Julia, 1977 – Meryl’s First (but not so great) Movie
What is it about this movie that warranted critical acclaim? Why was it nominated for 11 Academy Awards? What Am I Missing? Maybe I am simply spoiled by the fact that actors have vastly improved their craft since the late 70’s. Whatever the reason, I would not trouble yourself to watch this movie other than to assuage your curiosity about Meryl’s first movie. Her part in it is very small and so hectically shot that it’s difficult to tell much of anything about her acting skill at that time other than she’s great at accents.
Below is a Movie Synopsis which outlines the general story line:
The film traces the lifelong relationship between playwright Lillian Hellman and Julia, a wealthy girl who turns her back on her upbringing to follow her ideals. In the 1930s, while the adult Hellman (Jane Fonda) struggles to establish herself as a playwright with the help of her lover, Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards), Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) battles the exigencies of the Nazi regime. Visiting Julia in Germany, Lillian realizes how much her friend’s idealism has cost her, both physically and financially. Lillian is asked by Julia’s friend Johann (Maximilian Schell) to smuggle a large sum of money from Paris to Germany, the better to combat the Nazis from within. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and four acting awards, Julia won for Alvin Sargent’s screenplay and Robards’ and Redgrave’s performances, leading to Redgrave’s infamous “Zionist hoodlums” acceptance speech. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
The first sentence in the synopsis happens to be the first sticking point that troubled me about the movie – just what was the relationship between Lillian & Julia? Are they school chums? Distant cousins? What? It is never clearly defined in the movie. They share a meal at the palatial home of Julia’s aloof, elderly, filthy rich grandparents who do not acknowledge Lillian. One is left to assume who they are to each other. I hate that.
The movie begins with Lillian (Jane Fonda) struggling to write a play, throwing tantrums about not making any progress on it and generally being a pain in the ass to her patient, but apathetic lover who is played by Jason Robards. His is the only performance in the movie that feels genuine, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Robards who I thought gave a wonderful performance as Max Dugan and whose 40 years in the movie industry speaks volumes about his popularity and cinematic dexterity. Fonda on the other hand just comes across as loud, whiney and demanding. It is impossible to care about her writer’s block.
From there one is plunged into a series of past/present sequences which is supposed to illustrate the development of the friendship between the two girls as they mature but this too falls very flat. It’s more of a skeleton of how a relationship grows rather than defining moments or commonality which would normally draw two people together as friends. Finally they reach adulthood with Lillian pursuing a career in writing and Julia becoming an activist against the nazi movement. Lillian winds up trying to help Julia after she and her fellow activists are brutally beaten by Nazis – the hospital scene is awkward at best with Julia trying to communicate wordlessly (4 syllables…, sounds like…) to Lillian. Then poof, Julia is gone. Back to Lillian’s successful playwright career where she is honored for her play – flash to our blossoming star Meryl (finally!!!) whose roll seems to be that of a social climber who wants Lillian’s attention and is miffed when she is snubbed, then later (gasp!) actual audible dialogue where Meryl’s character is speaking in a denigrating manner about Julia’s life choices. A lot of the dialogue in this movie is very hectic, almost frenetic, for which I blame the director. I wonder how much of that was influenced by the cocaine saturation of that period in our history? Whatever the reason, there was much hyperventilating and eye darting and very little acting in this movie.
The remainder of the movie was pretty awful with an unbearably implausible money smuggling scene which was drawn out foreeeevvvvveeeerrrrr and based on the importance of props over performance. Julia’s people get their money. The girlhood friends get to see each other, then Bam! Julia’s dead. But Oh! Julia had a child! Lillian has to run around fruitlessly trying to locate the child but to no avail. Finally she returns to her lover Dashiell who comforts her and tells her to give up the search. The end. Roll credits.
What? That’s it? I understand open endings, but usually there is a solid story base before one is left to draw one’s own conclusions about the possible outcome. I’ve joked in the past that everybody in the movie dies at the end, but had no idea that anyone actually used that as the basis to end the movie.
Final analysis: Weak story, bad acting, really bad make-up & perms, interesting to see Meryl in her very small role.
Thankfully the film industry has come a long way in producing some wonderful drama and Meryl Streep has been a huge part of that movement.