13. Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman in "Julia" (1977)
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
When Jane Fonda gave birth to her first child, she decided to name her after Vanessa Redgrave – an actress who, like Fonda, would come to be known as much for her fiery political leftism as for her acting. It's interesting, then, that these two political forces would eventually be united in a mildly politically-charged film with Fred Zinneman’s “Julia”, a shameless, lowbrow confusion piece for nearly all involved. It’s based on a story from Lillian Hellman’s “Pentimento”, and the real-life authenticity of Hellman’s account is often disputed – Julia, it seems, may have just been a figment of her imagination, a pure writerly creation. Whatever the case, she may as well be right out a fairytale here in the hands of Vanessa Redgrave, who seems to have a sort of natural regality about her in whatever she’s in, and Fonda, as Hellman herself, tackles this role with a carefully-measured, alert emotional abandon; she slips between reverence, naïveté, fear, frustration, and, finally, newfound strength with relative ease, giving the kind of performance that’s not only an indelibly rich characterization but a glorious display of an actress showing us just how much control she has over her own craft.
Hellman’s character trajectory in this film isn’t too disparate from Fonda’s own real-life politicization – Hellman, always gripping firmly to her childlike veneration for Julia, revolutionizes from a naively candid girl in search of inspiration to an ardent political activist with a strong set of moral convictions. Fonda, of course, began her much-touted political activism during her Vadim days, shedding so successfully her All-American, sex-kitten image for that of a hard-edged, stalwartly passionate liberal. This sort of role didn’t work too well for Fonda in other performances – she was superb in the second half of “Coming Home” but ghostly and self-important in the first, while her satirical parody of the Brenda Starr-esque newscaster in “The China Syndrome” was downright condescending – but, here, it works, and that’s perhaps in part to the respect with which Fonda treated Redgrave in real life; the look in Fonda’s eyes in these early scenes is that of one political activist bowing down to another with fangirlish worship. Redgrave is almost gallant in her luminosity, particularly in this role, and Fonda seems a dwarf next to her in some scenes – but it's okay, because she’s supposed to appear that way.
What’s wondrous, though, is that Fonda hasn’t lost that sardonic, biting snap that made her so indelible a screen presence in “Klute” and “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”. She’s playing Lillian Hellman, after all – a woman who was well-known indeed for her dry-hard edges – and so Fonda isn’t required to coddle with the vapidity of the pre-radicalization Sally Hyde or the Barbiedoll listlessness of Kimberly Wells (a performance that, though similarly in-tune with the quickness of Fonda’s greatest turns, still has the feeling of being horribly manufactured). Instead, her voice, deep with grit, evokes the impression of a great, strong, idealistic woman. Underneath this, though, we realize such idealism always has a root, a source of inspiration, and there’s an undercurrent of Hellman’s admiration for Julia that runs through Fonda’s calculations at every point in time, giving her Hellman the feeling of fully-realized emotional truth. When she follows what Julia asks of her, we believe that she’s really doing it, and that’s because Fonda shows us what it’s like when someone is so recklessly blinded by this kind of borderline madness – when Julia is being treated unfairly, Hellman’s angry, as if she’s taken on some of Julia’s idealistic traits and magnified them for herself, and she isn’t stopping. Fonda bursts through each scene with meek aplomb, never feeling as pompously conceited as an actress of her ideals could’ve been but always embodying the exact tone of Hellman’s story – it’s dry wit combined with deferential awe, and, when the two are mixed together, she borders on obsessive self-invention.
And it’s this exact layer of infatuated make-believe in Hellman’s own life that gives Fonda’s creation an even greater, complex inner life – how far beyond childlike adoration does Hellman’s love for Julia go? The screenwriters, in their inoffensive and tenuous grip over this material, don’t try to answer that, but Fonda at least gives us some suggestions – it’s as if Julia is the personification of Hellman’s fantasies, sexual or otherwise, and Fonda plays Hellman as if she’s living in this exact dreamworld she wrote of. There’s a muted sexual tension in some of Fonda’s gestures – see how she latches to Julia’s hands and measures them up against her own when visiting her in the hospital – that hints at an adoration that stretches beyond the platonic, clouding the film with a sort of mystery that somehow seems so right for its lavishly smoky period sets and Fonda’s endless cigarette huff-puffing. Fonda doesn’t have the nubile feeling of an actress who’s discovering new parts of herself that she had in “Klute”, but she’s still terribly thrilling to watch here in “Julia”; she’s intensely aware of all her actions as a performer but never too studied, never too mechanized to ring inhumane. A few scenes of Hellman’s writerly frustrations could’ve been downright ghastly in the hands of another less snappy and inherently vindictive actress, but, with Fonda, these frustrations become startlingly real, reminders of the cynicism of Bree Daniels and Gloria Beatty. The too-oft-discussed restaurant scene is usually regarded as a showcase for Redgrave’s storybook brilliance, too, but where she’s merely playing an abstraction, Hellman’s fantasy of liberalism personified, Fonda’s playing a real character – the deep-seated capacity of Hellman’s love for Julia is displayed so splendidly by Fonda’s slight, twitched smiles and hushed, muted gestures; she’s superb.
But it’s in these last few scenes where Fonda reaches dizzying, plumbing magnificence that’s filled with pulsating and lovesick truth – crying out as she holds Julia’s ashes in her feeble hands, Fonda, through the slightest of vocal inflections, has the ability to tinge this toughened, sturdily resilient woman’s plea with a palpably honest layer of infantile earnestness. She carries us with her right down to the film’s decrescendo, where Fonda’s deeply nostalgic narration cloaks the final frame; she may as well be narrating a children’s book – Hellman’s fairytale. But where Hellman’s original story was disconcerting in its blatant factual ambiguity, Fonda doesn’t leave us any room to question the yarn – the restless anger with which Hellman tackles avenging Julia’s death is something we believe, and that’s because the heroic anger burning in Fonda’s eyes has an astonishing realness. After all, Fonda was, in this period, more complacently committed to her liberal causes than ever, a real political firebrand; her film roles were merely a rehash of her own transformation from Bardotesque sex-kitten to socially-conscious, newly-awakened crusader. She’s frustratingly restrained in the early scenes in “Coming Home”, but the difference is that Hellman’s hard-edged and outspoken from the beginning, naïve only in comparison to Julia, so Fonda doesn’t have this problem of really connecting to her pre-activism days; she’s wholly believable as a convertee to radicalization because there’s still something so cynically no-nonsense and purely Fonda about her.
It’s startling to see an actress so literally at the top of her game – this performance isn’t talked about in the same breath as Fonda’s creations of Bree Daniels or Gloria Beatty, but it should be. This is a real movie star performance if there ever was one – for starters, Jane’s at her most supremely, exquisitely beautiful in this film. She wears marks of Hellman’s stress, exasperation, and struggle through the slightest wrinkles on her face, but, otherwise, she evokes the feeling of a true screen legend, if only through the careful structure of her bones, the elegant study of her postures, the tow of her watchful gaze. But there’s an incredible emotional richness to her creation here that stretches beyond this initial draw; when her Hellman, awestruck that people would think so highly of her, enters a room full of people applauding just for her, it’s as if we’re seeing Fonda revert to that little actress who finally saw herself being taken seriously – and it’s impossible not to want to clap for her, too.