by Pam Rosenthal
Cut, no. 19, December 1978, pp. 3-4
The promotional still that advertises JULIA shows Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave in matching yellow slickers, against some vaguely wet and rainy background. It suggests that they are both facing the elements somewhere, engaged in some mutual physical endeavor, if not adventure.
This is not exactly false advertising, since for a minute or so in the film the two of them do sail a small boat together in their slickers. They also hike a bit, make a campfire, and ride bicycles. But the implication of shared adventure is false to this preachy and static film, and the fact that the promo people chose a still suggesting shared action indicates that they had some dim sense of what's missing.
JULIA, along with THE TURNING POINT, marks a kind of self-conscious reversal for Hollywood movies — a new attention to relationships between women, after what had threatened to become an infinite series of buddy pictures. Here, at last, are intelligent and self-motivated women, and more importantly, here are women involved in real and profound friendships with each other. The possibilities were exciting — a female (perhaps even feminist) alternative to the male bonding picture. Predictably, the reality is less exciting. THE TURNING POINT does say some interesting things about women, in a modest and limited way. JULIA is mostly a well-intentioned failure, more valuable as an anti-fascist film than as a portrayal of female friendship.
Even so, both films present interesting opportunities to discuss the realities of and possibilities for female (and male) bonding in films. This review is mainly about JULIA, which, as a movie that is situated firmly and contentedly outside the structures of romance and domesticity, constitutes the more direct and intentional challenge to the male bonding ideal. THE TURNING POINT, by contrast, fits into a more conventional women's film mode: a portrayal of the ambiguities of the domestic situation, and its alternatives. If, as I think, JULIA is both more ambitious and less successful, we need to discuss what in fact it does attempt, what it avoids, and how it fails. THE TURNING POINT can provide some instructive contrasts. We can start by asking what made those buddy pictures so attractive and successful in the first place.
The paradigm for the male bonding ideal might be a scene toward the end of THE WILD BUNCH. Without having discussed their plans, the four remaining members of the gang all appear in the same village square at the same time in the morning. Wordlessly (exchanging only those particular grins that have come, in film language, to signify men-facing-death-together), they march off to die, taking an entire Mexican fortress down with them in the shootout. The silence, the grins, and the impeccable rhythm of the cutting convey a sense of preverbal physicality. And if the existential cliché was laid on with a trowel, it was also effective enough to animate almost a decade of buddy films to follow. What is signified is that however much rivalry, bickering, and stupidity these guys have endured from each other, they can all trust each other to recognize the Big Moment when it comes. The world becomes very still and simple. No social (often meaning heterosexual) imperatives disrupt the rhythm of men moving off to die together.
Some implications spin off from this central image: first, that relationships with women are always secondary (and usually have a suffocatingly civilized Aunt Polly-Becky Thatcher quality), and secondly, that male-male relationships are constituted of endless joking and bickering — infinite adjustments to be made between inflated egos, a mock antisocial marriage in the face of danger and death.
Of course this is also what's objectionable about the buddy picture — the homoerotic tensions that structure these films tend toward an antisocial misogyny, which reduces love to a fascistic military solidarity. The outlaw code — the band of brothers living honestly outside of civil law — can easily be transformed into the fascist band of brothers living above the law and enforcing it. And analogously, love that is determined by its negative and superior relation to ordinary love-and-family can become elitist and contemptuous of most people's ordinary lives.
(I want to stress here, however, that I don't in any way believe that male bonding or homosexuality must imply hatred of women. To the extent that they are linked in films, the films are homophobic as well as misogynist. For an excellent discussion of these points see Thomas Waugh, "Films by Gays for Gays," JUMP CUT, No. 16, November 1977.)
Most often, however, these elitist and misogynist tendencies remain masked, contained, or variously mitigated in the male buddy films, by the necessity to keep the homoerotic message under wraps. Buddy pictures are elaborately designed to avoid explicitness, diffusing their love relationship into an implicit and all-pervasive presence. The continual bickering is a part of this presence: a cartoonish, stylized version of the constant stress and strain between personalities that is necessary to the achievement of any love relationship. Its this business of achieving love that seems to me a truth that the male bonding film touches on, no matter how shabbily and fraudulently. Male buddies muddle through adventures together, fucking up and hassling, usually only discovering their bonds when on the verge of parting for what seem to be better options. The love ideal becomes acceptable, and convincing, when presented within the tensions and difficulties of getting along together.
In JULIA, on the other hand, there is no bickering, no stress and strain, and no real sense that anybody loves anybody. The film concerns a young Lillian Hellman and her beloved friend Julia, who has joined the anti-fascist underground in pre-World War II Germany. But the effect is distant and abstract, lacking the presence (the chemistry, if you will) that keeps the male bonding films going. First of all, its no particular surprise that they love each other: they're so terrific, who wouldn't love them? Julia is beautiful, brilliant, and politically daring and selfless. Lillian is Lillian Hellman, who in the past few years has become a kind of women's movement/antifascist emblem. The suggestion that these two might ever have been foolish together or have faced danger or even embarrassment together never touches this film. Nothing is tested, imperiled, or achieved within their relationship. Their friendship is a given, which is not the case in the male bonding films. In JULIA, friendship is an oasis from real life, rather than a consequence of it.
