Thursday, June 11, 2009

Streep at 60: Julia (1977)

Streep at 60: A Retrospective Series
This post is dedicated to Derek who has asked me to write about this movie for two years. What can I say, I'm slow.

Julia (1977) Directed by Fred Zinneman. Starring: Jane Fonda, Vanessa
Redgrave, Jason Robards and way down in the cast list... Meryl Streep

Imagine you're the casting director for a prestige piece about hotheaded playwright Lillian Hellman and her (fictional) friend Julia, a wealthy anti-fascist who puts her life on the line to save Jews in 193os Germany. Lillian, the chainsmoking Jewess, is described early in the film like so:
You're scrappy. You are the neighborhood bulldog except for your goddamn dream of being a cocker spaniel.
You have to have Meryl Streep for the role, don't you? Bulldog and cockerspaniel it is. We're talking about the cinema's most acclaimed chameleon. Or maybe you had Meryl in mind for the impassioned title character, whom the film repeatedly asks you to idolize. That'd work to.

But I've forgotten a crucial piece of information! It's 1976 when you're casting this and virtually no one outside of the NYC's theatrical community knows who 27 year-old Meryl Streep is. She was making her name as a powerhouse stage actress but mainstream stardom wasn't yet a reality. Julia was a prestige actress showcase and you go the only place you're likely to go in the mid 70s: to Faye Dunaway (it's a no) and then to Oscar winning superstar Jane Fonda (as Lillian) and three time nominee Vanessa Redgrave (as Julia).

No, Streep would begin her legendary film stardom in a character role, unheralded by worshipful narration or a careful spotlight. She would begin her film career in a crowd scene at Sardi's.

Meryl's celluloid arrival. She waves to the camera (i.e. Jane Fonda) and
begins
applauding with the extras. P.S. She's not an extra.

There she is!

Sardi's it is. Streep the Star isn't on the wall yet but it's only a matter of time. The actress doesn't waste a second of her limited screentime. In a scene that's meant to be about Lillian's acclimation to her sudden fame (she'd just written The Children's Hour we presume? The film is not big on details) the restaurant is filled with strangers. Anne Marie (Streep) grabs Lillian straightaway and makes with the niceties, letting us and the author's more anonymous well wishers know that the two are "friends". Streep's Anne is starchly perturbed when the camera pans away from her stage right, taking Fonda's Lillian and thus the film with her.

One of cinema's most famous WASPY blondes began her film career as
a brunette in a movie about a famous Jew.

Fred Zinneman's direction dwells just enough on this disturbance of familiarity that one assumes that Anne Marie will return. She will.

The first forty minutes of Julia are an awkward mix of writer's drama, historical suspense and fictionalized biopic. We toggle between Lillian angrily typing, chain smoking and doubting her talent to flashbacks of her friendship with Julia to scenes of escalating violence and unrest in Europe. Lillian loses track of Julia when she disappears from a hospital bed after a mysterious surgery and when Lillian returns to America, her fame begins.

Once we've hit Sardi's the film begins to constrict into something more manageable and successful, a pre-war drama. But the messy Oscar-winning screenplay, adapted from Hellman's "memoirs" Pentimento, seems to have more on its mind than it can include. Case in point: Anne Marie.

Lillian makes time to see her before leaving for Moscow (she hopes to find Julia en route) and the scene is rich with bitchy subtext. Anne Marie casually slips in repeated digs at the political and the philanthropic. But Meryl, never one to leave a character with but one personality trait, also suggests that Anne Marie does actually care about both Lillian and Julia. She just doesn't understand them. And, here's the perceptive kicker: she really doesn't want to. After a hint of shared history and warmth, she exits the scene just as she enters it, underlining her political apathy.
Imagine Russia. My god, of all places.
There's another scene late in the film with Anne Marie's brother (John Glover) that seems to have a whole other film playing in it head. It's a film about the privileged classes and their sexual sophistication that stars... well, what do you know, Anne Marie herself. Her presence in Julia's narrative is never quite justified so there's the distinct sense that she's a much more pivotal character in the novel that they couldn't quite figure out how to include or omit.

