Wednesday, July 23, 2008


While I was at home a week ago with my mom in Olympia, she shared one of her favourite films with me: Julia. She's told me about the movie with me my entire life, so I was really excited to finally get a chance to see it!

Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, is a story about the lifelong friendship between author Lillian Hellman and "Julia." It is a tale of two best friends who grow apart over the years but whose friendship with each other always remains a key factor in both their lives. When Julia, played by Vanessa Redgrave, goes to Vienna to study medicine before the outbreak of World War II, she becomes involved with a group of students who are attempting to overthrow the Nazis. Jane Fonda stars as Lillian Hellman (you may remember Hellman as the author of The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes), alongside Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett (author of The Maltese Falcon).

It was only after watching Julia that I did a bit of research and discovered that this film (which I would venture to say is not very well known today) was actually a critical and box office success at the time of its release. The film was nominated for 11 academy awards and won 3, including best supporting actor (Jason Robards), best supporting actress (Vanessa Redgrave) and best adapted screenplay (Alvin Sargent). Fred Zinnemann, who piloted projects such as A Man For All Seasons (1966) and High Noon (1952) directed.

I've always wondered why this film wasn't released on DVD sooner, and I suppose there are a couple of key reasons. The first is that when this film was came out, it was made controversial by the fact that Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda--both well-known at the time for their activist roles--had the starring roles in the film. But controversy tends to make films even MORE popular, so the more likely reason for the disappearance of this film is the fact that most people now believe that Lillian Hellman actually made the entire story up. Although she claimed that "Julia" was a pseudonym for an actual person who had been her best friend, she had absolutely no data to support her claims. After all, relatively few wealthy Americans who had graduated from Oxford had really been studying in Vienna during WWII, she would have been fairly easy to find.

But where did Hellman get the character of Julia? In 1983, Yale University Press published the memoirs of psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner, who had been a member of the anti-Fascist resistance during her days as a student in Vienna. The book, called ''Code Name 'Mary,''' cast serious doubts on Hellman's reliability as an author and led many to believe that she had lied about her source for the character of Julia. Gardiner herself felt the resemblance was remarkable, but she had never actually met Hellman. You can read more about the publishing controversy here, in a 1983 article from the New York Times.

Whether or not the story is true, it remains a beautiful tale about friendship. I loved the movie, although I was disappointed to find out that Lillian Hellman might have made the entire story up. But I still enjoy the film.

I tried to find some good clips on YouTube, but unfortunately there are only two, and both clips give away a good portion of the plot! But if you HAVE seen the movie before, these clips are great (especially the second one).

***Spoiler warning*** This is a great clip that features some fabulous acting by Vanessa Redgrave. However, don't watch it if you haven't seen the film!


skatej said...

Oh goodness. The Children's Hour. I read some scenes from that in high school and got rather disturbed. I should give it another chance just for literary merit.
I'm interested about this movie. I will have to see if I can find it somewhere.
Perhaps Hellman wrote the story as an account of what she wishes happened in her life, a friendship that key in her experience. I don't know of course.

Margaret said...

I haven't read Children's Hour, though I've seen the Audrey Hepburn film version!

As for Julia, I definitely would prefer to think Hellman wrote the story about what she wished had happened, but unfortunately, she vehemently denied Gardner inspired Julia. Until her death, she insisted that Julia was a real person, but she couldn't offer any more evidence.

Thorsprincess said...

Thank you for your wonderful research about Hellman and her "Julia." I'm so glad you enjoyed the film, and you are such a great researcher to find the terrific NYT article that challenged the authenticity of her claims to have known Julia. However, despite Ms. Hellman's truthfulness, or lack thereof, I really love this story of friendship, bravery, and the beautiful filmmaking of her story, and especially the lovely beginning that explains her title, "Pentimento."

This film was quite remarkable when it was made, because films with women as central characters--and especially films about women's friendships--had not been made for many years. The film was a breath of fresh air in the 1970's, and a welcome change from the usual roles for women as romantic plot devices in men's lives.

I enjoyed learning the truth about the character that Ms. Hellman lifted from real life, but I don't appreciate the film less--just the author! Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jason Robards are all fantastic in their roles, and the film is still one of my great favorites. I'm so glad you could finally share it with me.

For anyone looking for this film, it was released on DVD quite recently, and is available for rental from Netflix or for purchase on Amazon.

Margaret said...

I had so much fun watching this movie with you, mom! Thanks for sharing it with me.