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EIGHT LITTLE WORDS

 
Julia,one of seven reminiscences in Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento, is only 38 pages long in paperback yet it’s sweeping and emotional; you feel as if you’re reading an unleashed but still cautious if repressed 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 craftily centered 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 that there just had to be a movie, and who more prestigious than Fred Zinnemann as sucker? The catch, of course, is that 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 the real 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. While there were dissenting voices other than McCarthy about Hellman’s memories of her past, there were equal fronts protecting her by silencing their suspicions, mainly because no one really wanted to call out a famous author as a puzzling, if not pathological liar. It isn’t that writers don’t have prerogatives to alter stories, to embellish or refrain but, if exercising them, the cardinal rule is to do it without the label of unvarnished truth attached. Her piece “Theatre,” for example, rings true for the most part—bits about Tallulah Bankhead’s cocaine-laced screamfests and flippant behavior, the author’s second thoughts about the inadequacies of The Little Foxes—until she slips in that little supper with FDR during which she conveniently denied communist affiliation. To disinterested observers, she might have lifted Gardiner’s 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 that Julia existed while at the same time publicly, and legally, inveighing against those who were eventually proved right to doubt her would be two literati atrocities 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 was the success of Zinnemann’s Julia and in it the allowing of planted gossip that 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 that pop up—that is, the missing details in “Julia” became black holes in the movie—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 that she was protecting the woman who lived underground, even though her Julia had been vanquished for decades and no longer needed cover from Nazi sleeper cells. 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 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 that’s 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. All that said, can her 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 the facts will likely swing open receptiveness—some of Julia is moving, some of Douglas Slocombe’s images are like meals for the eyes, and the principal acting and Zinnemann’s tempered class are worthy of Academy Award Consideration. (Nominated for eleven, the film won three, including best supporting actress for Vanessa Redgrave as barmy Santa Julia.) But 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 that Herman J. Mankiewicz and not Orson Welles was 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 that much of her research for her Kane piece was done by an uncredited source.) Zinnemann’s master polish can’t jump 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 softening she appeared to need, a raison ętre. But he does’t bridle Fonda’s punchy glimpses of Hellman’s unexplained hostility which apparently was a rage against fashionable injustices. There is, though, one scene of Fonda throwing a typewriter out a window that Hellman said never happened and other writers believe it: only jealous lovers of writers do that kind 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—but Fonda’s power as actress can make welling convincing. What doesn’t fully work for Fonda is the smoking: she’s inhaling with furious cautiousness, yet if you watch any clips of Hellman lip-locked on a fag, you know that 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.) Obviously Hellman’s canvas hasn’t achieved pentimento, as suggested in her foreword and heard via Fonda’s narration at the start of the picture; the only original brushstroke to discover is subterfuge. This explains why the movie isn’t about “Julia,” it’s most likely about Hellman’s deep regret in not achieving anything close to the kind of friendship, exempting hers with Dorothy Parker (who is treated frivolously here), that she long desired. She’d come to regret even more these eight little words: “I trust absolutely what I remember about Julia.” In the moving memoir She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron, author Richard Cohen is very succinct on lying Hellman: “A metastasizing ugliness.”

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2009 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 12/2016)  All Rights Reserved.