At least the Anne Marie business is welcome color in the sometimes monotonous Lillian story, but there's really no excuse for the repetitive sequences featuring Hellman's life with Dashiell Hammett. Jason Robards inexplicably won the Oscar for playing the famous writer. It's not that the performance isn't good... it's that the character is largely irrelevant. There's a lot going on in the very uneven Julia but in the rare moments wherein the movie is allowed access to the elusive Julia herself, it's on a different level entirely.

Jane Fonda isn't utilized all that well as Lillian -- it's hard to dramatize writing and the film stumbles as so many others have in this department -- but in the case of Vanessa Redgrave, the casting reaped major rewards. We're not just talking about the gold statues they pass out in Hollywood. Consider the amount of star charisma and actorly confidence you would need to seize the screen when the dialogue describing you as you walk into frame is this ripely adoring:
There are women who reach a perfect time of life when the face will never again be as good, the body never as graceful, as powerful. It had happened that year to Julia.
Vanessa Redgrave was 40 when Julia arrived and though her powers to bewitch the camera have never exactly waned in the years since, it's easy to believe Lillian's awestruck voiceover proclamation. Today, Julia is best remembered as an pivotal moment in Vanessa Redgrave's filmography and that's a just legacy. She's its sole claim to greatness. Even an actor less gifted than Redgrave might have won gold in the title role: the movie fawns on the character and where movies fawn, awards often follow. But Redgrave continually elevates the movie that is so eager to put her on a pedestal. When it speaks of her beauty and grace she doesn't empty out her face as so many actors do when a movie requires them to become an abstract vessell for the audience. Instead, she lets a goofy sideways grin flash. When Jane Fonda works the traditional tears and drama in the film's climax, Redgrave refuses the sentiment of the scene repeatedly. Throughout the movie she seems a little wild eyed. Redgrave understands that it takes more than just Goodness to fling yourself into martyrdom the way Julia does. You need a bit of madness for that level of commitment.

Even in moments of affection, Julia has an agenda.
There's no time for sentiment.

Redgrave had reached the perfect time of stardom. The Oscar happened that year for Julia. Streep would have to wait. But not for long.

~

Julia neatly predicted Streep's future role as Oscar bait extraordinaire. For the first three consecutive years of her movie career she appeared in Best Picture nominees and winners: The Deer Hunter and Kramer Vs. Kramer won the top prize. Julia was the leader of its Oscar pack with 11 nominations though it lost to Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Julia is the sole Best Picture nominee of 1977 that feels like a traditional Oscar choice: it's big, important, historical, well meaning. But, as is so often the case, those qualities don't automatically equal scintillating cinema. It's arguably the weakest member of 1977's shortlist: Star Wars and Annie Hall are bonafide classics, The Goodbye Girl and The Turning Point have detractors but they have a certain respectable honesty about what they are (aggressive comedy and histrionic melodrama, respectively). But I'm being too hard on the film that gave Vanessa Redgrave an entrancing showcase and introduced moviegoers to Meryl Streep. It delivered spectacularly on those two counts.

33 comments:

Hayden said...

"When Jane Fonda works the traditional tears and drama in the film's climax, Redgrave refuses the sentiment of the scene repeatedly."

Exactly.

Wayne B. said...

Redgrave was amazing in "If These Walls Could Talk 2"; loved her in "Bella Mafia" as well. She has one of the best set of eyes the cinema has ever filmed.

Dominic said...

Great article! I was pretty confused by this movie. On a completely different note, since this article was a reader request, how about a piece on Sigourney Weaver in Aliens, probably one of the most fascinating Best Actress nominations in history. This is, of course, presuming you have the time, what with the 5 million other blog ideas you have crashing through your head.
-Dom

Joe S. said...

I have yet to see Julia, but as a fan of "La Streep" I think I should.

Terris said...

