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 Little Lies: Julia finally comes to DVD - review by Collin Kelley



directed by Fred Zinneman







Little Lies: Julia finally comes to DVD



Thirty years before James Frey enraged readers with his embellished "memoir," A Million Little Pieces, there was Lillian Hellman and Julia.


Hellman, celebrated playwright of The Children's Hour and The Little Foxes, would publish a trilogy of memoirs before her death, but it was Pentimento (1973), which contained the Julia portrait, that ignited a firestorm of controversy. Unlike Frey, who endured Oprah's wrath for his mea culpa, Hellman went to her grave refusing to recant the Julia story.


At the time of her death in 1984, Hellman was involved in a libel suit against novelist Mary McCarthy, who had gone on the Dick Cavett Show and famously proclaimed that everything Hellman wrote was a lie "including 'and' and 'the.'" While the story behind Julia appears to be true, Hellman's involvement is complete fiction.


In the memoir and later in the 1977 Academy Award-winning film, Hellman portrays herself as best friend of Julia, a well-off medical student who takes up anti-fascist causes in Vienna as the Nazis rise to power. Julia arranges for Hellman to smuggle $50,000 into Berlin, hidden in a stylish hat, to bribe the Nazis to free prisoners and help others escape persecution. The fact that Hellman is Jewish ups the ante and makes for a thrilling adventure, except Hellman was never there.


Muriel Gardener, a psychologist who shared an attorney with Hellman, claimed to be the real Julia and that the playwright lifted her story for Pentimento. The similarities between Gardener's tale and Julia are striking: both studied pre-med at Oxford, went on to Vienna to study with Freud, became active in anti-fascist groups and helped smuggle money and people in and out of Nazi occupied territories. Rather than $50,000, Muriel had a close friend smuggle fake American passports into Germany in a stylish hat. Gardener, who wrote her story in Code Name Mary and told it in the documentary The Real Julia, said she believed the lawyer they shared gave Hellman details about her World War II adventures and then appropriated them for Julia. Gardener and Hellman never met.


20th Century Fox finally released the film on DVD last month. Sadly, there is no commentary, documentaries, or behind-the-scenes features. What remains is a crisp transfer presented in widescreen with Dolby sound and the excellent performances by Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jason Robards. Fred Zinneman should have won an Oscar for his direction, but the film went on to win three Academy Awards and was nominated for 11.


Julia is filled with an ominous dread from the first scene. We see an elderly Hellman silhouetted in a boat on a placid lake, casting a fishing line. In voiceover, Hellman (played by Fonda) explains pentimento: how an artist "recants" and paints over a canvas but the original image shows through. What remains vivid, she says, is her memory of Julia. However, as the film progresses, those recollections are often at odds and take on a fever-dream quality giving the film its enigmatic quality.


If the film has any flaw, it's Alvin Sargent's script (it won an Oscar), which requires the viewer to be acquainted with Hellman's career and celebrity. Hellman and lover/mentor Dashiell Hammett (played by a wonderfully gruff Robards, who won an Oscar for best supporting actor), banter and bicker in their New England beach house, where Hellman is holed up in 1934 trying to write The Children's Hour. Hammett, the hardboiled author of The Maltese Falcon and other gumshoe classics, has given up writing, but his exchanges with Hellman show both pride and jealousy at her talent.


"I'm in trouble with my goddamn play and you don't seem to care," Hellman shouts at Hammett, who blithely advises her to stop whining about it and write. He suggests she go to Europe to visit Julia, and this kick starts Hellman's memories of her childhood friend.


We see Julia and Lillian as young girls and young women, their friendship, as hinted by a character later in the film, much deeper than mere friendship. However, Julia is already turning against her wealthy upbringing and noticing the social injustices in the world. Julia chastises Lillian for not understanding the full impact of the world's ills. When Julia leaves to study at Oxford, Lillian is devastated. While in England, Julia has transformed into a socialist with an agenda to save the world from fascism rising in Europe.


When Hellman finally comes to Paris to work on her play, she begins to understand the evil that is on the march. A frantic phone call from Vienna sends Lillian deep into Nazi country to find Julia badly beaten and in hospital, unable to communicate. Her weak hand signals mean nothing to Lillian, who later receives a note that she is in danger and should leave Austria. Lillian, stubbornly, hangs around Europe looking for Julia, but finally returns home to finish The Children's Hour and become famous.


Lillian returns to Paris, with Dorothy Parker and husband Alan Campbell (Rosemary Murphy and Hal Holbrook chewing scenery) in tow, to be feted for playwriting.  She is contacted by the mysterious Mr. Johann (Maximilian Schell) who asks her to smuggle the money into Berlin. Lillian eventually agrees, and her journey from Paris to Berlin is a nail-biter. When she finally meets Julia again in a café in Berlin, the reunion is bittersweet. Julia still loves her friend (and even asks her to take care of her baby), but their meeting is brusque and tense as Julia fears the Gestapo is watching their every move.


Lillian continues on to a theater festival in Moscow and a heart-pounding premonition of Julia's death, sadly, comes true. A letter is slipped under Lillian's door saying Julia was found by the Nazis and murdered. Lillian goes in search of Julia's baby, who was supposedly hidden with a baker's family in Alsace, but the trail goes cold. Lillian returns to America, plagued by nightmares -- Fonda running down the deserted platform of Paris' Gare du Nord screaming out for Mr. Johann is particularly disturbing --and unable to write or sleep. Hammett tells her she'll have to get past it, but he knows she won't because she's stubborn


"He was right, I am stubborn," Hellman says in voiceover as the image returns to her in the fishing boat. "I haven't forgotten either of them."


One of the most intriguing techniques in Julia is that the film is entirely shot from Hellman's perspective. We know what she knows and see what she sees, but that's not much. Her memories and dreams of Julia are scattered throughout the film, but they take on a gauzy, dreamlike quality that both advance the plot and add extra gravitas to the relationship between Julia and Lillian.


Fonda's brittle, self-effacing portrayal of Hellman carries the film. Redgrave imbues her scenes as Julia with a woman confident of her power and beauty. The calming, serene look on her face at the Berlin café, knowing she is probably going to be caught by the Nazis, is bravura acting. She won an Oscar for best supporting actress, giving her now infamous "Zionist hoodlums" speech at the ceremony. Certainly both Fonda and Redgrave felt a strong sympathy with the characters, especially with their own controversial politics. Fonda was still reeling from her Vietnam scandal, and Redgrave was a vocal opponent to Israel's handling of Palestine.


The real Hellman and Hammett went on to become even more famous after they refused to name names during the McCarthy hearings in 1952.  Hellman, witty even under subpoena, famously said, "I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions..." Both were accused of being communist sympathizers and were blacklisted from Hollywood, where they had gone to work on film scripts. Hellman continued to be politically active and outspoken until her death.


By calling her memoir Pentimento, it seems Hellman was offering a clue that her story was not entirely true, that, like a painter, she was allowed to change her mind and even alter the facts to make a more fascinating story. In the prologue, Hellman writes that her use of pentimento was a way of "seeing and then seeing again." In the end, it really doesn't matter. Hellman told a timeless story of memory, regret and heroism.




- review by Collin Kelley 2/2006



Collin is a poet, playwright and journalist from Atlanta, Georgia. His debut collection of poetry, Better To Travel, was nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award, Kate Tufts Discovery Award and Lambda Literary Award. His first spoken word CD, HalfLife Crisis, was released in November, 2004. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for work published in SubtleTea. MetroMania Press will publish a limited edition chapbook of Collin's work, Slow To Burn, in April 2006.


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