“Julia” is probably the best film I have seen this year, although it was produced in 1977. A superb cast assists Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave to reveal this beautiful, though suspense-filled, story about the relationship between playwright Lillian Hellman and her long-time friend, Julia, who is not given a last name in this production. There is also disagreement about whether the story is true even though Lillian Hellman claims that it actually happened.
The two girls, Lillian (Jane Fonda) and Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), were life-long friends even though their lives took different paths. Julia studied in Oxford and Vienna to become a medical doctor, while the better-known Lillian Hellman became a successful playwright. Her 30-year romance with writer Dashiell Hammett is well-documented, and Jason Robards made a “dashing” Hammett who mentored Lillian in her writing career. They are shown in the film staying at a New England beach house while Lillian struggled with having her first play accepted for publication. The story that is told here takes place in the 1930’s.
After Lillian’s renown as a writer was established, she was invited to attend a writer’s conference in Russia. She was able to contact Julia, whom she had not seen in many years, so that they might meet while Lillian was in Europe. They planned a meeting in Berlin.
Prior to leaving for Europe, Lillian was contacted by a colleague of Julia’s (played by Maximilian Schell) with the request that Lillian undertake a dangerous mission to bring $50,000 to Julia, who had joined an anti-fascist group opposed to the policies of Nazi Germany. Since Lillian was Jewish, the mission could prove even more dangerous to her.
The most suspenseful episodes in the film take place when Lillian is taking the train to Berlin. She was approached again in the train station by Julia’s colleague who gave her a hatbox and asked her to wear the hat. Lillian shared the train compartment with two women, who apparently were there to guide her through her task, reminding her to keep her hat on.
Lillian and Julia had a beautiful reunion at a restaurant in Berlin. She had instructed Lillian to leave her hat on the seat. Julia surreptitiously placed the hat under her own coat. When she rose to use the ladies’ room, she took her coat with the hat secreted under it. Since Lillian had previously felt the inside of the hat, it was obvious that paper crinkled within the hat. Julia returned to her seat, with the viewer aware that she had no doubt removed the paper money from the hat.
As the two ladies catch up on each other’s lives, we learn that Julia has an artificial leg, must use a crutch, and she has a one-year-old baby she is raising on her own. She indicates that she would like to have Lillian raise the child if anything happens to her. She has named her child Lily, and of course Lillian agrees to the proposition.
Indeed, much more takes place which will not be revealed here. I repeat, however, that it was the finest film I have seen this year. In addition to the aforementioned talented cast members, Hal Holbrook had a small part, and lo and behold, so did Meryl Streep. It may have been her first movie role; who knew then the great heights she would reach?
Jason Robards won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and Vanessa Redgrave also won it for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. If you have the opportunity to view this film, perhaps on Netflix, please do. You will not be disappointed.