Wow! Never seen Julia yet.
But after this article I really want to! It sounds such a great film... and I'm so curious to see "La Streep" in her very first film! I also admire Vanessa Redgrave as an actess and really find that she and Meryl in "Evening" made an amazing job! The scene together is so moving... !!!
Thanks Nat! =)

mrripley said...

it just shows how great redgrave is when 30 yrs later she completely stole atonement for 7 minutes in 2007,wish she'd have got ruby dee's spot,the voice the eyes the enunciation.

I'm in your bed said...

it was a good movie. nothing more.

carry said...

WoW. Well writing!
I think I have to watch it.
Love meryl!

John T said...

Nat, I think you're being a little bit too hard on this movie. Granted, I haven't seen it in years, but I remember finding it intoxicating, particularly Redgrave, but also Fonda. I would certainly put it in front of the dated and screechy Goodbye Girl.

adelutza said...

Oh, so it's not just me who never understood why Jason Robards would get an Oscar for a role that's completely irrelevant. I guess it was written in because Dashiell Hammett was an important part of the real Lillian's life. But really, Oscar for that role??
The film has it's moments though and , tears or no tears, I thought Jane Fonda gave a good performance.

Jim T said...

Great post Nate!

Why does Meryl look 10 years older than in Deer Hunter? Is it only the make up and hair or also the way she acts? It's really like Cinderella and Lady Tremaine!

Agent69 said...

I can barely remember Meryl in Julia. But I do remember what a mess of a movie 'Julia' was. I did like Fonda (I always do) and loved Redgrave in all of her scenes, and I remember a scene in a train - with a hat, that was suspenseful. That's about it.

OT: I'd also love to read a piece on Sigourney in Aliens AND a little bit more on Tilda in Julia than we got in that video podcast.

NATHANIEL R said...

Jim T good question. It must have to do with Meryl's ageless movie face. To some degree her age has always seemed entirely flexible.

I had a friend in high school that everyone used to think was much much older and she still looks the same now 20 years later... I think certain faces just defy easy categorization and Meryl has one of them.

Her whole furred/jewelled dark haired socialite look in her big scene actually made me think of Bea Arthur in Mame for a minute ;) RANDOM.

Adelutza you know what's ever crazier still about Robards win? He had just won the year before! How on earth this inconsequential character and sidelined performance convinced them he needed back to back wins is a question that could have only been answered in spring of 1978 I think. It has to be one of the weirdest decisions ever out of context.

but then the supporting actor competition was kind of bizarre that year.

ALEC GUINESS - STAR WARS
(a rare genre nomination)
MAXIMILLIAN SCHELL -JULIA
(he's barely in the movie but he's more noteworthy than Robards)
BARYSHNIKOV -THE TURNING POINT (omg. the world's most famous dancer. acting! I love Misha though so i'll shut up now)
PETER FIRTH -EQUUS
(lead role but young and creepy... so he wasn't going to win)

adelutza said...

Yeah, from that supporing actor lineup I probably would have chosen Alec Guiness. But hard to win with a role from Star Wars

Marilyn said...

I'm glad you dwelled so much on Streep - in my review of Julia, I just couldn't work her in. She does create a real presence on screen, though whether that has to do with her current renown clouding my vision, it's hard to say.

I don't agree that Redgrave is the only claim to greatness of this film. Fonda actually holds her own quite well, and the lengthy scene on the train to Berlin, in which Redgrave is a one-line voiceover, Fonda and her fellow players create magic. Zinnemann really elevated this material.

I don't agree that Hammett was unnecessary - this is a story of lives over time, not just anti-Nazi intrigue. I like the juxtaposition of Julia's "fairytale" life away from the violence of Europe; it isolates her in the same way America was isolated for so long, and Hammett was a secure part of that world.

Finally, "Julia" was not a friend of Hellman's, but she was a real person.

NATHANIEL R said...

Marilyn,
thanks for the opposing view. It's an interesting perspective on Hammett's part in it. But given that the film felt it necessary to underline so many things (especially with the flashbacks... i think of the egregious tree bridge scene) i wish they'd emphasized the isolationism more there.

As to whether or not the friendship was real. Hellman claimed it was but then apparently the woman who was the model for Julia she didn't know at all... or some such. I suspect Wikipedia has left many things out but it's definitely a case of heavily fictionalized autobiopic'ing on Hellman's part.

