The Strange Backstory Behind This Lauded 1977 Holocaust Film

"Julia," adapted from Jewish author Lillian Hellmann's memoir of sorts, is about two friends raising money to fight against the Nazis. But what's the real story?

Do you know who Lillian Hellman was? Jewish American playwright, memoirist and public intellectual? “The Children’s Hour”? “The Little Foxes”? Blacklisted by McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)? Still no? 

A lot of people don’t. Or, maybe the name is familiar but they can’t quite place it. In a life full of work, opinions, socializing and controversy, it was her last decade that sealed Hellman’s legacy and for all the wrong reasons. 

In 1973, a couple decades after the height of her literary career and blacklisting, Lillian Hellman released her second book of memoir-ish recollections, entitled “Pentimento.” Four years later, a section from “Pentimento” was adapted into the film “Julia,” about two friends raising money to fight against the Nazis. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and netted three as well as serving as the on-screen debut of one Mary-Louise, known to friends as Meryl Streep.

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard about this movie. I can’t tell you why it’s unavailable for streaming, or why I had to go through an interlibrary loan just to rewatch it this summer. But I can tell you why it’s worth your time. It’s a showcase for two all-star, Oscar-winning actresses whose lives, just like those of the characters they played, have been studded with privilege, tragedy and controversy.  

In the film, Hellman is played by the wonderful but comically un-Jewish Jane Fonda who dominates the majority of screen time. One of its two narrative paths offers an unstinting look at the frustrations of a writer’s life, her anxieties and self-doubt, as well as her relationship with famed fellow author Dashiel Hammett, played by Jason Robards, who took home his second consecutive Best Supporting Actor Oscar as a result. 

The other and, frankly more important, path walks the viewer through Hellman’s relationship with the mononymic Julia, played by the luminous and scarily alive Vanessa Redgrave, who took home her first Oscar for the electric handful of minutes she’s actually on screen. 

The movie opens and closes with Fonda narrating from a small fishing boat tethered to a dock, reminiscent of a kharote-tinged Fredo. We see young Lillian and Julia as the dearest and most genuine friends. They navigate girlhood, adolescence and have a tearful separation when Julia leaves America for Oxford. After Oxford, Julia becomes a medical student, studies with Freud and becomes politically awakened. This is due largely to the introduction of the cancer that would go on to decimate Europe and re-shape the world: Nazism. 

After Nazis attack Julia’s school and she is injured, Lillian rushes to Vienna to try and care for her friend. Curiously, the Jewish Hellman doesn’t seem especially aware or overly concerned about what this could presage. Even after Julia is moved to a different hospital for treatment and first denies, to Lillian’s face, that she was ever there, there are zero red flags. Lillian stays in Europe for a while but despite her best efforts, never finds her friend. 

Time, as it often does, intervenes. Letters go unanswered or don’t arrive as intended. When Julia and Lillian cross paths again, Lillian is no longer the young playwright but the laureled Broadway playwright bound for a literature conference in Russia at the height of the Nazi era. Julia, expecting the ties that run deep to supplant common sense, implores Lillian to go through Berlin while meeting varied compatriots along the way to smuggle money in for anti-Nazi causes. Even though she is a famous Jewish woman by this point, aside from moments of understandable tension, Lillian doesn’t seem overly phased by this clandestine and life-threatening trajectory. Nor does Julia consider it too much of an ask.

Towards the conclusion of the film, and this isn’t a spoiler, Julia and Lillian have a chance to briefly connect and understand each other before tragedy inevitably strikes. Though friends over a lifetime, it’s as if they are only truly seeing each other for the first time. 

Two years after the film and its acclaim, Mary McCarthy, a long-time and not so low-key enemy of Hellman’s, was on “The Dick Cavett Show.” McCarthy was supposed to speak to underrated authors of the time but instead chose to weigh in on those she deemed overrated, one specifically. “Every word [Hellman] wrote was a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Oof. Hellman sued McCarthy, Cavett and PBS for the then astronomical sum of $2.5 million, once again being dogged by another McCarthy in a public forum. The lawsuit would carry on until Hellman’s death in 1984, foiling attempts to mediate by Norman Mailer and serving as conversational garnish for many a cocktail party.

But, what if McCarthy was right? Though a touching story that raises interesting questions about womanhood, Judaism and creativity, was the chapter of “Pentimento and the subsequent film adaptation bullshit? Did Lillian Hellman lie about her clandestine mission to smuggle money through Nazi Europe? Was she the ur-James Frey? 

Yeah, probably. 

It’s become all but certain that “Julia” was in fact based on Muriel Gardiner, a New York City psychiatrist. Gardiner felt so strongly that she entered the fray and claimed to be the inspiration for Julia, having never met Hellman but given that she was dear friends with Hellman’s lawyer. Biographies written about Hellman after her death seem to confirm that much of her non-fiction writing would have been better classified as fiction.

All of which brings us back to the movie. Is it good? Yes. But great? No. Does it raise interesting questions? Both intentionally and unintentionally. Is it a feat of acting? According to the Academy. Does it matter less because it’s almost certainly not true? You’ll have to watch it and answer that one for yourself.

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Late Take is a series on Hey Alma where we revisit Jewish pop culture of the past for no reason, other than the fact that we can’t stop thinking about it?? If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail  with “Late Take” in the subject line.

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