Release Date(s)1977 (April 12, 2016)
Studio(s)20th Century Fox (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
Fred Zinnemann’s Julia (1977) is a beautifully acted, meticulously crafted drama that’s also, it must be admitted, a little dull – it’s the kind of movie that’s so tasteful it can barely breathe. Based on a chapter from Lillian Hellman’s memoirs in which she recounts her alleged friendship with an intensely daring anti-Fascist activist during World War II (Vanessa Redgrave in the film’s title role), it’s a film filled with exquisitely rendered period detail and sumptuously photographed locations, and it’s filled with provocative ideas regarding history and memory. Those ideas are given added resonance by the fact that in the years following the film’s release the veracity of Hellman’s tale was called into question by a number of convincing critics; it became clear that the whole thing was borrowed from someone else’s life. The events Hellman wrote about happened – just not to Lillian Hellman.
Yet for as handsomely mounted and dramatically layered Julia is, it remains suffocating and a touch leaden – a problem I have with a lot of Zinnemann’s films (he also directed A Man For All Seasons, High Noon, and From Here to Eternity). There’s just no momentum to the piece, which takes forever to get going (the story barely begins until about an hour in) and never generates the kind of intensity one might expect from a drama with life and death stakes. It’s impossible not to long for the version of the film that would have been directed by the more daring Nicolas Roeg (Don't Look Now, Bad Timing, The Man Who Fell to Earth), who was once attached to the project but fell out, much to the relief of star Jane Fonda.
Fonda’s preference for Zinnemann over Roeg is a rare lapse of taste for an actress-producer who, at the time of Julia, was about to begin one of the most extraordinary runs in Hollywood history. Using her commercial clout, Fonda figured out how to merge accessible genres with progressive social and political ideas to create a string of superb pictures – Coming Home, The China Syndrome, and 9 to 5 being the best of them. While Julia lacks the dynamic energy of those films, it does boast a world-class performance by Fonda – as well as equally good work by just about everyone else in the film. This is what makes Julia worthwhile in spite of its sluggishness – whatever Zinnemann’s weaknesses, he knew how to showcase actors. Fonda and Redgrave are supremely complex and charismatic, but supporting players Jason Robards, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary Murphy, Maximillian Schell, and John Glover are right behind them – and a young Meryl Streep dazzles in a part that's little more than a cameo. The performances are so compelling, and the photography by Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) is so vivid, that one can almost forgive the way that Zinnemann’s sense of class almost smothers the characters and audience alike. (It helps that such class is rarer in the cinema now than it was in Zinnemann’s time).
Both Slocombe’s photography and Fonda’s performance are beautifully served by Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release, which contains a flawless transfer and an excellent commentary track by Fonda and film historian Nick Redman. The lush textures of the photography are stunning here – the disc looks like an archival 35mm print, only better because there isn't a scratch or imperfection on it. And Redman and Fonda’s conversation is a delight filled with interesting facts about both Fonda’s career and the production history of the movie. Enthusiasts of the film – and there are many, as my opinion is clearly at odds with the film’s multiple Academy Awards and ongoing reputation – will be delighted by this package, and even a skeptic like me was ultimately won over by the presentation. Julia might not be Coming Home or Klute, but its pleasures are valuable ones, and they’re best experienced via this sparkling new special edition.
- Jim Hemphill