The special woman

by Martha Vicinus

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 1, 6
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

By the time this review appears, most readers of JUMP CUT will already have been saturated with the media blitz on JULIA. Articles on Jane Fonda have been published in women's magazines from Ms. to McCall's. JULIA has been reviewed virtually everywhere. The Cold Warriors of the New York City intelligentsia have done a hatchet job on Hellman, following their wrath over Scoundrel Time. And Hellman herself has enjoyed a fame she has never had before, reaching an audience that would never have gone to her plays or read her memoirs.

Why are the movie and Jane Fonda receiving all this attention? (We hear very little about Vanessa Redgrave, with her notorious and well-defined politics.) Suddenly it appears as if the aspirations of a rather spoiled writer in love with a handsome man have become big business. The process of digesting the women's movement is now well underway. Hollywood, and the other media, have finally decided that their version of women's liberation makes good copy. What we have is a strikingly beautiful actress living an unconventional life, but packaged to look amazingly conventional. In all her interviews Fonda insists on her family orientation and simple life. But her exceptionalism is obvious. Moreover, like the heroines of the films of the 1940s, in JULIA she radiates femininity dependent upon male approval. While the average —or almost average—working man is the hero in a few films, Hollywood still keeps the female leads for the exceptional.

JULIA is about making it, female-style. You take an exceptionally beautiful and talented woman, have her live with a male author who coaches her, and then through hard work (symbolized coyly by a frustrated Hellman throwing a typewriter out the window), give her Success.

Is the meantime, contrast her with another superwoman, even more beautiful and far more idealistic. Have her fight Fascism with money and ideals, and then die. Our first heroine learns that Success is not all, but since she never forgets her friend, is a Better Person without having to make fundamental changes herself. No wonder JULIA has gotten attention. It validates the U.S. success myth for middle class women, while it provides an attractive fantasy for those who know they could never begin to have such a life. Money, high living and high stakes, with lots of love—even if the film's tempo is slow at times, the excitement of a life offering such possibilities for an individual woman (never the mass of women) must entice the viewer.

Yet the film should not be panned as a Hollywood extravaganza on the Special Woman. A well-crafted and elegantly acted film, it conveys the atmosphere of prewar Europe admirably. The fears—and hopes—of the anti-Fascist movement are treated with exemplary restraint, largely free from hindsight moralizing. (In this it is far more honest than Martin Ritt's treatment of the McCarthy era in THE FRONT). While some might wish for a more direct treatment of the rise of Nazi Germany, this would be to argue for a different film. Both JULIA and THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINI (DeSica, 1971) demonstrate the power of an oblique approach to terror. The principal strength of JULIA, and of Hellmann's memoir, are their evocations of the past, and particularly of a personal past, lived and relived through memory. As Hellman wrote, and as the movie opens,

"I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now."

Hollywood movies are best at special effects, at evocation rather than character development, at melodrama rather than internal conflict. The movie is much weaker in its portrayal of Lillian than Julia. Fonda does an adequate job, though I find some of her repeated gestures tiresome, and some of her lines are pretty dreadful. More seriously, she is unable to convey the sheer determination, even bitchiness, of Lillian Hellman, which is admirably nuanced in Pentimento. (1) Indeed, it is hard to imagine Fonda angry—petulant, but not angry—yet this is the characteristic Julia praises most highly in their final meeting. Much of the zest and wit of Hellman's relationship with Dashiell Hammett has been reduced to a little repartee and stock images of a mentor with his novice. Schmaltz replaces grit, as if we overcome the difficulties of life with a colored filter slipped over the lens.

