Tag Archives: Vanessa Redgrave

A tissue of lies can still be suspenseful: Julia 1977

[Rating:3.5/5]

Pros: suspenseful part

Cons: disingenuousness

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In 1977, when distinguished film director Fred Zinnemann (born Jewish in the Hapsburg Empire, educated in Vienna, working in Berlin before Hitler came to power) directed “Julia,” a melodrama celebrating Lillian Hellman carrying money hidden in her hat to Nazi Berlin to her childhood friend and ca. 1934 part of the resistance to Hitler inside Germany. “Julia,” the story was presented (and widely) taken as nonfiction. Hellman’s disingenuous self-glorification (in the 1976 Scoundrel Time) for standing up to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952 (in a way that Arthur Miller had, but she had not). Her 1973 memoir in which the yarn appeared, Pentimento, had not been publicly challenged.

On a Dick Cavett Show appearance in 1979, Mary McCarthy said of Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Although obviously hyperbolic, McCarthy and Cavett and the PBS station where the broadcast was recorded were sued for defamation. That Hellman had significantly misrepresented her HUAC appearance and had never even met the model for Julia (Muriel Gardiner) came out, though the case was not dismissed because the judge did not think Hellman was a public figure after decades of public stances, four purported memoirs, and had appeared in a Blackglama fur advertising campaign with the tagline “What becomes a Legend most?” and no (need for) identification of the model (poseur). Considerable doubt was cast on the veracity of Hellman’s account of her relationship with Dashiell Hammett (author of  “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man”), too.

In 1984, Samuel McCracken reported “that the funeral home in London where Hellman said Julia’s body was sent to did not exist, there was no record that Hellman had sailed to England to claim Julia’s body on the ship she said she had made the transatlantic crossing on, and there was no evidence that Julia had lived or died. Furthermore, McCracken found it highly unlikely, as did Gardiner, who had worked with the anti-fascist underground, that so many people would have been used to help Hellman get money to Julia, or that money would be couriered in the way that Hellman said it did.”

Seeing the movie again knowing that insofar as the story has any connection to historical realities, they are purloined from Gardiner (whose memoir had been in the hands of Wolf Schwabacher, who was also Hellman’s lawyer) detracts from being swept up in admiration for the heroism of Julia, and the reflected glory of Lillian’s expedition, but the journey to Nazi Berlin is, with “Day of the Jackal” (1973) and, indeed, “A Man for All Seasons” (1966), an example of Fred Zinnemann’s ability to generate suspense in viewers who know the outcome is. Dick Sargent won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and Walter Murch was nominated for his editing.

I find the adolescence flashbacks to Lillian’s admiration of Julia harder to swallow than the suspense movie. They are mawkish and also involve inflation, in this instance making Lillian’s bosom best buddy an English aristocrat, though Hellman grew up in America (New Orleans and New York City). To paraphrase McCarthy, there is much false in every aspect of Helmman’s portrait of “Julia.”

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The young Julia and young Lillian were played partly by Vanessa Redgrave and Jane Fonda (respectively), partly by Lisa Pelikan and Susan Jones. Redgrave won her best supporting actress Oscar primarily for the Berlin restaurant scene in which she receives the money and asks Lillian to care for her infant daughter if something happens to Julia. (The daughter, of course, is another Hellman fantasy, along with the death of the Anglophone in Berlin resistance figure.)

There was a campaign against awarding an Oscar to Redgrave because of her support for a Palestinian state. I think that Redgrave should have won an Oscar later for her performance in “Howard’s End,” but question her win for “Julia” for reasons other than her politics. The competition, however, was not intense; Jason Robards’ Dashiell Hammett won in a stronger field (including Maximilian Schell in “Julia”) for best supporting actor. (Sargent also had weak competition.)

The 40-year-old Fonda and Redgrave (both were born in 1937) playing scenes as a youth in their early 20s requires willful suspension of disbelief. But I also find Fonda as a frustrated writer difficult to believe (though throwing her typewriter out the window is something I remembered form seeing the movie on its original release). Moreover, Fonda was far too beautiful to be credible as Hellman of any age. (As Annie Hall, Diane Keaton won the best actress Oscar for which Fonda was nominated.)

I think that “Julia” was/is overrated, though Zinnemann’s mastery is underrated. (He only made one more film after “Julia,” “Five Days One Summer” (1982), which I have not seen.) BTW, it was a question about overrated writers that stimulated Mary McCarthy’s slam of Hellman. IMHO, the problems with “Julia” are in the source material, which was not known in 1977 and might not have been  known late had Hellmann not sued.

Zinnemann’s previous movie, “Day of the Jackal” was based on a novel based on a real assassination plot and is great fun.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Virginia Woolf (2) 1997 movie adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf’s first great novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925) with its multiple streams of consciousness would seem a canonical modernist work ill-suited for adaptation to the screen. However, the highly disjunctive text proceeds in ways very similar to the montage of jump-cuts championed by Soviet film directors. (I have no idea what, if any cinema Woolf was familiar with.

