Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hit Me WIth Your Best Shot - 1977: JULIA

Fred Zinneman's Julia is kind of a strange picture. Memory, speculation, and the present intermingle in very off-beat ways in the first reel of the film, as Jane Fonda's Lillian Hellman has trouble writing her play and thinks of her best childhood friend, Julia (the inimitable, Oscar-winning Vanessa Redgrave). Or maybe she's having writer's block because she can't stop thinking of Julia?

I don't know, it's hard to say. What shocked me the most about the film was how I kept thinking that the whole storyline really only made sense as a queer romance, and how well Fonda was portraying that just under the surface.... and then the film ACTUALLY WENT THERE. TWICE. First, Lillian actually says "I love you," to Julia in a way that is more than just strictly friendly. Second, one of Lillian's very drunk friends first insinuates (I think?) that he had something incestuous going on with his sister when they were teenagers, and then tells her that everyone knew about her and Julia. Color me shocked. It never goes farther than that, but it was much farther than I ever thought the film would go, and even arguably farther than it would if the same film were made today, shockingly enough.

"I love you, Julia"

Because of this, I was very tempted to pick a shot of the two ladies together, particularly in what is far and away the film's best scene, their reunion at a Café in Nazi-era Berlin (Julia is a member of the resistance and has tasked a rather frightened Lillian with smuggling a large sum of money across the border from Paris). Or, even more so, the first time I got an inkling as to there being a little something more in that relationship, when they dance with each other in their nightgowns on New Year's Eve.

But in the end I couldn't go with any of the pictures of the actresses. What really made the film for me, was DP Douglas Slocombe's shots of the train Lillian rides for the film's middle third (a very solid thriller despite the fact that Fonda overplays it, with help from whoever was applying her sweat). They're beautifully lit, and provide far better context for the world in which this story is taking place than the many deliciously designed interiors that make up most of the film.

This is when the train taking Lillian to Berlin first leaves Paris, and it's both gorgeous and foreboding in equal measure, a perfect set-up for what's to come.

But my pick for Best Shot struck such a chord that it shocked me right of the reverie the film had lulled me into. I can't claim it's in as technically brilliant a shot as my runner up, but thematically, it packs a wallop.

A steam train rolling a through wintry snow. Not particularly noteworthy, right? But remember, the train is coming up on Berlin at the start of the Third Reich. The image of a train in Germany at that time, and snow falling like ash from the gray sky, is one that has a hell of a lot of baggage. It was only at this point that I fully grasped what was going on in the world around Lillian, and just how much danger she, a Jewish American woman, was in going to Berlin at this time. I can't think of a more concise way to make that statement than with this image. Besides what the image calls to mind, it's also the only shot in the film that barely has a single color in it - it might as well be in black & white. The reds and browns and greens that have dominated the film so far are all but gone here. It's a cruel cut just when you think the worst part of Lillian's journey is behind her, a hugely impactful image set up and inserted into the film for maximum impact.


  1. Excellent choice! I just re-watched the film this week to revisit Vanessa Redgrave's performance before submitting my votes for the Best Supporting Actress Smackdown over on The Film Experience.

    I took note of those shots you pointed out and how beautifully stark they are, the film's use of color is very well judged throughout...and the costumes amazing.

    I was more struck by various shots of Vanessa Redgrave who seemed to travel with her own personal spectral iridescent halo even in that gritty bistro. Fitting since Julia is more of an ethereal construct through the eyes of reverie than an actual person.

    I didn't think Jane was too jittery. Being the audience surrogate, considering the danger she placed herself in and the last minute ramshackle way she was pulled in I could envision her being on the very verge throughout. Not only was she alone but she was never sure who might walk up to her and either help or arrest her at any moment.

    You're completely right in your assumption of what John Glover was insinuating in his drunk scene about his relationship with sister Meryl Streep. The relationship between Lillian & Julia is more shadowy though and could be read a number of ways.

    Loved all the performances but I have to say that though Jason Robards was solid as always I simply don't understand his winning the Oscar for his work in this.

    1. Thanks, Joel! I too was just stunned by Redgrave in this movie, she does indeed seem to just have her own light following her around. And she is so great at delineating the "real" Julia from the image she projects to others without it feeling actorly.

      To be fair, I often find Jane a bit of an over-actor - when she makes a statement, she MAKES A STATEMENT; when she feels an emotion, she REALLY FEELS IT. And I don't think she's too jittery here, just a bit too obviously unsure of herself. To the point where I was actively wondering why none of the officials ever stopped her and why her allies in the train never just said "Don't worry, I'm here to help!" except that the movie needed these things to work. I certainly get why Lillian would be nervous - hell, I would be too - but she did understand what was at stake, and seemed to only barely even try to cover up her nervousness.

      I'm so glad I'm not the only one who doesn't get how Jason Robards won an Oscar for this. They must have really not liked Equus and not wanted to award Star Wars in a major category. But then again, how did Maximillian Schell even get nominated for this? He's good, but is in what, two scenes? There was no one in Annie Hall or Close Encounters or anything that could have been nominated? Strange.

    2. Supporting Actor was so wonky that year. Besides Guinness and Firth none of those men belonged there. Baryshnikov? WTH! The man is one of the world's greatest dancers ever and quite the looker in his day but the Oscars aren't a dance contest. I though Schell made more of an impact than Robards despite having less screen time. The only thing I recall of Robards scenes it him telling Lillian that it's just a fur coat and not be seduced by fame. I would have much rather have seen Jackie Gleason's delightfully unhinged work as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in Smokey and the Bandit replace any of them, but the award should have been Guinness's.

  2. This is another film I have yet to see. At the time I was just wanting to slap Jane Fonda even though I was a kid when this came out but her political views and the way she talked made me want to slap her. Now that decades have passed I can look at this film in a more mature (Ha!) light. I just remember the huge brou-ha-ha at the Oscars and Vanessa Redgrave's speech. I can still remember it clearly and my dad's reaction.