A posh drama that eventually morphs into a posh thriller, Julia is made with such consummate restraint and taste that it’s as delicate as silk. Alas, beautiful photography and elegant words and graceful direction go only so far, even when combined with strong performances by world-class actors, because, ultimately, story is everything—and the story of Julia is dull, episodic, and far-fetched. Adapted from a book by the venerable Lillian Hellman, the movie depicts an episode in the late 1930s when Hellman allegedly aided Germans who were resisting the rise of the Third Reich. Setting aside the question of whether the events in question ever really happened—even the film’s director, the venerable Fred Zinnemann, later expressed doubts about the veracity of Hellman’s tale—the problem with Julia is that it can’t decide whether it’s a quiet chamber piece or a wartime adventure.
The movie has at least four major components. First is a long prologue depicting young Lillian’s friendship with a sophisticated girl named Julia. Next comes a long passage during which the adult Lillian (Jane Fonda) becomes a famous writer under the tutelage of her lover/mentor, crime-fiction legend Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). After that, Lillian ventures to Europe, where she’s reunited with the grown-up Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) for a passage depicting the subtle textures of adult frendship. And finally, the movie shifts into intrigue mode when a rebel operative (Maximillian Schell) enlists Lillian to carry a package through Nazi-occupied terrain. Seen generously, this is the story of how Hellman’s character was built on the road to performing a great deed of selfless heroism, but since even that reading relegates the first half of the movie to the role of backstory, it becomes obvious why the structure of the picture is so peculiar. After all, did the makers of Casablanca (1942) have to spend half the movie explaining Rick Blaine’s childhood so audiences would understand his actions during the movie’s final scene?
Even though Julia enjoyed considerable acclaim during its original release—winning Oscars for Redgrave, Robards, and screenwriter Alvin Sargent—it’s a tough film to love. For, while Julia contains many great things, from Robards’ world-weary characterization to the gorgeous cinematography by Douglas Slocombe, the various elements never cohere. Worse, the idea that Hellman might have fabricated such an outlandishly self-aggrandizing narrative leaves a bad taste on the palette. In any event, Julia occupies an interesting place in pop-culture history, because it was upon collecting her Academy Award for this film that Redgrave made her infamous “Zionist hoodlums” speech during the 1978 Oscar broadcast.