My Julia obsession began the night I watched Hemingway and Gellhorn on HBO. As I wrote in my July 2012 column: "Despite its 155 minute runtime, the core of the film (covering the Spanish Civil War in 1937) is muddled. And adoring scenes of Martha Gellhorn watching Ernest Hemingway type (as if she were first learning how to be a writer) made me grit my teeth."
Sorry to say, this was not the first time I'd had similar complaints about recent cinematic depictions of trailblazing women. Amelia (starring Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart), The Lady (starring Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi), and The Iron Lady (starring Meryl Streep in her recent Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher), all suffer from the same basic flaw: screenplays that dwell way too much on the males figures in each life, obscuring not just the persona of the central character, but her historic accomplishments as well.
"But was it ever any different?" I asked myself with a sigh. And that's when I remembered Julia.
Julia was directed by Fred Zinnemann, the Vienna-born son of a Jewish doctor who received two Oscars for Best Director (for From Here to Eternity in 1953 and A Man for All Seasons in 1966), and was nominated for five more (for The Search in 1948, High Noon in 1952, The Nun's Story in 1959, The Sundowners in 1960, and Julia in 1977).
Screenwriter Alvin Sargent (born Alvin Supowitz of Philadelphia) is also no slouch. In addition to his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Julia, he received an Oscar for his Ordinary People screenplay in 1980 and an Oscar nomination for his Paper Moon screenplay in 1973. Still going strong at age 85, Sargent is also one of three credited screenwriters on The Amazing Spider-Man, just released last month!
Julia was nominated for 11 Oscars in 1978 and won three (Best Adapted Screenplay plus Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress). That was the year Woody Allen won Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Annie Hall. A good year for the Jews, although 1978 is best remembered now as the year Vanessa Redgrave created a brouhaha when she referenced "Zionist hoodlums" in her acceptance speech. And then in the 1980s, questions about the authenticity of the story on which Julia is based also cast a shadow over the film which endures to this day.
But back in 1977, when I saw Julia for the first time, all of that was yet to be. I remembered Julia as an enormously inspiring film, and so the day after watching Hemingway and Gellhorn, I ordered the Julia DVD from Amazon with only one question in mind: had Julia stood the test of time as a film?
My answer is an emphatic yes! As I watched the DVD, specific scenes came back to me, but even though I knew the plot's basic trajectory, I was riveted. The narrative arc, anchored by fabulous performances, kept me in thrall. Furthermore, although Julia captures unique and specific times and places, it is no mere history lesson. Julia's messages are totally relevant to today; a welcome reminder of timeless ideals.
Julia's center is the artistic birth of playwright Lillian Hellman. Jane Fonda (who received the third of her seven Best Actress nominations for the role, but lost the Oscar to Diane Keaton's beloved Annie Hall) plays Lillian Hellman, and she is magnificent.
I didn't have to think too hard about my own view of Lillian Hellman's legacy. In my December '06 column, I wrote this about a TimeLine Theatre revival of Hellman's play The Children's Hour: "Great works of art often have a timeless quality, tapping into something deep and universal in the human condition and resonating long past the era in which they were born. The TimeLine Theatre Company proves this anew with The Children's Hour…"
But being me, I immediately stopped everything to read Alice Kessler-Harris's huge new biography A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman. And just as I reached the final chapter ("Life After Death"), Nora Ephron died.
Nora Ephron died just after I had learned that in 1973, coincident with the release of Pentimento (the second of Lillian Hellman's three best-selling memoirs), the New York Times published a long profile of Hellman… written by Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron died just after I had learned that in 2002, Ephron's first play, Imaginary Friends, opened on Broadway. The subject? Mary McCarthy's infamous attack: "Every word Lillian Hellman writes is a lie-including and and the." Mary McCarthy made this comment in 1980, approximately two years after Julia was nominated for eleven Oscars (including Best Picture) and took home three.
So I downloaded a Kindle copy of I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections (Ephron's final essay collection), and after reading what Ephron wrote about Hellman (in an essay called "Pentimento"), and what she wrote about Imaginary Friends (in an essay called "Flops"), I ordered that too. And then, once I was finished reading all of this (plus bits and pieces of Hellman's three memoirs), I watched Julia again. And armed with all of this new knowledge, Julia was even more resonant in July than it had been in June!
It had taken me almost two months, but I was finally able to circle back to my original question ("But was it ever any different?") and answer with confidence: Yes, it was different once.
In 1977, talented filmmakers dedicated themselves to telling the story of how one woman became an artist, and they were showered with praise for it. Yes, of course, Lillian Hellman had a powerful man in her life who served as a mentor as well as a partner (Dashiell Hammett "Mr. Maltese Falcon" no less), but in Julia the person who most inspires the young Lillian Hellman is a woman.
Perhaps the real Lillian Hellman conjured the Julia character up with some artistic alchemy all her own. Perhaps, to use Ephron's words, Julia was merely an "imaginary friend;" someone created by the lonely child of an unhappy marriage, a little girl who spent way too much time hiding in a tree.
What matters most to me is the way Lillian Hellman transformed her need for female friendship into the relationship so memorably depicted in The Children's Hour, and the way everyone connected with Julia succeeded in capturing that same longing on film.
And what about Martha Gellhorn? As Ephron has her "Hellman" character say in Imaginary Friends: "Doomed to be known forever as Ernest Hemingway's third wife." Believe me: Martha Gellhorn deserves better! Martha Gellhorn also deserves a film of her own!
Jane Fonda as "Lillian Hellman," with Maximilian Schell as "Mr. Johann."
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox Archives/Newscom