Fred Zinnemann: resistant women’s histories

Fred Zinnemann:
A filmmaker who brought resistant
women’s histories to the screen

by J.E. Smyth

Fred Zinnemann was well known for saying that he didn’t want to make the same kind of film over and over again and that the idea of maintaining a unified style or approach to ideas was not only boring, but “not human”. Critic Andrew Sarris, famous for focusing American attention on director ‘auteurs’, didn’t like him, and Zinnemann returned the favour, dismissing chic 1950s auteurism as a “gimmick” and continuing to make the kind of films that challenged genre traditions and national mythologies. He earned Oscars in shorts (That Mothers Might Live, 1938), documentary (Bengy, 1951), and features (From Here to Eternity, 1953; A Man For All Seasons, 1966); and worked in almost every genre known to Hollywood, yet enjoyed defying the industry’s conventions. His revisions of the content and form of the originating stories or scripts he was working from are some of the most controversial in studio-era Hollywood cinema, and frequently involved putting women back into narratives where they had traditionally been denied a voice.

Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed filming the last scene of From Here to Eternity (1953)In High Noon (1952), Gary Cooper’s Will Kane would never have been able to survive without Grace Kelly’s Amy shooting one man in the back and clawing the face of Frank Miller. As businesswoman Helen Ramirez, Katy Jurado gives Kane stare for stare in their confrontations, and articulates the rage of Mexican American women in a community of white frontier supremacy. In From Here to Eternity (1953), the backstories of army wife Karen (Deborah Kerr) and prostitute/hostess Lorene (Donna Reed) are an important part of a narrative supposedly about men in the pre-Pearl Harbor army. Though the two women were comparatively marginal in the novel, Zinnemann worked with Daniel Taradash to preserve their stories in a series of crosscut scenes with Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift. Lorene even gets the last words of the picture, as she remakes her past for a new life in the wartime US. In both cases, Zinnemann was fortunate to work with other men who weren’t afraid of calling women “feminists” (Carl Foreman’s word for Amy) and making serious pictures for female audiences (producer Buddy Adler).

From Here to Eternity was perhaps Zinnemann’s most popular film, and it was one of several in his career to explore the place of women in the context of the Second World War and the antifascist resistance. Of course, other directors such as Jean-Pierre Melville (Army of Shadows, 1970) and Paul Verhoeven (Black Book, 2005) have each made several films exploring these contexts, but Zinnemann’s commitment stands out. Though traditional histories of the resistance would follow Charles de Gaulle in eradicating women and communists from the narratives, in contrast, Fred Zinnemann’s anti-fascist heroes were often solitary heroines such as Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) and Lisa (Diane Lambert) in The Nun’s Story (1959) or the elusive Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) and her workers (Dora Doll and Elisabeth Mortensen) in Julia (1977).

A close-up of Gabrielle's (Audrey Hepburn) new life as a number in The Nun’s Story (1959).Both of these films meant a great deal to the female actors involved. Hepburn adored working with Zinnemann, and turned down the lead in George Stevens’s The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) to take the role of a Belgian nun and nurse who leaves her convent to join the Resistance. Zinnemann knew the real Gabrielle well from his work on the UN-child Holocaust survivor film, The Search (1948), which also featured a female UNRRA* administrator (Aline MacMahon) based on Nun’s Story author Kathryn Hulme. Hepburn, who personally endured the horrors of the occupation in Holland and the deaths of family members (not everyone in her family was a supporter of Oswald Mosley!), enjoyed making a film that would, in her words, not “let the Catholic Church off the hook”. Zinnemann felt the same way, but went beyond preserving Robert Anderson’s critical script. He and Hepburn both watched Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and gave the film’s scenes of Gabrielle’s hair clipping and erasure of identity resonance of the Holocaust.

Though women were largely excluded from mainstream popular and academic histories of the war and Resistance during this period, Lucie Aubrac and Marie-Madeleine Fourcade were publishing popular memoirs and by the mid-1970s, female historians began to focus on recovering much of women’s lost historical presence through oral history. Arguably Hollywood had always paid attention to women’s historical perspectives throughout its investment in women’s literary adaptations and voiceovers in everything from biopics to melodrama and film noir. During the 1930s and 1940s, quite a number of women were well-known screenwriters, including Screen Writers Guild President Mary C. McCall, Jr. and – of course – Lillian Hellman. Zinnemann’s penultimate film would be an adaptation of Hellman’s Pentimento (1973), a self-styled meditation on memory/memorialisation, which featured a story, ‘Julia’, about her childhood best friend.

Vanessa Redgrave with Zinnemann during the Oxford shoot of Julia (1977).The 1970s witnessed a surge in films about women, and Hollywood critics were calling 1977 “the Year of the Woman”. Jane Fonda became involved in producing with a young Richard Roth, and was excited about doing a film that wasn’t “dishonest” about women’s lives. Well, shortly after the film’s release, Hellman’s critics (and there were plenty!) began to question whether Julia was real. Some said Hellman simply lied and others—far less pleasantly—stated that Julia was too heroic to be true. No woman could possibly be such a “Madonna of the Left” as Vanessa Redgrave’s Julia. A generation before, Nazi officials had not believed French women were capable of deceiving Aryan men and therefore let many resistantes slip through their fingers in interrogations and check points. Zinnemann knew Julia was, very likely, Muriel Gardiner and a couple of other less well-known women. But rather than dropping the film or attempting to make a rigidly historically accurate biopic (which would have meant using the structure of men’s historiography, emphasising public achievement and financial success), he, writer Alvin Sargent, Walter Murch, and Douglas Slocombe chose to make a film about the ambivalent process of making, remembering, constructing, and rewriting A Moscow performance of Hamlet which occurs in Julia (1977).history. In effect, they foreground Hellman’s process of creating her story of Julia, of writing her brilliant play, The Children’s Hour, which started her on her Hollywood career, and their own process in reconstructing the past on screen. The filmmakers also cared immensely about how women’s audiences would like the film and conducted a major audience response analysis unlike any I have ever seen preserved in the archives. The result? “Ordinary” women loved the film, even if Andrew Sarris did not.

Zinnemann's notebook reveals that Julia (1977) "should not look slick or manicured or polished" © Courtesy of AMPAS. Over the years, film critics and historians have argued that women’s history on Hollywood screens was nothing more than romanticised fictions that chart women’s suffering and decline. Zinnemann’s work, with its imaginative use of voiceovers/oral histories, sound bridges, superimpositions, and cinematography, potentially offered both new content and new forms for representing women’s resistant and sometimes heroic lives. “Courage needs witnesses”, Gabrielle argues in Kathryn Hulme’s The Nun’s Story, and Zinnemann’s camera created some of the most powerful witnesses of the twentieth-century struggle against fascism—and conventional notions of Hollywood genre and gender. In the course of my work on Fred Zinnemann’s archive and his attitudes toward women’s history, I’ve been told two things: that women don’t have a historiography of their own and Julia isn’t a true women’s film because it was directed by a man. I don’t believe either statement.

*United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration

J.E. Smyth is Reader in History at the University of Warwick (UK) and directs the History and Film Masters Programme. She is the author of Reconstructing American Historical Cinema from Cimarron to Citizen Kane (2006), Edna Ferber’s Hollywood (2009),Hollywood and the American Historical Film (ed., 2012), and Fred Zinnemann and the Cinema of Resistance (2014).


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