When Americans go on a European tour as youngsters, they usually end up in trains. I did it myself, traveling with a Europass down to Malaga from London . It was a grand story! I walked around a lot, spent all of my money in cheap restaurants, and went back!
And of course, as cash flowed out of my pockets, I gawked at the train stations.
I was reminded of my faux adventure last night when I watched Fred Zinnemann’s 1977 film “Julia”.
Zinnemann, you might recall, is the director who brought us one of the best suspense films of all time, “Day of the Jackal”. He certainly had a flair for directing, and btw, had quite a time of it in Hollywood
After his exquisite A Man for All Seasons (1966) won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, Fred Zinnemann had every reason to feel like the luckiest director in Hollywood. The truth is he would not get to direct his next film for another seven years. His attempt to direct an adaptation of André Malraux’ Man’s Fate for MGM had fallen through, and a court battle with the studio almost pushed him over the edge and into bankruptcy. It seemed like his career had nowhere left to go when, suddenly, straight out of nowhere, an offer from Universal came to direct an adaptation of a spy novel that was about to be a huge best-seller. The book, published in 1971, was Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, and the movie, released in 1973, is a masterpiece—the greatest film of Zinnemann’s career.
There are two things to note about Zinnemann in this context. First, he had a weird thing about trains. He loved using them for dramatic effect. From the above link,
There are trains in nearly all of Zinnemann’s movies. Remember the train filled with young Holocaust survivors in The Search (1948), Frank Miller’s train in High Noon, Omar Shariff’s missed train in Behold A Pale Horse and the several trains which Lillian boards in Julia (1977). The great critic Marilyn Ferdinand has commented on Zinnemann’s “affinity for trains, close-ups, and ability to coax iconic performances to dizzying heights,”
Zinnemann also had a weird thing about the isolated, morally sound hero. Think of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”, one of Zinnemann’s classic films. The hero has to act because everyone else is not quite up to the job of dealing with the scary bad guys. But it has to be done! Good thing Gary Cooper was around!
And so I found myself sipping a Bushmills last night, watching Jane Fonda play Lillian Hellman in Zinnemann’s 1977 film, Julia. I confess that I am not quite sure what to make of the film. On the plus side, it seems like a celebration of drinking — as most of the main characters get drunk on a regular basis. Hemingway got famous by making “drunk people talk”, and there are some good drunk scenes in the film. There is also a lot of cigarette smoking, mainly by Fonda who btw, seems to be wearing underpants that are 5 sizes too small. How else can one explain her character’s obsessive, grumpy, nervousness?
About that grumpiness. I didn’t quite get how Fonda/Hellman could be so grumpy while living the life of Reilly in a beachfront house with nothing to do but drink, smoke, and peck away at the typewriter. Meanwhile, her lover, Jason Robards playing Dash Hammet, seems like he very badly needs to reduce the dosage of whatever drugs he was on. Was Hammet really that boring? After all, the guy wrote The Maltese Falcon! And there is that barf inducing moment when Fonda/Hellman chortles about being famous. Get my point? If you are looking for inspiring characters, this film doesn’t quite cut it.
Back to the drama! So there is Fonda, riding on a train from Paris to Berlin, and smoking, of course. She has $50k concealed in her hat, that she is supposed to deliver to her childhood friend, Julia, who is waiting in a Berlin cafe so she can pay the bill (ok, she has other reasons why she wants the cash). The dramatic moment – Fonda has to cross the border, and while doing so, avoid raising the suspicions of evil looking border agents. who no doubt wonder where she got the weird hat. This is supposed to justify the seemingly endless scenes of the train —- get this — moving forward on the tracks!
To the point, Julia — now one legged Julia — waiting in a Berlin cafe for the cash, is obviously the heroine of this film. She is (1) smart, (2) brave, (3) honest, and (4) committed to do the right thing. She is also, apparently, just a tad randy. So of course, she needs to get bumped off, which (spoiler alert) she does near the end of the film. The good guys don’t win! Well, the film was made during the 1970’s when that sort of thing was in vogue.
After Julia is bumped off, we are left with a bunch of second rate characters who whine about how hard it is to be genius writers and famous and stay honest about it all. And looming over all of this mental stew, is the author of the story — Lillian Hellman. We need to take a deep breath here, as this gets a bit gross. According to Hellman, the story about Julia was true. It was all part of her real past. Not fiction. She actually did lose a dear childhood friend to Nazi killers! She actually wore a weird hat with $50k in it and didn’t filch any of the money!
You might wonder, what was the big deal? Why did the story have to be true? Back in 1939, Maugham wrote “A Christmas Holiday”, telling the same sort of story — as fiction. And Maugham did rather well by it!
Well, you had to be there at the time to understand why it was so important. It was the post- Truman Capote “In Cold blood” era. Capote got lots of attention — and made a ton of money — in 1966, by novelizing a true story about a grizzly murder. Aha! Because it was “true”, it was “better” — that is, more “authentic”. So lots of Capote wannabe’s started boasting that their stuff was also true. Hellman was no dolt. She got into the act, pronto. The Julia story , as part of her “true” memoirs came out in the book “Pentimento” in 1973. Yes, Hellman was cashing in on a literary fad.
Here is the thing — we know by now that Hellman was … shall we say … deeply challenged by the truth. In other words, this supposedly true story about courage, etc. never really happened. There was no childhood friend named Julia. There was no hat and no cash and no train. There was just a lot of boozing and whining and smoking. and conniving about how to get rich and famous as an author. Well, ok. There were nazi’s and they did bad stuff to other people. BTW, Stalin and his cronies were doing bad stuff too at the same time, but the real life Hellman seemed not to notice that in her real life visit to the Soviet Union. Odd.
So is there anything of value here? Certainly not morality plays about “truth”. On the other hand, the film is about the rise of fascism in the 1930’s. Hellman, supposedly found out that something weird was going on in Europe. Something that Americans didn’t get. Something ugly. But no one wanted to hear it. And our buddy Fred Zinnemann must have raised an eyebrow when he caught wind of this aspect of the story. Someone stood up against fascism! Bravo! There is something to this!
And that brings us to our own opportunity! Something ugly IS actually happening now in the real world. We ARE in the midst of an odd mood shift, where at least some folks are talking trash about scapegoating Muslims, etc. And we have nasty border guards too! Not only that, we have “ICE”, roaming around, kicking folks out of the country. What’s more, hats are in again! Of course, one can just wire money these days – and US trains are not so exciting as their European counterparts. So we cannot do the prolonged train scene. But we can work around that stuff. Trust me!
Anyone up for — Julia II?