In fact, there are comparatively few times in the movie when its two leads are even seen together. These are mainly flashbacks, often of Julia and Lillian doing something together (sailing, hiking) and Julia saying something noble or brilliant — or, more often, something that would indicate that she is noble or brilliant. Irwin Silber, of The Guardian, particularly liked one of these scenes, singling it out in his highly favorable review. Lillian is visiting Julia at Oxford, where Julia is attending medical school. She asks Julia what she is reading and Julia lists Engels, Hegel, Darwin, Einstein. Lillian asks if she understands that stuff and Julia says sure. What Silber liked, of course, is the film's offhand assertion that a woman can and does understand that stuff. I like it too, but I would have liked it better if we had been shown more, rather than being informed about it. Vanessa Redgrave is lovely, quiet, and dignified as Julia (the flaky, but still appropriate, word for her performance is luminous) but it would have been fine to see her using her mind, rather than assuring Lillian (and us) that she can.
It is perhaps unfair to focus on Silber like this, especially since his review did express a healthy impatience with other morality-play abstractions the film tries to palm off as recognizable human activity. He hated Jane Fonda's childish contortions at the typewriter that were supposed to represent artistic creativity, for example.
But I brought up Silber because his review shows how this weakness for scenes which tell us things rather than inscribing them in real gesture and detail is endemic to a small and frustrated Left. Often our intense pleasure at a progressive idea or image in mass culture is strong enough to substitute for any strength, coherence, or effectiveness of the material itself. This process leads to empiricism — the tendency to rate films by a checklist: Julia is "good" on women but "bad" inasmuch as it glosses over the strong communist presence among the antifascist resistance. This checklist approach is not untrue, and it does help us understand how art in a class society is usually a mixed bag ideologically. But it is misleading because it does not help us look critically at the film's real, and cumulative, impact. It does not help us go beyond the film's set of official messages, what the filmmakers wanted us to see or feel, to the effect that is actually received by the film's audience.
To return to the scene at Oxford: Julia may have reeled off her reading list in an offhand manner, but the film couldn't have been less offhand in the way it prescribes how we should feel about her and her reading. The little conversation is neat1y framed, by cutting and by Lillian's reverent look, as if it were a one-act play or one of the Ten Commandments — "Thou shalt not forget how brainy Julia is." And the real message of such a prescriptive approach is that our feelings and opinions are supposed to derive from moral instruction from above, rather than from our social experience. It is not to our advantage for leftists to capitulate to this kind of phony middlebrow moral suasion, even when it seems to help our side. Not that this is a new problem, the liberal notion of culture-as-moral-instruction has plenty of instructive parallels in socialist realism. But in the long run — by which I mean for the sake of constructing a viable Marxist aesthetic — this kind of thing does us no good.
Most of the interchanges between Julia and Lillian are similarly instructive, rather than compelling. Now it is true that in Pentimento (Lillian Hellman's memoir, from part of which JULIA was adapted) there are lots of flashbacks, brief clear bits where Julia does this or that brilliant or noble thing, as Hellman works to order and arrange her composite memory of this extraordinary friend. But while Hellman is always clear about her deep admiration for Julia, she also makes it clear that
There is, needless to say, none of this in the movie.
And if Pentimento stresses that Julia was the dominant partner in the friendship, following thought-out political principles that Lillian can only guess at from a distance, that is still no reason for the film to portray Lillian as some sort of gaping worshiper at her saintly friend's shrine. Hellman was, after all, the strong, witty woman who was to write the plays and memoirs, stand up to a congressional committee, and maintain an impressively independent position in relationships with Dashiell Hammett and the others she portrays in her memoirs. Again, the film's strategy is to hurry us past an understanding of these women's experiences to a contemplation of their virtues. So, for example, there's no use here for the Lillian (in Pentimento) who was annoyed when Julia neglected to answer a letter asking what she thought of The Children's Hour as the title of a play. We only get a humble, humorless Lillian, a frame for her friend's goodness, and both characters are diminished.
In fact, neither JULIA nor THE TURNING POINT shows its pair of heroines doing much of anything together in the present. This makes some sense when you realize that both films are about female relationships which are based in the past, before each pair of women has begun "real" life. This is a coincidence, but an instructive one. Films about male friendship depend upon an outlaw code, placing them outside of, and in opposition to, civil law and domestic life. But the outlaw code has always been ambiguous — while life outside of the civil order may remain an extended adolescence (Huck and Jim), it may develop into an alternative civitas of its own (the criminal kingdom of THE THREEPENNY OPERA, M, or THE GODFATHER). I can't think of a corresponding example, in popular culture, where a female outlaw society would be allowed to become strong enough to constitute an alternative civil order. Radical feminist mythologies of matriarchy are certainly efforts to fill this void. Outside of the radical feminist mythologies, however, important female friendships are perhaps most easily portrayed as occurring in adolescence.
