Material for a Movie: Julia
Director Fred Zinnemann spent a few years in the 1960s developing projects that did not come to fruition for him, most notably Hawaii (which was reconcieved and scaled back by United Artists and taken up by director George Roy Hill) and even more notoriously, an adaptation of André Malraux’s 1933 novel Man’s Fate, which was cancelled by MGM after three years of pre-production just a week before filming was to start in November 1969. Yet this veteran moviemaker’s hard luck would take a sharp upturn with two of the most riveting movies of the 1970s, the Frederick Forsyth-based assassination thriller The Day of the Jackal (1973) and a short story by Lillian Hellman that Zinnemann found to be “brief, haunting and so gossamer-thin as to be almost transparent.” He recalled in his autobiography Fred Zinnemann: A Life in the Movies: “I was strongly moved when I read it, although I must confess it never occurred to me to think of it as material for a movie.” Originally attached director Sydney Pollack had a scheduling conflict, so Zinnemann took over the making of Julia (1977), a story of female friendship between budding playwright Hellman and a rich heiress whose idealism compels her to shirk her family ties and involve herself with the Austrian anti-fascist underground in the late 1930s. Hellman published the original story in her 1973 collection Pentimento as an autobiographical reminiscence and years following the movie’s release, the story would be debunked as fictionalized and drawn from the real-life exploits of New York psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner, who never knew the acclaimed playwright. (Hellman steadfastly held that her story was true until her 1984 death. Gardiner died a year later.) And in the summer of 1976, Zinnemann began work on English and French locations, steering a logistically challenging production that would honor Hellman’s truth in historical detail and emotional acuity. Jane Fonda was signed to play Lillian and she urged producer Richard Roth to seek out Vanessa Redgrave to play the politically energized Julia. Roth reportedly said, “Why not? The two most famous left-wing women of the ’70s playing two left-wing women of the ’30s. Of course the fact that Jane and Vanessa were both terrific actresses didn’t hurt, either. Not to mention they both agreed to work cheap.” In a Women’s Wear Daily interview, Fonda confessed, “After playing endless characters who are neurotic or lost, I can’t describe what it is like to play an intellectual woman and act out her deep commitment to a friend who is also a woman.” Commitment became a watchword of the film, from the exquisite cinematography of Douglas Slocombe, painstaking production design by Gene Callahan, Carmen Dillon and Willy Holt, and splendid costume design of Anthea Sylbert to the work of the two lead actresses, plus Jason Robards as Hellman’s lover/mentor Dashiell Hammett, Maximilian Schell as the mysterious operative Mr. Johann, Hal Holbrook and Rosemary Murphy as Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker, and a supporting ensemble that included John Glover, Lisa Pelikan and Susan Jones as the younger Julia and Lillian, Cathleen Nesbitt, and in her film debut as a snooty socialite, Meryl Streep. At the 1977 Academy Awards®, in which newer-vibed films like Annie Hall (the year’s Best Picture winner) and Star Wars claimed four Oscars® apiece, Julia struck a blow for seasoned, classical filmmaking by capturing Oscars® for Supporting Actor Robards, Supporting Actress Redgrave and Alvin Sargent for Adapted Screenplay. Such is the staying power of a “gossamer-thin” story in the hands of masters. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-ray of Julia, boasting Twentieth Century Fox’s new 4K restoration transfer, an emotionally insightful Audio Commentary with Best Actress Oscar® nominee Fonda and TT’s Nick Redman, and Georges Delerue’s elegant score on an Isolated Track, arrives on April 12 (screenwriter Sargent’s 89th birthday). Preorders open tomorrow, March 30.