Monday, October 1, 2012

Julia vs. the Jedi: "Julia" (1977)

The great film maker Fred Zinnemann, in the twilight of his career, proved he could still direct with the best of them.

Jane Fonda plays writer Lillian Hellman. Hellman is living a quiet life with her lover, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), as she tries to pound out a play. The duo are a perfect match- hard drinking, hard smoking; Hammett is Hellman's mentor and support. Through Hellman's memories, we see a different side.

Hellman was once friends with Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), a passionate and lonely girl who was admired by Hellman. The two have physically lost touch over the years, but still remain close through letters. Finally, Lillian tries to contact Julia. Julia leads Lillian into some pre-World War II anti-Nazi intrigue which tests the bounds of their friendship.

The most interesting aspect of the film is Fonda's portrayal of Lillian Hellman. She does an excellent job of being bold and confident around Hammett, but turns into an almost child like stuttering woman around Julia, and when involved with Julia's plan to smuggle money into Berlin to help out the Jews. Fonda does not seem a likely choice, physically, but she does well. Redgrave won the Oscar deservedly, especially when her character is not onscreen much of the time, or lying in bed bandaged and unable to speak. Robards is good, as is Maximilian Schell in a tiny role as one of Julia's co-conspirators. The supporting cast also includes familiar faces like Hal Holbrook, John Glover (who was also in "Annie Hall," that year's Best Picture Oscar winner), and Meryl Streep. Alvin Sargent's screenplay jumps back and forth in time, and Zinnemann keeps the viewer grounded. Every shot he makes is beautiful, the film looks very expensive, but there is a grittiness to the look that tells you Hellman's life was not all roses.

"Julia" is a hard film to explain in one or two sentences. It concerns friendship, loss, sorrow, war, and chain smoking. It is one of the most underrated films of the 1970's, and my pick for the second best film of 1977 (right after "Star Wars"). (* * * * *) out of five stars.