THE TURNING POINT is a creditable effort to portray some of the truths and difficulties of youthful female friendship, its antagonistic relation to the choices and realities of "real life" — or mature womanhood. This is a soft, weepy, ladies' matinee kind of movie, about two friends who had been aspiring young dancers together. One becomes a brilliant prime ballerina and must face the humiliation of growing too old to dance and of a lonely old age. The other has left the ballet for (an impossibly sweet) home and family, and dreams and regrets for the career she could perhaps have had. The two come together years later and, through their stormy interaction, come to understand their pasts and presents better.
The script is by Arthur Laurents, who wrote THE WAY WE WERE; THE TURNING POINT is written with the same literate kind of sentimentality. Still, while this is strictly a lightweight affair, it does portray something true and important about many female friendships. For it recognizes that for many of us, our comings-together have been sporadic — time out from our real lives (often, our lives with men). The spaces we've shared have been spaces for confidences, sympathy, comfort — and also, importantly, competition and envy — but they are always spaces, interstices in the continuums of our lives.
THE TURNING POINT is coded along tried-and-true lines: "family or career." This puts it in the same category as most films about women's lives, except films about nuns (and except JULIA, which is one of the reasons I think it is a noteworthy, if failed, effort). But I don't think family-or-career is the only conflict portrayed here. THE TURNING POINT is also about the difficulties women have in keeping deep friendships alive past the time when it's "okay" for another woman to be the most important person in your life. Similar problems exist for men, of course, but these lead, as I said above, to the outlaw film. There is not, as yet, a female analog. What would one look like? Have there been hints, images of female friendship in past films that can be rediscovered and scrutinized for their liberating possibilities? Or are such images too dangerous, subversive, uncommercial?
I'm hoping that the future issue of JUMP CUT with the special section on lesbians and cinema will have some answers or suggestions. For we can certainly learn about female friendship in films by examining female homoeroticism — either explicit or implicit — a subject which THE TURNING POINT ignores and JULIA botches in a particularly nasty way. After Julia's death, as if to underscore the repressed erotic possibilities of their friendship, there is a flashback to Lillian in bar, maybe ten years before, with a rich drunken bore. The young man insists upon confiding that he has slept with his sister. When Lillian offers no response, he baits her by telling her that "everybody knows about you and Julia." Lillian socks him, turns over the table, and stomps off. The guy is such a creep that the audience is bound to cheer, and so the purity of the two women's relationship is assured. In fact, Lillian Hellman mentioned in Pentimento that getting socked in bars was a particularly common event in her circle in those days. Moreover, before telling the bar episode she has described her love for Julia thusly:
Not only is the film's portrayal of the bar scene an offensive anti-gay gesture and a gratuitous misreading of Lillian Hellman's careful and honest comments. It is also opportunistic — loudly denying any homoerotic possibilities after the earlier hazy shots of the two adolescents waltzing together, which was certainly meant as a sexual note. The point is to give us a few hints of homoerotic material and then negate them, sublimate them, and announce this as loudly and clearly as possible. Whereas in buddy films, male bonding is often a petty, everyday kind of situation, usually funny and often sexy in an undercover way, here we are evidently supposed to feel that female bonding is clean-cut, serious, noble, and "above" sexuality. As with many aspects of sexist culture, this division of labor is bad for everybody and worst for women.
There are a lot of ways to discuss this split: a possible one is to speculate that both kinds of sexual bonding are seen from a man's point of view. In male bonding films, men work out their ubiquitous (though unacknowledged) homoeroticism through mutual action and interaction. And the audience is, as it were, deputized — as honorary buddies we get to share in all of the jokes so long as nobody gives away the secret. In JULIA, sublimation takes the form of contradicting, repressing, and negating the reality we've all been spying on. The images of the sexy little girls and the sexless noble women coexist as so many one-dimensional and contradictory images of women coexist, as a discipline to "stay in one's place" and as a potential source of blackmail if one doesn't. The (male) camera eye is in on the secret and participates in the disciplinary threat, whereas it was polite, circumspect, and comradely in a male bonding situation.
There's lots more to be said, and the discussion of sexual coding in the movies should and will continue. But meanwhile, we can hope that the movie industry, spurred by the demand for women's films and motivated by God-knows-what amalgam of other imperatives, will just accidentally hit off some good female bonding movies. Funny, unpretentious, sexy, adventurous movies, without classy subject matter and without toney actresses. It would be nice, for example, to see women's films starring the female equivalent of Jeff Bridges, whoever that might be. (A contender for the funny, unpretentious woman's film might be the forthcoming RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE, from Rita Mae Brown's novel. The problem here is that the heroine of that book remained trapped in first-person isolation. She seemed too gutsy, too exceptional, for any partner.) In any case, we've got to be clear on the images we need and not be content with sublimated ersatz. No woman needs to be stuck on a noble, classy pedestal, in the movies or out of them, while Butch and Sundance have all the fun together, grinning like hell.