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November 16, 2016

Movie Review: Julia (1977)

Directed by Fred Zinnemann

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Fledgling playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) is shacked up with past-his-prime hard-boiled author Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) at his Martha's Vineyard beach retreat. Hellman is grinding away at her first play, the groundbreaking melodrama about repressed lesbianism at a girl's school “The Children's Hour.” While Hammett gives his criticism and praise to her initial efforts, Hellman drifts back to childhood revelries with her longtime friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). The two enjoyed a wealthy, rarefied childhood full of servants and castles, but Julia had an unflappable sense of social justice at an early age. Both Lillian and Julie go their separate ways come young adulthood – Lillian, to the stage and Julie to anti-fascist resistance work in pre-Hitler Europe when fate leads to a final meet up. A secretive counter agent (Maximilian Schell) approaches Lillian to help smuggle money in a hat across the border into Berlin where she will be briefly united with Julia – the usually unflappable Lillian tenuously accepts the offer and tastes fear as she walks into highly dangerous territory as a final favor for a friend ….

Julia is grand, old-time movie entertainment packed to the rafters with Hollywood's foremost old-time leftists. Fonda, Robards and the pro-PLO Redgrave – who accepted her Best Supporting Oscar in 1977 while denouncing “Zionist hoodlums” – give it their all in a story packed full of romance, humor tragedy and a heaping helping of suspense. We know that Hellman will live to see another day, but Fonda's time on the express headed for certain death remains nonetheless remains fraught with tension. In addition, the production and attention to period detail is so lavish, those accustomed to more modern, grittier fare will be sure to exclaim, “Now, this is what a movie is all about!”

Julia's story is in fact so cinematic that one would imagine it will all be a figment of Hellman's imagination, and in many cases, it was. As Julie Kirgo mentions in her fascinating liner notes to this Twilight Time release, “Julia” was in fact a purported friend of her attorney. While the story of Julia is included in Hellman's Memories, “Pentimento,” it adheres remarkably close to the real-life Muriel Gardiner, who like Julia studied medicine in Austria and later became a pivotal figure in the burgeoning anti-Nazi movement. While Julia's tragic story is the stuff of high drama, the “real-life” model escaped the clutches of the Third Reich by the skin of her teeth with her husband and child, migrating to the United States in 1939.

“Why wold a writer of Hellman's caliber feel compelled to present a purloined story as her very own memory?” Kirgo asks. The notoriously flinty Hellman insists that Julia was indeed a real person to her death bed. Perhaps  Hellman wanted to prove to the world that fiction and myth – while residing in the imagination, is truer and more relevant than the workaday realities of life.

Either way, Julia is great popcorn-munching entertainment and all fans of cinema should snap up this Twilight Time release (limited to 3,000 copies posthaste.

An interesting aside from Kirgo notes that a very young Meryl Streep has a bit part, and it was clear from the start that she had a future in front of the camera. While Streep would definitely go on to bigger and better things, the actress who plays Julia as a young girl – Lisa Pelikan, would plunge into obscurity shortly afterwards. The film she appeared in immediately afterwards was the low-budget, less-fun Carrie (1976) ripoff, Jennifer (1978). Mixing up telekinesis with killer snakes, Pelikan would appear in the sub-par Gremlins (1984) ripoff, Ghoulies (1984) – the one with the little green monster peeking out of a toilet on the old VHS covers, remember that one? Pelikan continues to act, but one wonders why Pelikan didn't go on to bigger and better things.

The Twilight Time release features an isolated score track (with some effects), audio commentary with Jane Fonda and film historian Nick Redman and the film's original theatrical trailer.   

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