NATHANIEL R said...

Marilyn's review, if you're interested is here. Much more positive than mine.

Derek said...

Yay! Better late than never! Thanks, Nat :)

I'm just sorry that you didn't enjoy it as much as I wish you had. Personally, I think this is Jane Fonda's best performance. That sequence on the train is just breathtaking - and the suspense is all in her face.

NATHANIEL R said...

Jane Fonda's best??? Are you mad, sir? The train sequence is indeed the best scene (scenes) though the best part of the movie overall is still Vanessa Redgrave

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this on Meryl. I can't wait to read MORE!!!!

Simona said...

I have never seen Julia!I search for it everywhere...but nothing!I'm so curious to see Meryl in her first movie...when she's so young! :-)
Thank you for this article!

sphinx said...

what's even better than Vanessa Redgrave in this movie? Her acceptance speech of course. F***ing brilliant! Check it out on youtube. And BTW, Paddy Chayefsky is a hypocrite.

Moose said...

"Julia" is on live-streaming netflix, and I tried to watch it two months ago, but couldn't get past five minutes or so. I think I'll try again.

NATHANIEL R said...

Moose it definitely gets better as it goes along but the first 1/2 hour is a bear to get through, I agree. very stodgy and unconvincing. everything from the train to Julia's cliamctic meeting is great (about 1/2 hour of greatness) but the film surrounding it is the problem ;)

Alex said...

So much talk of Fonda's performance made me think what my line-up would be for Best Actress that year. Here's wat I came up with:


1. Diane Keaton (Annie Hall)
2. Liza Minnelli (New York, New York)
3. Gena Rowlands (Opening Night)
4. Anne Bancroft (The Turning Point)
5. Jane Fonda (Julia)
OR
Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl)


Wh would you guys have nominated back in 1977?

Michael said...

Alex, 1977 may be the greatest Best Actress year ever.

1) Gena Rowlands in Opening Night - The most fascinating portrayal I have ever seen. Steadfastly rejects every aging actress cliche.
2) Diane Keaton in Annie Hall - Iconic and deservedly so.
3)Shelley Duvall in 3 Women - Her best work?
4) Marsha Mason in The Goodbye Girl - damn near wrote the rulebook for romantic comedy performances.
5) Anne Bancroft in The Turning Point - Been a while, but I remember it as her best work post-Graduate.

Plus, Bancroft's and Duvall's costars Shirley MacLaine and Sissy Spacek, Jane Fonda in Julia, Lily Tomlin's comic brilliance in The Late Show and Liza Minnelli's bittersweet valentine to the kind of roles that made her mother famous in New York, New York. There, you have TWO rosters worth of worthy winners. And I've probably missed a few.

Michael Shetina

NATHANIEL R said...

Michael & Alex i go with these three for sure

Shelley Duvall 3 Women
Diane Keaton* Annie Hall/Looking for Mr Goodbar
Liza Minnelli New York New York

but i have to keep my other two slots open till i see a few more things.

Kent said...

Great write up. Meryl knew gold when she saw it. Her first three years in film included two Best Picture winners and a nominee? Hollywood already knew she had talent.

Nat, do you think Vanessa Redgrave is a lead or supporting despite her minimal screentime?

Joe Shetina said...

Gena Rowlands in Opening Night is one of the best performances ever captured on screen. She gets my vote for 1977 over Keaton and Minnelli.

NATHANIEL R said...

Kent... that's supporting for Redgrave for me. The movie is theoretically about her but she's only a lead in the very abstract sense: Redgrave's only got one real substantial scene and the rest is little flashes or voiced over images... or scenes where we see her but she isn't really participating (the hospital scene).

Alex said...

I Haven't seen "3 Women" yet, but it seems like I need to...

NATHANIEL R said...

alex --- omg. Duvall is... GAH. she's so so memorable in that movie. (way too weird for Oscar though)

Tan said...

I love Jane Fonda, its a very good movie. 'Julia' is not her best, but still was wonderful.