Fabulist Lillian Hellman

Julia (1977). Directed by Fred Zinneman. With Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jason Robards. Pictured (l to r): Redgrave and Fonda

In attempts to find the earliest Meryl Streep film, Fred Zinneman’s Julia (1977) came into consideration.  In fact, Zinneman (directed masterpieces including From Here to Eternity, A Man For All Seasons, and High Noon) intended Streep to play Julia, but with no prior cinema credits, opted for Vanessa Redgrave (Blow-Up, A Man for All Seasons, Atonement) of dynastic acting family whose birth was announced on stage by dashing and talented Laurence Olivier during a production of Hamlet.  Writer Alvin Sargent (Philly born, developed screenplay for Redford’s classic Ordinary People) tailored Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento (1973) to a film script.  This controversial “memoir” brought attention to the prevarications that laced her career.  Before delving into those details, brief commentary about Julia featuring Jane Fonda as authoress Lillian.

Not one to waste words or employ unnecessary suspense to hold audience’s attention, Zinneman allows the silent, unspoken spaces to enhance an interior struggle as creator.  More significantly, this film hinges upon an eternal friendship between Julia and Lillian spanning from childhood to the end.  Free spirited and politically active, Julia divests her family fortunes to save Jews and outspoken critics of fascism during the turbulent years leading up to World War II.  Mortal danger follows and inflicts itself upon Julia.  Following the success of The Children’s Hour (1934), Lillian travels to Paris with a planned stopby in Vienna before Moscow in hopes to visit Julia.  While in Paris, Julia sends instuctions about changing her midpoint to Berlin as part of a supporting the resistance.  Lillian acquiesces and is rewarded with dining with Julia momentarily where she learns about a baby named Lillian.  At a future date, Julia will arrive in New York City and place the young child in Lillian’s care.  Implications from others to possible lesbianism is suggested, but as with twentieth century, romantic friendships were not fully understood.  Women expressed deep love and emotional outpourings to their female friends which from an outside party resemble love letters.  Historically, these romantic friendships were platonic and demeaned because men feared competition and this private sphere.  “Dash” aka Dashiell Hammett is another person of strength for Lillian.  For 30 years in real life and espoused in the film, Lillian and Dash were romantically linked.  Ending with uncertainty and loss, Zinneman sculpts a visual narrative that is restless and realistic.

Artists devise their origin myths sometimes forgetting where falsity ceases and truth begins.  Hellman throughout her life revised her experiences modifying material from other people without admitting these embellishments.  Muriel Gardiner challenged Hellman’s Pentimento claiming that “Julia” was her.  Hellman and Gardiner both shared lawyer Wolf Schwabacher which meant Gardiner’s memoirs had been under his control as well.  Isolated, this proves nothing, yet the evidence to previous inaccuracies surfaced.  In 1950, Hellman testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee.  She reported that she read a prepared statement of defiance which Canadian American journalist David Frum refuted.  Ire reached a frenzy when Mary McCarthy appeared on The Dick Cavett Show and said:

“every word [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ (1979)

Hellman filed a slander suit in response.  McCarthy had found issue with Hellman’s agreement of Stalin’s “Popular Front” which levied similar hate found in HUAC to those against Communism.  Five years later Hellman passed and permitted will executors to terminate the lawsuit.  For theater junkies, Nora Ephron used this feud for the basis of Imaginary Friends.  Scholars don’t dismiss her writing abilities, but the rampant fabrications taint her gift.

Lillian Hellman. Photo taken in 1947 by Irving Penn.

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