Julia,one of seven reminiscences in Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento, is only 38 pages long in paperback yet it’s spanning and emotional; you feel as if you’re reading a guarded confession. The economically dramatic repentance isn’t centered only on the dangerous travails of anti-Fascist activist Julia, Hellman’s beloved friend since childhood, it’s also a crafty apology about Hellman’s inability to prevent what happened—Julia’s demise at the hands of the Nazis. Because she couldn’t tranquilize her pain, the story took decades to finally appear in print. The memoir became so widely praised there just had to be a movie, and who more esteemed than Fred Zinnemann as sucker? The catch, of course, is this: nothing about the relationship between Hellman and Julia as published is true; she was told the intrepid story of Muriel Gardiner by the lawyer who had both women as clients. The two women never met, and Gardiner, the model for Julia, died in 1985, eight months after Hellman’s death brought on by years of hard drinking, chain smoking and the mounting stress over her libel lawsuit against Mary McCarthy who, during an appearance on Dick Cavett’s show, claimed everything Hellman wrote was a lie. While there were dissenting voices other than McCarthy about Hellman’s “memories,” there were equal fronts protecting her by silencing their suspicions, as few wanted to call out a famous author as a puzzling if not pathological liar. The issue isn’t whether writers have prerogatives to alter stories, but, in exercising them, the cardinal rule is to do it without the label of unvarnished truth attached. To disinterested observers, she might have lifted Gardiner’s real heroics to expand the tale of the victim briefly written about at the conclusion of chapter seven in An Unfinished Woman. However, her vociferous insistence minus any proof Julia as longtime friend existed while at the same time publicly, and legally, inveighing against those who were eventually proved right to doubt her would be one literati atrocity too many. (She had previously earned enmity over the loose veracity in Scoundrel Time and for trying to squelch criticism of her in a book by Diana Trilling.) Ironically, it would be the success of Zinnemann’s 1977 Julia, and in it the allowing of planted gossip her friendship with Julia was the basis for The Childrens Hour, that ensured her slow and painful undoing; her warning of the perils of lies run amuck came back to do her in. Because Alvin Sargent’s script couldn’t answer questions popping up—see Commentary—the crucifiers armed themselves with fresh allegations, all of which swelled beyond the ability of the author to control them, other than to protest too much and implore us to understand she was protecting the privacy of Julia’s family, fearful they might sue, fearful any remaining Nazis sleeper cells might wish to do them harm, even though her Julia had been deceased since 1938. If lovers of theatre do not doubt her gift as a dramatist—rich with skills in plot construction and dialogue and the dare to show Americans as connivers and destroyers (and even at low ebb, as in Toys in the Attic, she’s at the least entertaining)—most clearly she was not a consistently nonprevaricating chronicler of her crusader-idealist life. Like other celebrated American playwrights, she was her own worst melodrama; she could pointedly dramatized our ills for two hours while foisting a resentful seriousness on us off stage for the remaining 22. Maybe it’s partly why she smoked so incessantly—she had to puff away the ever-present anger she never fully came to terms with. If lying became an obsessive shield, searing self-examination, as opposed to image renovation, was unthinkable. In the moving memoir She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron, author Richard Cohen is very succinct on Hellman’s self-immolation: “A metastasizing ugliness.”

Can Hellman’s fabrications be divorced from a big movie directed by one of moviedom’s most respected helmsmen and starring Jane Fonda who brings stature to the author? Ignorance of facts will likely swing open receptiveness—some of Julia is moving, some of Douglas Slocombe’s images are like meals for the eyes, and at times the acting and Zinnemann’s tempered class qualify for Academy Award consideration. (Nominated for eleven, the film won three, including best supporting performances by Jason Robards as Dash Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave as barmy Santa Julia and, most embarrassing, Sargent for best adapted screenplay.) Knowing the facts, the movie’s gaps become evidence of fraud; Hellman’s limited involvement in the making of the film didn’t provide the bridges connecting the fantasy flashback sequences to the realities of her private and political lives. Sargent’s efforts to fortify the shaky foundation must have been torturous. (Perhaps not unlike The New Yorker checkers trying to fact-check Pauline Kael’s wobbly thesis of Herman J. Mankiewicz and not Orson Welles as the driving force behind Citizen Kane in the Chatty Cathy Raising Kane. Similar to Hellman’s phantom aesthetics governing factuality vs. fiction, Kael not only knew she wouldn’t have to interview Mankiewicz—he died in 1953—she also avoided interviewing Welles, who was among the living when her essay was published in 1971. And just as Hellman stole a stranger’s life for personal and public gain, Kael never mentioned the fact much of her research for her Kane piece was done by an uncredited source.) Zinnemann’s master polish can’t glide over the hurdles of seismic emptiness, either—he’s too much of a gentleman to have asked Hellman to fess up—so he instead tries to give her a softened raison d’être she appeared to need. And yet he doesn’t bridle Fonda’s punchy glimpses into Hellman’s unexplained hostility, other than as rage against fashionable injustices. Even when they’re false: Hellman never publicly slapped anyone for intimating she had a sexual relationship with a woman. There is, though, one scene of Fonda throwing a typewriter out a window Hellman emphatically said never happened and other writers believe it: only envious lovers of writers do that sort of thing. Nor does the director avoid measured sentimentality: who knows if Hellman ever cried—except in the boozed dark over Dash’s deteriorating health and death—but Fonda’s power as actress can make welling convincing. Before the ruse was uncovered, Fonda’s scenes to meet Julia in Europe, the secretive efforts to smuggle cash, and then later Julia’s victimization and its aftermath, weren’t heavy with conviction—they didn’t feel right, they’re rather like Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain. Now we know Zinnemann was pouring on the serious élan to make the terra incognita look less empty. Something else doesn’t fully work for Fonda—the smoking: she’s inhaling with furious cautiousness, yet if you watch any clips of Hellman lip-locked on a fag, you know Jane’s a long way from getting the habit to look right. (Judy Davis’s carcinogenics are considerably more spot-on in Kathy Bates’s Dash & Lilly.) Hellman’s use of pentimento to excuse her fraudulent brushstrokes—and heard via Fonda’s narration at the start of the picture—engenders within us the impression her subterfuge isn’t really about Julia, it may be about the deep regret in not achieving anything close to the kind of idealized friendship, exempting hers with Dorothy Parker (who is treated frivolously here). She’d come to regret even more these eight unnecessary words: “I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia.”

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2009 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 10/2017)  All Rights Reserved.