Thursday, January 13, 2011
Julia (Fred Zinnemann, 1977) Alvin Sargent's literate, excellent screenplay begins with the aged Lillian Hellman sitting in a boat at twilight, fishing, while over the soundtrack the voice of Jane Fonda (playing Hellman) talks of the phenomenon of some paintings that reveal earlier paintings below the surface pigments—"pentimento," because the canvas "remembers."
The story that makes the spine of this film is much in dispute. Hellman swears it occurred exactly as she wrote about it, but that the woman, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), seems to have disappeared without a trace of documentation that she ever existed, makes one suspect. Hellman was a writer, above all—a dramatist. She would not be the first to sacrifice the truth for a better story. It may be a case of a story shining through the layers of artistry, like pentimento.
In the film, Hellman recounts her girl-school friendship with the free-spirited Julia, and how they parted: Julia to study in Vienna, Lily to study in the States and pursue both a writing career and a long affair with writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). The two keep in touch, but the free-spirited Julia becomes involved in anti-fascist groups, making her a target for assault. Hellman uses a world-tour after her Broadway successes to sidetrack to Austria to try to find her friend, who is hiding from the authorities, who, if they catch her, will most assuredly kill her.
It boasts a great cast (both Robards and Redgrave deservedly won Supporting Oscars), with Maximilian Schell, Hal Holbrook, and, in her film debut, a young brunette actress named Meryl Streep.* Zinnemann's direction is unfussy skipping back in memory, and recounting the desperate times. The film was edited by Walter Murch, one of his first editing jobs that did not entail working for school-chums like Francis Coppola and George Lucas.
This was the favorite film of the girl I was dating in college; we must have seen it five times or so, images, situations and lines of dialogue all burned into my memory, like etchings on a canvas.
* Her blonde hair was dyed for the part. And she was great, right from the start. I still remember, burned into my mind, how Streep turned a parting compliment into a dismissal: "You look very slim, Lillian..."