Julia (1977)


Dir. Fred Zinnemann
Premiered October 2, 1977

Here are three facts about Fred Zinnemann’s Julia: A conventional historical drama, it debuted to box-office success, critical acclaim, and huge awards buzz. From that moment on, it became the subject of multiple controversies, each bigger and stranger than the one before. And all of this is more interesting than the actual movie.

Despite the title, Julia isn’t the main character. It’s more like in Rebecca, a mostly absent figure driving the action. Amazingly, Rebecca had zero screentime in her movie and yet had a thousand times more personality than Julia is ever allowed. But she’s only getting the worst of it; as none of Julia’s characters are adequately defined, nor are their actions adequately explained.

The story is taken from a single chapter of Pentimento, a memoir by playwright/social activist Lillian Hellman. In the mid-1930s, Lillian (Jane Fonda) dreams of excitement abroad as she approaches middle age and struggles to write her first play. Encouraged by her mentor, the legendary pulp novelist Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), she goes to visit her lifelong friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) in Vienna, only to find that she has been brutalized by pro-Nazi demonstrators there. In spite of the unfortunate circumstances, the events compel Lillian to complete her play, which is a smashing success and makes her the toast of Broadway.

While visiting Paris, Lillian is recruited by secretive anti-fascists (represented by Maximilian Schell) to meet Julia in Hitler’s Berlin en route to her scheduled arrival in Moscow for a literary conference. All the while, Lillian flashes back to her adolescence with Julia in a series of unaccountably homoerotic digressions which contributes nothing to the movie save its running time.

Under Zinnemann’s direction, most of Julia is lifeless and dull. The adaptation process doesn’t help. In a memoir, or any first-person narrative, it’s easy to identify with the main character, because they are our window into the story. Film doesn’t offer us this kind of intimacy, and screenwriter Alvin Sargent does nothing to bring Lillian to life.

The only moment of tension is when Lillian is charged with transporting Julia’s cash to Moscow by train in a fur hat, convinced that the other passengers in her compartment are Nazi spies, and only then because handles the situation so terribly, covered in flop sweat in the dead of winter.

It’s a rare success for the film, and appears to have been portrayed as it was at behest of the Hellman herself, but this faithfulness to the author is somewhat at odds with Zinnemann’s decision to frame the friendship between Lillian and Julia as an unconsummated lesbian romance, in deference to Lillian’s real-life involvement with Hammett, which is portrayed with an oddly platonic air. Unless I’m reading this completely wrong– and considering the movie’s inept approach to tone, that’s totally possible– it’s a truly bizarre choice, especially for the 1970s, especially for the portrayal of a real person who was alive at the time.

Finally, Jane Fonda as Lillian. I have yet to see a performance by Fonda that improves any movie, and here she does not disappoint, projecting to the cheap seats as if hypnotized into thinking herself onstage rather than in a movie. Inasmuch as there is a role to be performed, it calls for dignity, but is performed with over-the-top neurosis, in sad contrast to great smaller performances by Robards and Schell (who’s been killing it this year).

But failing as a movie is the least of Julia’s problems.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Lillian’s steam-powered train to Berlin leaves the Gare du Nord…passing under the overhead electric lines for the under-construction TGV.

How Did It Do?
Holy shit, we have a lot to deal with here.

Julia grossed $20.7 million against a $7.84 million dollar budget. At the time, critical reception was almost entirely positive, but now holds a somewhat less auspicious 72% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. History has not been terrible kind to this movie, and not only because of its aesthetic lifelessness; whereas most film controversies fade with time, Julia’s only got bigger.

First, the Oscars. Julia was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won three: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Jason Robards, and Best Supporting Actress for Vanessa Redgrave. In 1977, Redgrave’s nomination was protested by the militant far-right Jewish Defense League for of her financing and narration of the pro-PLO television documentary The Palestinian (the JDL later blew up a bomb in front of a theater where it was showed). The Academy was no friend of the JDL, but when Redgrave strove to distinguish her fondness for Jews in general with her antipathy toward “Zionist thugs,” conflating the JDL with Zionism in general, the audience reacted with gasps and boos, and later a redress by Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky– who then ironically announced Julia as the winner for Best Adapted Screenplay.

But that’s nothing compared to the controversy behind the movie.

Lillian Hellman was a playwright and social activist who was blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare when she refused to name names or claim to be a Communist. Her courage at the time was praised, but her reputation– or rather the mythos she had created– began to fall apart around the time of Julia’s release.

The thing is, Lillian Hellman was a Communist. Not just a Communist, but an unapologetic Stalinist who joined the party in the wake of the notorious Purge, when Stalin sent virtually the entire Soviet middle class to the gulags. Later in life, Hellman claimed not to have known the extent of Stalin’s atrocities, but that’s hard to believe, because, as Julia itself would unexpectedly reveal, she was also a conniving fraud.

Although Hellman never admitted it, the character of Julia appears to have been based on a real person, Muriel Gardiner, whom she never actually met. What’s more, many high-profile media figures, such as authors and reporters, who had been in Europe and seen the rise of fascism poked holes in Hellman’s story, and other anecdotes concerning her involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Hellman reacted with frivolous lawsuits and posturing rants about being morally superior to her peers. Some more delicate than myself call her a divisive figure, but it seems like a struggle to find defenders today, and they seem to hate the movie more than anyone else.

Next Time: Oh, God!


2 thoughts on “Julia (1977)”

  1. […] How Did It Do? Jumping as it did on the popularity of a novel, a famous murder, and the freshly de-stigmatized concept of sleeping around, Looking for Mr. Goodbar did way better than it should have, earning $22.5 million. It also, incredibly, received two Oscar nominations, for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actress for Tuesday Weld (who, of course, lost to Vanessa Redgrave). […]


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