1977

Film #278: Julia (1977)

Continuing our retrospective on stars who have more than one film nominated for Oscar in the 1970s, we come to one Jane Fonda. Jane, daughter of Henry Fonda, had come to prominence in the 1960s and at the 1972 Oscar Ceremony won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing a high-class call girl in the movie Klute. By the late 1970s, a period in which both these nominated films were released, Fonda was only making films relating to serious issues and here we saw her try to evade the Nazis and care for soldiers who’d be wounded in Vietnam. It was interesting for me to go back and watch these films as I’m only aware of Fonda through her exercise videos and her comeback in ropey movies such as Monster-in-Law and Georgia Rule. What I found was an actress who gave extremely big performances that weren’t necessarily suitable for the roles she was playing.

First up we have Fonda portraying playwright Lillian Hellman, in a film based on a chapter in the author’s book Pentimento, in which we see her tortured relationship with childhood friend and titular character Julia. The film sees Lillian and Julia take different paths in life with the latter journeying to Vienna to complete a medical degree while the former attempting to write a play at the same time as living with famed author Dashiell Hammett. After serving some time in Europe, Julia become involved in the battle against the Nazis and is injured in a blast at an apartment building. Lillian, having arrived in Paris, attempts to make contact with her friend but finds the task difficult. Eventually, Lillian hears from Julia, who wants to meet her in Berlin and asks for her help carrying an item across the border. The two eventually meet in a cafe, however their meeting is tense due to Lillian’s nervousness surrounding the mission she’s been given. Lillian later discovers Julia has had a daughter and sets out to find the child in order to give it a better home.

Interestingly the story of Julia is one that has been criticised as pure fiction and many have claimed that Hellman never had a childhood friend nor did she have to endure the tricky ride from Paris to Berlin that she did here. I found the majority of the film to be fairly melodramatic and lacking in any really compelling form of storytelling. I thought that Fonda’s performance as Lillian was completely over-the-top and I didn’t really find her that believable, or indeed likeable. I found that the scene on the train took far too long and I was really bored by the time that Lillian had to execute the mission she has been given. When she was on screen, I felt that Vanessa Redgrave’s Julia was the complete antithesis of Fonda’s character in that she was calm and reasonable.
Personally, I would’ve liked to have seen a lot more from Julia, though in fact Redgrave only appears in a handful of scenes which is a shame. I’m surprised then to learn that Redgrave won the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in Julia, as she didn’t make much of an impression on me at all. Similarly Jason Robards, as Hammett, won the Best Supporting Actor award with his role being confined to a couple of scenes in which he attempted to calm down the hysterical Lillian. What I did enjoy was the style of the whole piece, it was well-shot and Georges Delerue’s score was fairly memorable. The problem was that the lead character was neither that compelling nor particularly likeable and part of me would attribute that to the fact that director Fred Zinneman felt utter hatred towards Hellman by the end of their working relationship together. One fun Oscar-related fact is that Julia saw the film debut of a woman by the name of Meryl Streep, who we’ll be talking a lot more about from here on in.

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