Review: Julia

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Whatever Lillian Hellman’s attitude about herself may be—in Pentimento and elsewhere—Fred Zinnemann’s Julia is at pains to glamorize her. Not only is she played by a woman much more attractive than she ever was; her struggling pre-fame days are also recounted in glossy, romantic terms that revere her (with the comfort of hindsight) as a famous, successful playwright, as the mistress of a famous writer, and as a courageous ur-liberal who performs a daring anti-fascist act long before it became fashionable even to be anti-fascist. There is no denying that the self-congratulatory tone that seeps into Hellman’s monologue and dialogue in Julia is already present in Pentimento; and Jane Fonda has brought off a splendid achievement in portraying the young Lillian Hellman not as the young Lillian Hellman but as the older Lillian Hellman’s impression of her younger self.

That’s as it should be, because the film, like Pentimento, is as much about memory as it is about anything else. The aware viewer has to overcome an inevitable double skepticism about a writer’s longtime suppression of a story that reflects only credit upon herself, and about her purported effort, now, to tell that story without embellishment. How far can she trust her own memory? Should we trust her as far as she trusts herself? All of this is present in the layers upon layers of memories-within-memories-within-memories that make up the fabric of Sargent’s and Zinnemann’s Julia, perhaps even more so than in Hellman’s. But the ever-cool distance of Zinnemann’s directorial eye has caught something else, something Hellman was perhaps too near to include adequately in her own memoir. Even as the film’s dialogue (whose “author” is Hellman’s memory-monologue) and plot stress the importance of Hellman’s mission, both to herself and to Julia, Zinnemann isolates it from its political context and emphasizes it as a demonstration—however clumsy—of devotion to a friend. Hellman’s actual operation within the spy-story ambience of her two trips to Europe is never particularly skillful or effective, and continually gives the lie to the myth of courage and political dedication that might otherwise be thought the principal motif of the film. At every turn Hellman does, or almost does, something wrong or foolish; thank God she has guides all along the way to coach her at crucial moments! These coaches are themselves a disturbing element in the film: they never have any trouble getting through customs and passport inspection, and are much better than Lillian at this sort of thing, so why couldn’t one of them have carried the money?

In the context of the nagging question, and with the evidence of Lillian’s fumbling manner throughout her One Great Act, one comes to view Lillian’s ordeal as something that it never was in Pentimento: a test; a trial of worthiness; the “second chance” she gets after having failed to cross a stream on a log in Julia’s footsteps many years before. “You’ll do all right the next time,” Julia tells her in that flashback; and, in the memory of the film’s Hellman, the passage of the money across Germany becomes the measure of Hellman’s worth and friendship to Julia. Instead of an adventure story, or a celebrity memoir, or a political document, Zinnemann has turned Julia into a complex and many-layered love story, one that is as often concerned with what might have been as with what was. It’s that different vantage point of Zinnemann’s that enables this skeptical, detached reader of “Julia” to be so utterly moved by, for example, Lillian’s homecoming, after the ordeal, with Dash waiting for her: she is changed utterly, and he and we feel it at once, in a shot that is long in both distance and duration, and epitomizes all that is best about Julia.

© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow

JULIA
Direction: Fred Zinnemann. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent, after a portion of Lillian Hellman’s memoir Pentimento. Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe. Editing: Walter Murch. Music: Georges Delerue. Production: Richard Roth.
The players: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Lisa Pelikan, Susan Jones, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary Murphy, Maximilian Schell, Meryl Streep, John Glover, Cathleen Nesbitt.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.