The most exhilarating parts of JULIA, in contrast, portray the friendship between Lillian and Julia. Julia's intelligence, commitment and joy are warmly realized in a series of flashbacks (of uneven quality), culminating in the widely praised final scene at Albert's cafe. One of the most exciting aspects of Vanessa Redgrave's portrayal of Julia is her convincing demonstration that a revolutionary is moved by feelings of great love, and that a revolutionary life involves joy, happiness—and commitment. Perhaps because she is a woman (and therefore less threatening), and her politics completely undefined, she provides us with one of the few positive portraits of a revolutionary to come out of Hollywood. We never doubt her sheer attractiveness as a human being. In all the scenes between the two women, their many interests and changing lives are kept to the fore, with their interests in men and sex left as only one of many concerns. Unlike the Hollywood heroines of the l940s, the Special Woman can have an enduring friendship with another woman, without competing for a man or for power.

Yet in both the scenes with Hammett and those with Julia, something seems missing. It is not the lack of political content, which remains a given with Hellman, but rather her finely realized psychological analyses. The depth and complexity of her love for both Hammett and Julia seem reduced to posturing—the youthful artist or the naive admirer. Too many scenes, particularly after the death of Julia, appear to be only filling out a short story to movie length. More seriously, a complex friendship is reduced to banality at times. Julia's courage and Lillian's stubbornness are rather crudely portrayed in a scene where the young Julia helps Lillian cross a log bridge over a waterfall. We get too little sense of what Julia might have gotten from the friendship, besides admiration. And Hammett functions primarily as filler, providing sage advice on occasion, with little if any connection to Julia.

For me, what is missing is best exemplified by the dropping of a key scene from Pentimento. The scriptwriter, Alan Sargant, followed Hellman's memoir with great fidelity, but in this case he substituted his own scene. After describing their long walks together, Hellman says:

"One night, when we had been silent for a long time because she was leaning on her elbow, close to the fire, reading a German grammar, I laughed at the sounds coming from her mouth as she repeated the sentences.

She said, 'No, you don't understand. People are either teachers or students. You are a student.'

'Am I a good one?'

'When you find what you want, you will be very good.'

I reached out and touched her hand. 'I love you, Julia.' She stared at me and took my hand to her face." (p. 96)

This is the only time Hellman says, "I love you," in the book. It is placed in a context of contrasting her own lack of clear goals and confusions about how best to use her intelligence with Julia's determination and foresight. Since Lillian is shown throughout the movie as a student, and a very committed one, it is strange that this scene was dropped.

It has been replaced by a much more erotic scene, adapted from Hellman's description of a New Year's Eve when they were twelve, spent reading and quoting poetry to each other. Listening to Dante and Heine read by Julia, Hellman writes:

"…even though I could not understand either language, the sounds were so lovely that I felt a sweet sadness as if much was ahead in the world, much that was going to be fine and fulfilling if I could ever find my way" (p. 93).

This statement, along with others in the book, clearly leads up to Julia's avowal, "When you find what you want, you will be very good."

After Julia quotes a Herrick poem about herself, Lillian is "ashamed to ask if it was a joke." In contrast, in the movie a fully adult Julia quotes the poem as the camera moves closer and closer to her face. Then it pulls back to a full view of the two women as she declares that the poem is in praise of herself. Lillian then leans forward, saying, "I love you." This action shifts the focus of the friendship from gratitude for Julia's understanding of Lillian's inchoate ambitions to admiration for her beauty, illustrated by the erotic poem and sensual pose. Julia's confidence in her friend is lost as it is changed to confidence in herself as a student of life.

In the book Hellman is able to describe the complexity of her friendship with Julia, which included both their intellectual commitment, implied by being a student or teacher, and their emotional commitment as friends in love with life, future possibilities and each other. Fred Zinnemann has opted for dropping out most of the intellectual commitment, and changing the emotional commitment to an adulatory friendship with erotic undertones. Hellman herself carefully explained,

"I have had plenty of time to think about the love I had for her, too strong and too complicated to be defined as only the sexual yearnings of one girl for another. And yet certainly that was there. I don't know, I never cared, and now it is an aimless guessing game" (pp. 93-94).