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Although the novel has very little plot, the cinematic jump-cuts of the text work even better on screen than on the page. Credit for this can be shared between the 1997 film’s editor Michiel Reichwein, director Marleen Gorris (Antonia’s Line, The Luzhin Defence) and award-winning actress and co-creator of “Upstairs/Downstairs” (Dame) Eileen Atkins. The director, scenarist, and star (Vanessa Redgrave in the title role) also manage to transport from page to screen the interior monologue of Clarissa Dalloway. Those three and two companions of Clarissa’s youth who unexpectedly turn up the day of the party she is showing, Peter Walsh who never got over having his heart broken by Clarissa’s choosing the safety of marriage to Richard Dalloway, and Lady Rosseter, with whom (as Sally Selton) the young Clarissa was more in love than she was with her intimate friend Peter or the man whom she would marry. The actors portraying the worn-down, older Peter (Michael Kitchen, Doyle of “Doyle’s War” and the king of “To Play the King”) and even more transformed former Sally Selton (Sarah Badel) and still-vague older Clarissa (Redgrave) make the transformations from their golden (OK, verdant) last summer of youth very, very visible. Sally, transformed into Lady Rosseter and the mother of five strapping sons, is the only one who seems content with the changes from the yearning, hoping youths to the elderly observers of life.

The more passionate young incarnations (Natascha McElhone as Clarissa, Lena Headey as Sally, Alan Cox as Peter) are different characters as the camera shows them maneuvering—and being outmaneuvered by the already stolid Richard Dalloway (the young one played by Robert Portal, the long-married Member of Parliament who is never going to make it into the Cabinet, by John Standing). There are continuities of temperament from the young to the old incarnations, but the physical differences are more striking on the screen than on the page.

What is lost in adapting the novel for the screen is the subjectivity (streams of consciousness) of the characters other than Mrs. Dalloway. Peter and Lady Rossiter, Peter and Clarissa, Clarissa by herself, and even Richard Dalloway recollect the summer that ended with Clarissa’s accepting Richard’s marriage proposal, but with screen flashbacks (and the objectivity of the camera), they all seem to be remembering everything as it was, not selectively and subjectively distorted as the book’s character’s memories (flashbacks). That is, they all seem to have direct access to unmediated, uninterpreted events of that summer. The reader of the book knows which character is recalling what. The viewer of the movie cannot easily guess whose memory is being displayed on screen.

The exception, the most searing flashbacks and hallucinations of events being repeated, is a character whom first Mrs. Dalloway and then Peter glimpse on the day of her party, but do not know (though the party will be marred for Mrs. Dalloway by hearing about), Septimus Warren Smith (played by Rupert Graves, who has frequently appeared in films of that era, including “Maurice,” “A Room with a View,” and “A Handful of Dust”). Septimus is haunted by memories of a friend being blown up during the last days of the First World War (five years before the narrative’s present day). That scene is the very first one in the movie. Septimus is suffering what was then called “delayed shellshock” and now would be labeled acute “post-traumatic stress” mixed with acute survivor’s guilt. His subjectivity is not conveyed by voice-overs as Mrs. Dalloway’s is, but the viewer sees the hallucinations he does, and his thoughts about not being able to feel are expressed aloud in the movie.

I think that the book is less about the title character than about surviving (Mrs. Dalloway) and not surviving (Septimus) guilt about the past and the depressive lows of manic-depressive mental illness. By starting with the most traumatic of Septimus’s war-time experiences, the movie seems to be headed for making Septimus as central as Clarissa, but I’d say that the movie is more about regret. (Peter’s, Clarissa’s, Septimus’s, and to some extent Septimus’s Italian wife, milliner Rezia (played with foreboding and helplessness by Amelia Bullmore).

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Vanessa Redgrave’s Mrs. Dalloway starts out positively giddy. I thought the title character of the book was fighting off an undertow of depression not unlike her creator. The movie introduces a manic phase, too, with the euphoria about the beautiful day as Mrs. Dalloway strides out to buy flowers. She is not manic during the party, though what she is feeling is quite different from what she is saying as an attentive hostess. After she hears about the shellshocked soldier, she sinks into a depression, but, unlike Septimus, survives it. During the day before the part, Septimus has both manic and depressive episodes (that is, very rapid oscillation).

Many screen adaptations of canonized novels illustrate them prettily. The adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway transports everything of importance about the characters, the events and memories of the day of the Dalloway part, and the party itself to the screen. To an unusual extent (contrast the mess of the screen transfer of another novel with multiple streams of consciousness, The Sound and Fury to the screen), the spirit of the book made it across the change in medium. For all the excellent acting, costume and set decoration, photography (Sue Gibson), etc., “Mrs. Dalloway” is more a worthy movie than great cinema. But because it is a very cinematic adaptation that I can find no fault with, I give it a five-star rating. I do not think it is a great movie, but it is a superlative recreation of a great novel, that in some ways improves on the novel (by making the changes in the late-middle-age characters from their youthful avatars painfully palpable). It also does not contain any extraneous material, which I would not (in fact did not) say about the novel.

I still have to pronounce the book better, because the book has multiple subjectivities, and, because Vanessa Redgrave is so incandescent (even without monopolizing the interior monologues) that it is difficult for others to register with viewers (in the film’s present day; Natascha McElhone’s junior Clarissa stands out, too, but the other youth have a better chance to register on the viewer, since all are being shown and the viewer is not privy to what they are thinking beyond reading their looks). The star throwing the balance of an adapted off kilter is common. Redgrave does it without monopolizing screen time or upstaging anyone.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray