The nationally syndicated gossip columns gleefully report that writer Lillian Hellman; the indomitable one, feuded with the director of Julia and refused to attend the premiere of this film based on her memoir, Pentimento.
Good for you, Lillian. It’s bad enough that the rest of us had to see it.
There’s a screwy scene in the picture where Jane Fonda, miscast as Hellman, throws her typewriter through the window in a fit of rage. Had Hellman viewed the film, she might have thrown a typewriter at the screen. Her profound and lovely tribute to her communist friend Julia has been trivialized by Hollywood’s assembly lines.
Hellman is a radical of sorts who promoted Communist Party causes for decades. Her·lifelong companion was writer Dashiell Hammett, a devoted CPer who elevated detective yarns to the level of literature. He was railroaded to prison during the McCarthy era for refusing to inform on his comrades. Scoundrel Time is her account of their experiences with the witchhunters.
Jane Fonda was the superstar of the antiwar movement, the quintessential New Leftist — privileged, articulate and defiant. She now plays Democratic Party politics.
Vanessa Redgrave portrays Julia, the wealthy and brilliant humanitarian who is murdered by the Nazis. Redgrave, the most highly political of this female triumvirate, is a revolutionary, an active British Trotskyist.
So one would expect the film to make an authentic statement about fascism and feminism, right?
Wrong. The screenplay and direction are simply askew. The view of women is archaically romantic and patronizing, and the political insight is nowhere.
The movie is a glamorized, confusing, and ultimately sappy account of two female eccentrics.
Fonda strives mightily, via posturings, tears, chainsmoking, whisky-guzzling, and pacings on a lonely (but scenic) beach, to convey a sense of character. She fails.
In her climactic scene, where she — a Jew — must smuggle $50,000 past fascist police to the underground in Nazi Germany, she behaves like a perplexed, naive imbecile, and Hellman’s real-life courage is belittled.
Redgrave’s Julia is more clearly defined, because Julia is a heroine of Wagnerian proportions. But Redgrave, aiming at radiance, looks glazed and transfixed instead. The problem is that Julia’s motivation, her communism, is never specified.
Neither the Nazis nor anti-Nazis make political sense.
The fascists raid Freud’s psychoanalytic institute where Julia is a student — at least I think they do — and they beat and kill people with impunity until a group of students or faculty or something, headed by Julia, advances on them. This “advance” is unbelievable: Julia and her colleagues WALK, do not RUN, to the bloody fray! Scenes like this impart a dreamlike, unreal, and puzzling quality to the entire picture.
The screenwriter and director are so edgy about the subject matter, and so ignorant about the normal behavior of strong women, that they dump the central political theme of Julia with irritating frequency, “relieving” the heavy stuff with misty flashbacks into the girls’ adolescence.
The one bright note in the debacle is Jason Robards’ playing of Hammett with just the right note of bemused detachment and long-suffering that the film warrants. Who Hammett is, of course, we never discover.
But you can read the book. There really was a Julia.