Julia(Fox Home Entertainment, 2.7.2006)
As we all know, the golden age of American movies was 1967-1977, roughly from Bonnie and Clyde to Annie Hall. While most of the lasting films from this period are those taking chances in terms of subject or style, a huge percentage of conventional movies were being made. The likes of The Godfather, Mean Streets, and Chinatown remain as exciting as they ever were, but others have not fared as well. Fred Zinnemann's Julia seemed a tad stodgy in 1977, but was diverting enough thanks to its star power. Today, it seems even more old-fashioned.
Adapted by screenwriter Alvin Sargent from a portion of Lillian Hellman's memoir "Pentimento," Julia tells two stories. One involves the struggles of the young Hellman (Jane Fonda) to write her first play, aided by advice from her lover, the great hard-boiled novelist Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). The other is Hellman's relationship with Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), her best friend since adolescence.
While Hellman bangs away at her typewriter at the beachfront home she shares with Hammett, Julia -- as a medical student at the University of Vienna in the mid-1930s -- becomes involved with anti-Nazi activities. When Hellman is set to travel to Moscow, her friend asks her to take a little detour to Berlin to transport some money for the cause. One of the many problems with Julia is that her affair with Hammett is more interesting than her friendship with Julia, but Sargent leaves Hammett in the background. We never learn what has drawn the writers together, what keeps their love going, or whether they even have sex.
The Berlin trip is potentially riveting because of the risks being taken by the Jewish Hellman, but it is never clear -- especially given Zinnemann's clumsy staging -- why the three helpmates sent by Julia could not deliver the cash themselves. Along with High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons, Julia is another Zinnemann look at a strong individual in conflict with society, yet it lurches unimaginatively from scene to scene, with the many crowd sequences lacking any vitality.
Julia is often praised for being one of the era's best films about strong women, yet Hellman comes across as an insecure ditz. When she and Julia rendezvous to pass off the funds, Julia has to repeat each of her instructions because her friend is so flustered. There was considerable criticism at the time because Hellman was homely and Fonda is far from ugly but, rather than downplaying the star's looks, they are emphasized with elaborate period dresses and hats. Even at home in her bathrobe banging at those infernal keys, she has on plenty of makeup.
Redgrave won an Oscar, against very weak competition, for doing little more than looking luminous. More inexplicably, Robards, who had won the year before for All the President's Men, won for simply being charming despite competition from Alec Guinness for Star Wars and Maximilian Schell, who easily gives the film's best performance as Julia's envoy to Hellman. Julia was nominated for a total of eleven Oscars with Sargent also winning.
Julia is watchable though creaky and unsurprising. Some will find it most notable for the brief big-screen debut of Meryl Streep as Hellman's flighty friend, pouring on many of the mannerisms about to become so familiar to moviegoers. Fox's transfer emphasizes the deep reds and greens lurking within Douglas Slocombe's soft-focus cinematography.
Surprisingly, there are no extras beyond trailers for other Fox DVDs about women. Not only could we use some background about the characters and the period, there is the claim that Hellman, prefiguring James Frey, made up events to make her life seem more dramatic. Unfortunately, that controversy is even more interesting than the film itself. -- Michael Adams