Fred Zinnemann's 1977 historical drama Julia – based on a section of an autobiographical book by Lillian Hellmann - received a whopping eleven Academy Award nominations, but these days, it's less remembered for its cinematic merits than for the controversy that arose in the wake of its release. A number of sources came forward with claims that Hellmann had manufactured large portions of her allegedly true story. The matter was never officially settled, but the filmmakers and much of the general public eventually came to believe that most of Hellmann's story was a lie... or, at the very least, a heavily-dramatized version of the truth. As such, it became necessary to take the “based on a true story” film with a grain of salt.
Still, it's important to keep a couple of things in mind. First, all films based on true stories should be taken with a grain of salt. Second, films based on autobiographies shouldn't be judged by the same standards as actual autobiographies. Julia is best-regarded as a work of historical fiction; a film that incorporates a wide variety of recognizable historical figures but occasionally takes dramatic license with their lives. To quote Werner Herzog: “There is a deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can only be reached through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” There's certainly some of that ecstatic truth in Julia, though I hold it in a bit less esteem than the Academy.
The film begins as a portrait of a friendship between Hellmann (Jane Fonda, On Golden Pond) and Julia (Vanessa Redgrave, Howards End), who have been best friends since childhood. They both love each other very much, but they've become rather different people as they've moved into adulthood: Lillian desires the fame and fortune of a successful literary career, while Julia grows concerned about the state of the world and begins channeling her energy into fighting the rise of fascism across Europe (names like “Hitler” and “Mussolini” continue to appear regularly in the headlines).
Julia has two central stories to tell, and curiously, Julia herself is a supporting player in both of them. The first is the story of the friendship between the two women, and the way that time alters personalities and tests the boundaries of the friendships we developed in childhood. This is the less successful of the film's two sides, largely because the friendship is presented in such vague terms: half of what we see is generic, sentimental flashbacks to childhood, and the other half is warm moments of mutual affection between two adults. These scenes repeatedly remind us that these two women adore each other – it would be fair to refer to the relationship as a “romantic friendship” - but we never really go past the surface of their mutual affection, so the relationship feels curiously hollow.
The second, richer story spotlights Lillian's transformation from a celebrity fantasizing about fur coats to a woman who slowly begins to recognize that she has a responsibility to use her influence to make the world a better place (particularly during a moment in history when the world seems to be going to hell). As the time marches on and World War II heats up, Lillian begins to get some much-needed perspective on why Julia has been so passionate about her anti-fascism work. Eventually, this leads to Lillian getting drawn into a dangerous smuggling mission of sorts, and much of the film's second half is dedicated to detailed the specifics of this tense, complicated affair.
Fonda does a fine job of capturing the character's gradual transformation with subtlety, and her performance simultaneously manages to suggest a flinty toughness and a certain shyness (a fairly sharp contrast to Redgrave's open, passionate enthusiasm). It's tough to imagine two women better-equipped to play these roles, as the controversial activism Fonda and Redgrave had participated in throughout the '70s bears some striking similarities to the work Lillian and (particularly) Julia do. There's also a lovely supporting turn from Jason Robards (All the President's Men) as crime novelist Dashiell Hammett, Lillian's on-again/off-again lover and confidant. Robards doesn't have a lot to do, but his tired eyes and reluctant smile go a long way. Elsewhere, there are brief but memorable turns by Hal Holbrook (as one of Lillian's well-to-do friends), Meryl Streep (making her big-screen debut as a nosy reporter) and John Glover (playing a thoroughly obnoxious young cad).
Zinnemann's direction is perhaps a little too sentimental at times – even the non-flashbacks are wrapped in a shroud of memory that prevents the film from attaining a sense of immediacy – but he draws sensitive performances out of his actors and generates considerable tension in the film's more suspense-driven second half. The film is also aided considerably by a fine, sensitive Georges Delerue score that manages to capture both the feeling of the era the film is set in and the emotional impact it's aiming for.
While some viewers may raise an eyebrow at some of the possible fabrications Hellmann has served up – particularly those that make her look more noble or heroic – there's real wisdom here about how the importance of being willing to back up your beliefs with action (something Hellmann certainly did on a number of other occasions throughout her life). When the film begins, Lillian is fashionably liberal, but generally detached from much of what it going on in the world. By the end, her beliefs have real meaning. That's what a good friendship can inspire.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Year: 1977