what the point of the film was I'm not sure, its focus blurred between a celebration of a heroic life in dangerous times, a remembrance of a devoted friendship or an examination of artistic creativity. For me it accomplished none of these and must be judged a failure accordingly.
A well-deserved Oscar-winner for Alvin Sargent, the script belongs on any screen writing student's bookshelf alongside "Chinatown" and "Ordinary People" two other Oscar-winners from the era.
Confession - by "era" I mean from my USC screen writing class, where I also read terrific scripts like "Marathon Man" (the Hoffman-Devane-Keller lunch scene a textbook example of "reversal" writing), "Breaking Away" and "Cutter's Way."
The film tells the story of Hellmann's alleged relationship with Julia from their childhood in the early twentieth century up until the 1930s. Julia is said to be the daughter of a wealthy American family. After studying at Oxford and the University of Vienna she becomes involved with radical left-wing politics and rejects her family's bourgeois attitudes. The catalyst for her political conversion is said to be the shelling of the working-class districts of Vienna in 1934, although the film, possibly deliberately, conflates three separate events, the Austrian Civil War of 1934, the unsuccessful attempt by the Austrian Nazis to overthrow the Austro-Fascist Dollfuss regime later the same year and the successful Nazi Anschluss of 1938. The idea that one could simultaneously be a Fascist and an opponent of Nazism (as Dollfuss and his successor Schuschnigg undoubtedly were) is probably too complex for the film's rather simplified political view; much easier to blame the assault on the Viennese working class on Hitler. The script also omits the fact that Hellmann was a committed communist and admirer of Stalin; in the film her politics are simply anti-Nazi.
Hellmann is by now a successful playwright, so celebrated that people even recognise her "when she goes out to buy mayonnaise". (An in-joke and possibly a disguised piece of product placement, playing on the well-known brand Hellman's Mayonnaise). When she is invited to a writers' conference in Moscow she is contacted by her old friend Julia, now a member of an anti-Nazi movement in Germany, who asks her to smuggle money into the country for the benefit of the cause. Despite the dangers involved in her mission, Hellmann does not hesitate to accept.
Does it matter whether the story is truth or fiction? One who thought it did was the director, Fred Zinnemann, who accepted his assignment in the belief that he was directing a true story and who implied that he would have made it in a different way had he believed it to be fiction. Of Hellmann himself he said that she was a "phony character" and that their relationship "ended in pure hatred".
My own view is that the factual accuracy of the story it tells is not always the most important thing about a film; there are, after all, plenty of good films, even great ones, which have played fast-and-loose with historical fact. "Amadeus" (to take only one example) is a wonderfully imaginative film, but I would not recommend it to anyone looking for an accurate account of the lives of Mozart and Salieri. Julia, however, has its faults even when seen as a piece of film-making rather than a piece of historical biography.
The "smuggling money into Germany" plot sounds like something from a thriller, but seen as a thriller the film is too slow-moving and lacking in tension; it would have needed someone like Hitchcock to make it exciting. As a statement about Nazism, it does not analyse the nature of Nazi tyranny in any depth. As a study of friendship it is too one-sided. It may be entitled "Julia" but it should have been called "Lillian" as there is far more emphasis on Hellmann than on her friend. Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the ostensible title role, was only nominated for a "Best Supporting Actress" Oscar (she won) whereas Jane Fonda who plays Hellmann was nominated for "Best Actress" (she lost, to Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall"). Jason Robards, who plays Hellmann's lover Dashiell Hammett, won "Best Supporting Actor".
In her controversial Oscar acceptance speech (controversial because of certain remarks she made about Zionism), Redgrave said that in this film she and her close friend Fonda had done "the best work of our lives". Fonda is certainly good, if one can overlook the fact that she looks nothing like the real Lillian Hellmann, even if this is not in my view her best film. I felt, however, that there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about Redgrave's performance, although I will suspend my comments on the justice or otherwise of her Oscar win until I am more familiar with the performances of the other actresses who were in contention in 1977. As for Robards, I can think of at least one actor (Alec Guinness in "Star Wars") who was more deserving of the "Best Supporting Actor" award.
One thing that did impress me was the quality of the photography; there are some wonderfully evocative scenes, such as the one of Hellmann fishing from a boat on a lake which opens and closes the film, the shots of Hellmann and Hammett on the beach by their seaside home on Cape Cod, and all those trains arriving at a station in a cloud of steam or puffing through a wintry landscape. Overall, however, I feel that, despite all its Oscar nominations, "Julia" must rank as a minor example of Zinnemann's work, especially as he was responsible for such masterpieces as "High Noon", "From Here to Eternity", "The Nun's Story" and "A Man for All Seasons". 5/10
Despite the story most likely being a lie, the film itself is quite well made. The location shooting was quite nice and Jane Fonda (as Hellman) and the director did very well. It's odd, then, that Oscars went to Jason Robards and Vanessa Redgrave (Julia), as both (particularly Redgrave) were barely in the film. Additionally, Maximillian Schell was nominated even though his role was minuscule in the film (as one reviewer said, he was nominated for 'eating eggs'). Overall, a taut and lovely story. Too bad it's just not real--especially since Hellman's story practically portrays her as a saint!!
The film three leads are all fine though somewhat mannered in their roles, and I wouldn't have thought Oscar worthy. In support; Maximillian Schell is good in a small role, though Hal Holbrook is not well used in a role that is against type. Further Meryl Streep appears in one of her first roles, but get almost no screen time and both Lisa Pelikan and John Glover also appear in early roles.
None of the relationships between the characters are fleshed out sufficiently. There are some nice moments between Fonda and Robards but not quite enough and the Fonda and Redgrave relationship seems one sided and lacking a real basis.
The film does build some tension on Hellman's clandestine visit to Berlin but the character is a little to awkward here to be entirely credible and the fact that many would be aware that she would continue to live a fairly long life after this time bleeds some of that tension away.
Director Fred Zinneman does an adequate job but I think the film pales in comparison to some of his other work including; High Noon, Day of the Jackal, From Here to Eternity and even The Nun's Story.
The fairly extreme political affiliations of both Hellman and Hammet aren't really covered or addressed in the film and their conversations never really touch on them. Instead we have the character of Julia (who possibly incorporated aspects from acquaintances) serving as an expression of their beliefs.
It's a fairly good movie but in retrospect it's hard to believe the film got 11 Oscar nominations including Best Picture for which neither "Saturday Night Fever" nor "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" were nominated that year. The film would win 3 Oscars.