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HMYBS: Close Encounters of the Julia Kind

Best Shot 1977 Party, Finale
Julia Cinematography by: Douglas Slocombe (2nd of 3 nominations)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind Cinematography by: Vilmos Zsigmond (1st of 4 nominations. His only win)

In case you missed our little Cinematography 1977 party we previously looked at the Oscar nominees Looking for Mr Goodbar, The Turning Point, and the little seen Ernest Hemingway inspired drama Islands in the Stream. Now that we're entirely out of time (SUPPORTING ACTRESS SMACKDOWN OF 1977 IS TOMORROW!) here's a quick look at our final two nominated pictures. This time we'll do it in the abbreviated spirit we always intended for the series but could never manage due to longwindedness: a single image and why we claim it as "best".


I can't vouch for how Julia was received at the time of its premiere, though it's hefty Oscar tally (11 nominations and 3 wins) suggests it was quite a prestigious biopic. I do know this though: over the nearly 40 years since its debut, the revelations that much of what Lillian Helman wrote in the supposedly autobiographical story was fantasy rather than memoir has been used to discredit it. I'm here to play contrarian about that.

I don't think, at its core, Julia (at least as told by Fred Zinneman, his actors, and the cinematography) really cares about "truth" or even presents itself as reality. The core narration of the movie kicks off with a discussion of the painterly effect "pentimento," which when translated to the topics of memory and fiction-writing (the movie's chief loves, outside of Julia herself) are not unlike the effects of rough drafts, multiple revisions, and changes of heart. In fact, in a scene reprised multiple times Lillian and Julia (Jane Fonda & Vanessa Redgrave) actually play a memory game together in which they make stuff up and try to repeat it. The shot selected above, one of many of Lillian staring at correspondences involving her friend Julia, is not unlike any number of shots of Lillian looking at her own drafts of plays, except that it is far more theatrical. We're about to ditch all the boring real stuff about Lillian Hellman's life as a famous writer (of fiction, mind you) and move into her "real" memoir adventures. But note the star silhouette and the saturated color when so much of Lillian's life before it had been shot through soft focus beiges. After this shot we're moving into the movie's strongest extended act (involving a dangerous train trip for the Jewish writer through Germany during its Nazi years) and Zinneman and Slocombe suddenly up the color and theatricality. In retrospect they've done this every time we've seen a montage of "danger" or placed us in the middle of early World War II history. The effect is not unlike watching a history play come thrillingly to life in full costume after multiple dull rough drafts on Lillian's discarded pages at her cozy beach house.


I opted not to rethink this film for the "Best Shot" moment lest I become lost in wonder. Five years ago I got the Collector's Edition Blu-Ray of Close Encounters (my second favorite Spielberg film after Raiders of the Lost Ark) and here's a bit of what I wrote then concerning the image from the film's best scene:

To my great astonishment, given decades of familiarity with Spielberg films, the movie is miraculously open ended. It's also open sided and open fronted which is to say that there are dozens of emotional entry points and next to nothing in the way of force-feeding or exposition. You can feel whatever you want to feel about it all the way through without the director telling you how you should be feeling (aside from free-form "wonder" which he expects and earns) or explaining any of those feelings away. In short, were his filmography a bookshelf, this would a lonely inkblot nestled between dozens of how-to instructional textbooks. 

The movie begins with a hilariously wrong "present day" tag considering that it's a goldmine of 1970s history from the clothes to the hairdos to the way people use to actually look at three dimensional globes when considering travel or world events (I miss those!) and how breakthroughs in personal knowledge were once the result of painstaking research or happenstance rather than Google searches. My favorite scene bar none is this long unbroken shot pictured  (nearly two minutes!) when you're all but begging Richard Dreyfuss to glance towards his television and realize what the image he's obsessed with actually means; there's no way for him to know otherwise.

In the end though the Academy's shortlist wasn't entirely satisfying, the Academy did choose a totally genius winner in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Vilmos Zsigmond is a master. After viewing all five of their '77 cinematography nominees back to back this year, that year, I'd rank them like so (not as films but the cinematography in question): 1. Close Encounters 2. Looking for Mr Goodbar (close second, both of which I would have nominated in this category with a time machine and a ballot) 3. Julia 4. Islands in the Stream and 5. The Turning Point. But the shortlist begs the retroactive question: why wasn't the Cinematography branch drawn to, say, Suspiria, New York New York, Saturday Night Fever, or Three Women any of which would have made strong nominees?

What would you have nominated for Cinematography that year?

Here are other articles from this weeklong party celebrating the Films of 1977:

Sorta That Guy on "that perfect time of life" in Julia
• Timothy Brayton on the entire category in one ginormous posting. Wowza.
Film Mix Tape on insidious notions of "the perfect woman" via Looking for Mr Goodbar
Film Mix Tape gets personal with The Turning Point - a must read!
• Rachel's Reviews looks at Close Encounters 
Dancin Dan on Film gazes at Julia
• Christian Bonamusa loves the hats in Julia and the aftermath in The Turning Point
• Film Mix Tape looks at both Islands in the Stream and Close Encounters 

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Reader Comments (6)

um STAR WARS is the one movie that was snubbed and should have been nominated for this category. Though Close Encounters is also a very deserving and surprising win considering again its sci-fi premise.
now JULIA, oh Vanessa Redgrave in this movie is the embodiment of perfection. One of the best supporting actress winners ever imo. Shame that Vanessa only has One Oscar and the rest of her family has none.

July 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

I haven't seen enough from 1977 to feel comfortable listing 5 - but I'd have certainly supported nominations for Close Encounters, 3 Women, and Suspiria. I'm curious how close Star Wars came to a nomination, or if that was viewed more as a directing/editing/effects accomplishment.

July 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterScottC

New York, New York for sure. I had to triple-check IMDB to make sure it wasn't nominated for anything.

But the World Goes 'Round

July 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Thank you for such an insightful interpretive viewpoint of Julia. Filmmakers should always possess their own artistic vision when translating a published work to the screen -- at minimum, if only so because they are inherently two distinct artistic media. As a side note, if I remember my cultural history correctly, Hellmann's veracity -- or lack of -- about this story came to light soon after the film was released. And apparently most of Hellmann's retelling of this part of her life was not true. But that fact should not diminish the power of the film.

July 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

"What would you have nominated for Cinematography that year?"



New York

July 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

^^^(That was supposed to be three different are all all three tweets with eleven images.)

July 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

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