The Film: 'Julia' (1977), Dir. Fred Zinnemann
Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards, Maximilian Schell and Meryl Streep.
Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now: Although I've heard this title tossed around by fellow film buffs quite a bit, I never had the desire to track down 'Julia' until a friend told me it was the "best film ever made about writers." As something resembling a writer myself, I decided to toss it on the 'ol Netflix queue. That was months ago. It's been sitting on my desk ever since, staring at me, taunting me, daring me to watch it. I still don't know why I haven't put it on. Maybe it's the just the dull title. Maybe I'm scared of it for some bizarre reason. I really don't know.
Pre-Viewing Assumptions (Before I've Watched the Film): Normally, this would be the point in the column where I would write a fake review of the film in question, pretending that I've seen it and proceeding to dissect its reputation. This tends to be a few paragraphs of blind ignorance with only a handful of entries so far even coming close to describing the actual film. I do not research the film before I write this section. I do not look it up on IMDB. Heck, I haven't even read the description for 'Julia' on the Netflix envelope.
However, after a dozen or so false starts and a lot of frustrated tapping on the delete key, I'm going to level with you and be fair and square -- I know absolutely nothing about 'Julia.'
I pride myself on having a basic, textbook knowledge of classic and well-regarded films. I devour articles and essays and reviews on great films I haven't seen just so I can hold my own should a film ever come up in conversation. But 'Julia'? Nothing. Zip. Nada. Goose egg. What I do know is this: It's a film by Oscar winning Hollywood legend Fred Zinnemann and the cast list reads like the guests of honor at a magical, timeless AFI awards ceremony banquet honoring many of the best actors and actresses who ever lived.
So here I am, impotent and incompetent, forced to boil my Pre-Viewing Assumption down to what my friend told me all those months ago: "It's the best film ever made about writers!" I've got nothin.'
Post-Viewing Reaction (After I've Watched the Film): There's something very special about watching a film with zero expectations. If there's one thing that doing this column every week has taught me, it's that it is nearly impossible to go into a movie completely blind. If it's a modern film, we've been seeing trailers and posters for up to a year in advance, advertisements ensuring that we know exactly what we're going to get when we settle into the theater seats, exactly what product we're buying. If it's an older film, we're watching it because we've heard of it, because it was recommended, because we know something about it and that something intrigues us.
As viewers and, let's face it, as consumers, we like to know what we're getting. It's like we have to know beforehand whether or not every aspect of a film will be to our liking and worth our hard-earned time and money. Forgive this tangent, but I think it truly informs my reaction to 'Julia.' I knew it was a film with a writer character and I knew it starred Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. I did not know it was based on a true story, I did not know that what begins as a touching portrait of two friends would turn into a thriller about Nazi-resistance in pre-WWII Germany, I did not know that the great Jason Robards would be playing the role of Dashiell friggin' Hammett. When the film was over, I didn't just put the DVD away and move on. I jumped onto the internet and read up on the real story, immersing myself in the real-life details.
And that's why a blind watch turned out to be so rewarding: watching the film didn't simply cap off pre-existing expectations, it started me off on a new journey down a new rabbit hole altogether. It was the beginning of a journey rather than the end.
Truth be told, I don't think 'Julia' is a great film. It's a very good film filled with great performances and a handful of amazing moments. It's certainly not the best film ever made about writers, although the sequences featuring Jane Fonda's character stuck with writer's block behind her typewriter ring uncomfortably true. However, there's nothing wrong with "good." We live in an age where things are either amazing or awful and we tend to forget that it's okay to like something without loving it. And there certainly is a lot to like here.
Based on the autobiographical book 'Pentimento,' 'Julia' follows writer Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda, acting her butt off) as she struggles to write under the watchful eye of her mentor and sometime lover Dashiell Hammett (a wise and vital Robards). Meanwhile, she struggles to stay in touch with her friend Julia (Redgrave), a rich girl who's vanished into the politically tumultuous land that is 1930s Europe, using her wealth to fight the Nazis and save lives and get dubbed a socialist by those back home. Then, while traveling through Europe, Lillian is recruited to smuggle funds to Julia in Berlin. Of course she accepts. What are friends for?
In many ways, 'Julia' reminded me of the noir classic 'The Third Man.' Both films deal heavily with Europe in the years around World War II ('Julia' a few years prior and 'The Third Man' a few years after) and both feature a hero spending the bulk of the film searching for an elusive, mysterious friend who is being hunted by the forces in power. Orson Welles' Harry Lime manages to hang over 'The Third Man' like a specter despite not appearing until the third act. Similarly, Redgrave's Julia appears in a flashback or two before vanishing for the bulk of the film, only emerging towards the end for one final conversation with Lillian.
Oh, what a conversation. It's not an incredibly long scene, maybe ten minutes tops, but it's the one scene in the film that I think I'll never forget. It's a scene that you'd think would be filled with tears and big emotions and breakdowns and professions of love and respect, but it has none of those things. It's quiet, it's subtle and yes, it's very sad, a scene between two old friends who know they will never see each other again but will never admit it. In most ways, 'Julia' is Fonda's film. She gets all of the screen time, she's the main character, she's the one with the big moments, the loud ones, the ones that look really, really good in an Oscar montage and it's an incredible performance. However, there's a reason the movie is called 'Julia.' Hiding behind a sweet smile that's not fooling anyone, Redgrave's Julia is emotionally and physically scarred from her years fighting the good fight, a tough-as-nails woman whose raw political anger has mutated into a quite, internal hope. Things aren't looking good -- this is Nazi Germany, after all -- but the simple fact that there are things to fight for and people to save is more than enough fuel to keep her going. It's such an elegantly simple performance, the kind of performance that never actually receives awards, that I'm shocked and happy that she actually did win an Oscar.
Would this scene have had the same power if I had known about it going in? Am I doing all of you a disservice by talking about it here? That brings us right back to where we started. Expectations. By telling you what a great scene it is, am I setting you up to watch it and mutter "That's it? That's the scene?" We love to champion a discovery, but we're always skeptical when told that something's great. It's human nature. We like to know in advance, we like to avoid surprises. Surprises are treated like dangerous things -- if it's unplanned, it's just another opportunity for things to go wrong.
But 'Julia' is a good film, a film that I'm very glad to have taken a chance on. Those of you who have already seen it probably know this by now. Those of you who haven't now have expectations. And I'm sorry for that.
Next Week's Column:
Hey you. Yeah, you. You reading this. You wanna' get involved? You wanna' help with the direction of this column? You wanna' pick which film blindspot I should fix next? In the comments below, choose which of the following films I should watch for the first time next week! The movie with the most votes wins -- unless you can convince me otherwise.
'A Matter of Life and Death'
'Rebel Without a Cause'
'Bride of Frankenstein'
'The Monster Squad'
'Colossus: The Forbin Project'
'A Boy and His Dog'
'The Thing From Another World'