Fred Zinneman is never the first name that comes up when naming the great directors of our time, but it certainly could be. With masterpieces like From Here to Eternity, High Noon, and A Man for All Seasons, he demonstrated an amazingly versatile range in telling complex narratives about the human struggle to pursue and, in some cases, fight for, what is good among many different backdrops.
Another example of that is Julia, new to DVD. The 1977 film is not a perfect film, but it certainly captures some perfect performances. Julia is the best friend of writer Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda), and the film takes place during Hellman’s rise to stardom in the 1930s, as Julia became a more aggressive fighter of Fascism. While Julia attends the University of Vienna and works on her landmark play The Children’s Hour with lover Dashiell Hammett (an outstanding Jason Robards), Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) beseeches Lillian to smuggle money through Nazi Germany in order to aid her cause.
While the movie should really be Julia’s story, Hellmann is the protagonist (indeed, Redgrave’s Oscar win was in the Supporting Actress category). She tells Julia’s story from her perspective, a bit of an odd structure on the part of screenwriter Alvin Sargent. It would be a more clever movie had Hellman’s recollection perhaps been subjective, but the audience is to believe he from an objective standpoint, buying into events for which Hellman was never actually present to document.
Zinneman and Sargent do not provide too much to support the Julia-Lillian friendship: just a couple of scenes of the two getting to know each other in childhood and then meeting up later in life when taking a break from their very elaborate lives. As a result, Hellman’s story is as much admiration for Julia as it is reportage. She knows enough about her to reliably provide the audience the facts. Yet Julia also remains a bit of an enigma. Julia captures all of the ups and downs in Hellman’s world, but cannot parallel them for Julia. Who even knows what these could have been? This clever act of omission may have been born of necessity, much like the little-seen shark in Jaws, but it achieves the desired effect. It leaves us wanting more.
Julia’s story is fascinating, but so is the story of Hellman’s famed relationship with Hammett – the lost themselves in booze and in words, and occasionally, each other. They fought, but only hurt each other because their words mattered so much to one another. After agonizing over countless rewrites of her play, one of Hammett’s most romantic gestures is to compliment her work. (Robards, too, scored a supporting Oscar for Julia — in a rare coup, he had also won the same award the previous year.)
While the relationships sometimes lack enough intimacy to make them fully believable, Julia is nonetheless a harrowing work, and another testament to Zinneman’s great legacy.