Zinnemann, on the other hand, loses this subtlety by toying off and on with the attraction between the two women, presenting us with a number of erotic scenes between them. He seems unable to admit to the possibility of close friendship between women (or men, or men and women, for that matter) without a sexual component; he cannot give up a sensual treatment of their friendship.

Yet this very attraction appears to be denied in the melodramatic scene of Lillian turning the table onto the smirking Sammy for hinting at a sexual relationship between her and Julia. The scene is purposely left ambiguous, so we aren't sure what Hellman reacts against—Sammy, lesbianism, or incest. But the connection is clearly made between lesbian love and Sammy's incest with his sister. The vileness of Sammy confirms the vileness of female sexuality. Fortunately for us, female friendship and lesbian love in real life are more complex than Zinnemann would allow or had the courage to portray.

Throughout much of the "Julia" episode in both Pentimento and the movie, Hellman was writing The Children's Hour, about two women whose school and lives are ruined when a pupil falsely accuses them of being lovers. In the final act one woman admits to her friend that, indeed, the child had accused them of something she had felt. She then exits to kill herself. Rather than, grapple with the complexity, or evasions, of Hellman, the movie gratuitously heightens the importance of Lillian's encounter with Sammy, as if to lay to rest our fears while simultaneously providing us with enough eroticism to arouse them in the first place.

This ambivalence combined with eroticism is all the more disappointing because of the quality of so many scenes between Lillian and Julia. The sheer pleasure of friendship—of shared experiences and memories—is beautifully conveyed. While the world of Julia and Lillian is glossy and remote, it is also believable—an alternative worth admiring, even if not within the realm of imitation. Unlike the portrayal of the prima ballerina in TURNING POINT, commitment to a life other than marriage is not presented as frightening. In that film, Anne Bancroft's relentlessly gaunt features, combined with the cutting treatment she receives from virtually everyone in her ballet company, make her decision to devote herself to her art seem almost a monomania. The only comic relief in TURNING POINT is the fight between the two women—hardly a positive portrayal of female friendship, even if they do end in reconciliation. In contrast, JULIA depicts a serenity and courage—a stubbornness in Hellmann's terms—under the joy and pain of the lives of Julia and Lillian that remains attractive throughout the movie.

JULIA raises a number of important questions about what Hollywood can and cannot do in response to the women's movement. During the most militant phase of the movement, Hollywood brought us a series of macho films, emphasizing the glories of male friendship and violence-as-maturation. The situation was so bad that even the film pundits complained about the lack of good female roles. Hopefully the success of TURNING POINT and JULIA will encourage the production of more films showing strong women. But Hollywood is never going to give us films about the real goals of women's liberation. By their very nature Hollywood's films will follow the values of the dominant culture. This means that Lillian, not Julia, is the heroine of the film, that she is clearly subordinate to a man in her private life, that her success is totally individual (well, behind every good woman…), and that money is the key to power and success. Beneath the surface of JULIA lurks that favorite American myth, Horatio (or Horatia) Alger, neatly turned to fit the Special Woman. I am inevitably reminded of Hollywood's attempt to digest the civil rights movement, GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER? Perhaps we can now expect a spate of films depicting the female creative artist — Cinderellas who get their princes and their pots of gold as recognition and power plus friendship.

But rather than ending on a negative note, I think it is more useful to ask what JULIA has accomplished. It has brought an enormous amount of publicity to bear upon Jane Fonda, who if she doesn't have Redgrave's politics, is hardly in the pay of Hollywood's moguls. But more importantly it has brought to a large audience an attractive and exciting portrayal of female friendship and female commitment. Having a career and lovers and a child for self-fulfillment are still not easy decisions for women, whatever the gains of the "sexual revolution" or women's liberation. The joyousness of accomplishment and of living for a political ideal are now in disrepute, but the film celebrates these characteristics as exciting and important options. While I wanted a more political and more honest film, JULIA is better than I would have expected five years ago. Whatever its faults, we should count it among the triumphs and not defeats of the women's movement.


1. Pentimento (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1973). Subsequent quotes will be indicated by page number in the text.