Viewer Guide: Julia and An Education with Richard Peña

February 16, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


Julia (1977)

Adapted from an autobiographical chapter in playwright Lillian Hellman’s 1973 memoir “Pentimento,” Julia (1977) has transformed into more of a historical mystery rather than a biographical drama, as controversy over the story’s veracity has steadily mounted in the years since the film’s release. Starring Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, on the surface the movie faithfully recounts the story of Hellman’s devoted friendship with an American heiress who Hellman fictitiously identifies only as “Julia,” played by a glorious Vanessa Redgrave in her prime. Unfolding in a flashback structure in the years before World War II, the film dramatizes how the pair’s deep childhood bond is put to the ultimate test during the ominous rise of Nazism in pre-war Europe.

At the film’s open, Hellman is struggling to write her first play at a windswept beach cottage under the tutelage of her mentor and lover, the famed mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, played by Jason Robards. Feeling blocked, Hellman goes to Paris for a change of scene, and tries to contact her dear friend in Vienna, where Julia is continuing her medical school training after studying with the likes of Sigmund Freud. But once in Europe, a distinct political chill can be felt everywhere, as dark forces increasingly spread their influence and control. Hellman discovers that Julia’s anti-fascist resistance activities have placed her squarely in harm’s way.

A few years later, after achieving success on Broadway with her play The Children’s Hour, Hellman is in Paris en route to a theater festival in Moscow when she is asked by Julia to help with a dangerous mission smuggling money into Nazi Germany. Hellman is forced to confront her deepest fears, moving from an outspoken leftist activist to a truly engaged militant in the gathering gloom of pre-war Europe.

With the publication of her memoir Pentimento in 1973, Hellman crowned her achievements as a pioneering woman playwright, further burnishing her famous image as a woman who “cannot cut [her] conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” as she famously wrote when called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. Pentimento’s best-selling success was soon hugely amplified by the release of Julia in 1977, every inch a blue-chip production directed by Fred Zinnemann, the Academy Award-winning veteran of classics like High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons.  And with Hellman and Julia glamorously portrayed by Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave—two vocal proponents for social justice portraying political firebrands of an earlier era—the film embodied a certain “passing of the baton” for highbrow Hollywood. Garnering 11 Oscar nominations, Julia won three statuettes for best adapted screenplay by Alvin Sargent as well as for Jason Robards and Vanessa Redgrave in the supporting actor and actress categories.

But the glory soon began to fade: acting as if she’d been called again to testify again before the HUAC committee, Hellman stonewalled the repeated requests to reveal the identity of the real Julia, despite a growing chorus of high-profile critics calling out a long list of factual discrepancies in her account, which steadily came to appear more and more like fiction. In 1979, writer Mary McCarthy tried to administer the fatal blow, claiming during an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” that “every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’”  In response, Hellman filed a $2.5 million defamation suit against McCarthy as well as Channel Thirteen, as co-producer of the Cavett show at the time.  The suit dragged on for five long years until Hellman’s death in 1984, at which point her executors decided to drop the case.

So who was the real Julia?  The most probable answer comes in the form of Muriel Gardiner, a bona fide American heiress of the Swift meat-packing fortune who published her own memoir in 1983 about her pre-war experiences working in the anti-Fascist resistance.  Although Hellman and Gardiner never met, they shared the same lawyer, raising suspicions of how tales about Gardiner may have reached Hellman as early as the mid-1930s.

In fact, a Muriel Gardiner-like character first appeared in Hellman’s 1941 play Watch on the Rhine—yet without being passed off as a “true story.” Perhaps Hellman may have provided the best clue in the riddle of Julia in her choice of Pentimento as the title of her memoir, an art world term referring to a phenomenon in aging canvases when painted-over areas fade to expose the original figures lying underneath, revealing how the artist had “repented” or changed her mind. Hellman may never have wanted whatever the original canvas was to show through, but Julia certainly makes for a most fascinating example of art imitating life and back again.

Fonda, Redgrave and Robards are more than ably supported by wonderful performances by Maximilian Schell and John Glover, along with Rosemary Murphy and Hal Holbrook as Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell.  And be on the lookout for a young Meryl Streep in one of her first film roles as Hellman’s catty friend Anne Marie.



An Education (2009)

This week’s REEL 13 indie is An Education, a 2009 coming of age comedy-drama adapted by Nick Hornby from a memoir by Lynn Barber, and directed by Lone Scherfig.

It’s 1961 London in the gray suburban world of 16 year-old Jenny Mellor, where it always looks like it’s just about to rain. Portrayed in a charming, breakthrough performance by Carey Mulligan, Jenny doesn’t let the rain get her down, ignoring it as best she can, along with the other dreary aspects of her teenaged life—like the dry literature classes at her all-girls school, tedious student orchestra rehearsals and the relentless pressure to get into Oxford University, especially when expressed in the strident admonitions of her father Jack, played by Alfred Molina.  An only child accustomed to making her own fun, Jenny bides her time by listening to Juliette Gréco records and daydreaming of Paris, convinced there is a big beautiful world out there as she waits for something, anything to happen.

And finally one day, something does: waiting for the bus after orchestra rehearsal—in the rain—an affable 30-something man takes pity on Jenny—or more specifically—her cello, offering to transport it in his trunk as Jenny walks alongside to avoid any suspicion of illicit motives. Jenny quickly decides her music-loving new acquaintance doesn’t pose any danger, and she soon learns he’s a debonair Jewish businessman named David Goldman, played by Peter Sarsgaard. In short order, David manages to charm not only Jenny but her parents, and she soon finds herself out on the town, sampling the adult pleasures of London nightlife that make the bashful romantic overtures of the boys her own age look like, well, child’s play.

This is the sort of worldly education that Jenny craves, and she quickly feels at home with David’s glamorous companions Danny and Helen, played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. But how long will Jenny’s parents allow her crash course in David’s “university of the world” to continue?

Coming of age stories seem to hold eternal appeal for movie audiences, but in recent years it’s been energizing to finally start seeing these kinds of stories from different points of view other than straight white men, as we’ve seen just recently with recent indie hits like Moonlight, Ladybird, and Call Me by Your Name. As the first wave of Baby Boomers after World War II, Jenny’s generation was at the very forefront of the cultural revolution that was to become the 1960s. In just a couple of years, Beatlemania would sweep over England and America, and much of the world would permanently leave behind the often suffocating social mores of the 1950s. It’s a period that’s been extensively captured on film, in works ranging from A Hard Day’s Night to the remarkable run of British “kitchen sink” dramas whose importance for the cinema of the Sixties becomes clearer every year.

An Education wonderfully captures that anticipatory sense of change that was in the air not just for Jenny, but pretty much everyone in the UK. Screenwriter Nick Hornby wrote his screenplay based on Lynn Barber’s essay in Granta magazine, with Barber’s full length memoir not published until after the film’s initial US release. The film was honored with three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress for Carey Mulligan, vaulting Mulligan into the front ranks of contemporary young actresses.

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