A period drama directed by the great Fred Zinnemann, 1977’s Julia was a prestige picture for 20th Century Fox, and as such was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning three.
Among the Oscars it competed for was Best Film Editing (Walter Murch), Best Original Score (Georges Delerue), and Best Costume Design (Anthea Sylbert). The editing and score are, indeed, strong, but the costumes are especially impressive, and did their part - along with the production design – to bring the time period (early to mid-20th century) convincingly to life.
One of the Oscars that Julia netted was for Alvin Sargent’s adapted screenplay. Based on Lillian (Lilly) Hellman’s 1973 book Pentimento, Julia centers on the friendship between Hellman (here played by Jane Fonda) and Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), and how the wave of Nazism that swept through Europe changed both.
As the movie opens, Lilly is struggling to write her first play. Her lover and harshest critic, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), recommends that she get away for a while to clear her mind, perhaps visit her friend Julia in Vienna. Schooled at Oxford, Julia was continuing her medical training in Vienna, and worked for a time as an apprentice to Sigmund Freud.
Unfortunately, with Hitler’s Socialist party taking power, things have become unstable for Jews in Vienna, and one day Julia is badly beaten by Nazi sympathizers. Lilly rushes to visit her friend, only to spend very little time with her. One morning, Julia is no longer in her hospital bed, and nobody will tell Lilly where she was taken, or her current condition.
Back in America, Lilly finishes her play, and it is a Broadway smash. Now the toast of the town, she enjoys her success, though never forgets about Julia, who, at this point, she has not heard from in years.
During a trip to Moscow to see the Russian theater, Lilly stops for a time in London, reuniting with old friends Alan (Hal Holbrook) and Dottie (Rosemary Murphy). One morning, Lilly is approached by Johann (Maximillian Schell), who brings to her a message from Julia. Julia has asked that Lilly alter her travel plans to stop for a short time in Berlin, so that she can help smuggle $50,000 in cash to a group that is working against Hitler and the Nazis. It’s a dangerous request, and Johann tells Lilly that both he and Julia will understand if she refuses. But Lilly agrees to act as courier, setting in motion a chain of events that will affect not only her life, but Julia’s as well.
Along with the Oscar nominations (and wins) already mentioned, Julia was up for Best Picture, having the misfortune to face off against Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (which won) and George Lucas’s juggernaut sci-fi adventure Star Wars. Fred Zinneman also got a nod for Best Director, and he does a fine job keeping the story flowing along, taking what is, for the most part, a dialogue-heavy costume drama and introducing moments of tension and excitement in the final act that will have you on pins and needles; Lilly’s train ride into Germany, where her nerves often get the better of her, is gripping stuff
Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography was nominated as well, and rightly so. There are moments of utter beauty, from the opening image of a woman fishing in a rowboat on a lonely lake to the various flashbacks of Lilly and Julia as children (played by Susan Jones and Lisa Pellikan, respectively), which are exquisite and refined. One scene in particular, where the two youngsters attend a dinner party for Julia’s grandmother, was so awash in the color red that it could have been lifted from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers.
Still, even with all its technical achievements and fine storytelling, Julia would have been nothing without its superior cast, which garnered four nominations and two wins at that year’s Oscar ceremony.
X Despite a very brief appearance, Maximillian Schell received a Best Supporting Actor nod, playing a character who, in a single day, reminds Lilly there is more going on in the world than stage plays and society functions. Winning the award for supporting performance, however, was Jason Robards as the enigmatic Dashiell Hammett, whose career advice to Lilly could sometimes be brutal, yet exactly what she needs to hear. Robards plays Hammett close to the vest. We the audience are never quite sure what he’s thinking at any given moment, or even if he has feelings for Lilly. Yet she remains devoted to him all the same, and his presence in her life is indispensable.
Also winning an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress, was Vanessa Redgrave as the noble, long suffering Julia. Despite playing the title character, Redgrave appears in only a handful of scenes, yet manages to shine in every one, including a late meeting between her character and Lilly in a Berlin pub.
Jane Fonda would lose the Best Actress honors that year to Diane Keaton for Annie Hall, but is remarkable as Lilly, a writer who achieves fame and fortune and is then pulled into a world of chaos. Fonda captures all of her character’s ever-changing personalities: angry and frustrated when her writing hits a snag; concerned and loving while sitting at the injured Julia’s bedside; and frantic when she crosses into Berlin, carrying a box of money that, if discovered, could very well land her in a Nazi prison or even a concentration camp (Lilly is also Jewish, which makes the risk she is taking in Berlin all the more perilous). In a movie that features an amazing cast, Jane Fonda stands above them all, delivering what may be her finest performance.
Costume dramas can, at times, feel bloated and pretentious, or, even more egregiously, designed solely to net their studios a plethora of awards and nominations. Julia, at its most basic, is such a movie. Yet with so many skilled artisans coming together for its production, and despite a few missteps along the way (though it doesn’t detract from their scenes together, Lilly’s and Julia’s friendship isn’t clearly established or well-defined in the flashback scenes), Julia is a costume drama that grabs your attention right out of the gate and never loosens its grip.
Rating: 8 out of 10