Lillian Hellman was one of the most celebrated female playwrights of the early 20th Century, responsible for such Broadway hits as The Children's Hour, The Little Foxes and Watch on the Rhine. In 1941 she became the first female screenwriter to receive an individual Academy Award nomination for her adaption of The Little Foxes. She would continue adapting her plays and the works of others into screenplays until turning her mind to writing memoirs in the late 1960’s. Suspicion would later arise that Hellman’s memoirs were possibly as fictional as her earlier works.
Based upon a chapter in Hellman’s second memoir ‘Pentimento: A Book of Portraits’, Julia tells the story of a lifelong friendship between the author and the title character, who despite her billing actually plays a supporting role. Told in a series of flashbacks upon flashbacks, the film opens with Hellman suffering from writer’s block which her partner, author Dashiell Hammett, suggests might be cured by a change of scenery. Sailing off to Europe, Hellman manages to track down her childhood friend who has abandoned her wealth and privilege to battle the Nazis.
Julia is the sort of stodgy affair that the Oscars love. Yet director Fred Zinnemann’s penultimate film almost suffocates under the weight of its grand production values and interminable flashbacks. Fortunately, it is redeemed by fine acting and an uplift in pace once Hellman agrees to help the Resistance. Faced with a series of laughable ‘the crow flies at midnight’ instructions, Hellman’s constant sense of apprehension is nicely conveyed by Jane Fonda. Her final reunion with Julia, portrayed by an ethereal Vanessa Redgrave, is masterfully realised.
Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, Julia ended up winning three. Redgrave won Best Actress in a Supporting Role while Jason Robards scored the second of his three Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscars for his role as Dashiell Hammett. The third Oscar, fittingly enough, was for Best Adapted Screenplay.
as Lillian Hellman
as Dashiell Hammett
Most scholars now believe Julia is a work of fiction. Hellman however continued to assert that the events depicted in her book were indeed based on fact, and that Julia’s real identity was kept secret for personal and legal reasons.
Muriel Gardiner, a psychoanalyst who joined the anti-Fascist resistance during her student days in Vienna, wrote to Hellman pointing out the many similarities between Julia and her. Having never received a reply, Gardiner published her own memoir ‘Code Name Mary’. Hellman’s response was that she had never heard of Dr. Gardiner until the release of her book. ''She may have been the model for somebody else's Julia, but she was certainly not the model for my Julia.''
No mention is made of Lillian Hellman or Dashiell Hammett’s film work.