Critical dialogue
Wishing Julia red

by Elizabeth Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, p. 26
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

As a great enthusiast of this publication, I continually anticipate forward thinking and insightful feminist analysis of film. I was pleased to see in issue no. 18 that Martha Vicinus took on JULIA, a film which I think has been subject to many contradictory analyses by various feminist critics. While I think Vicinus has many insights into this film, I have to differ with her premise: JULIA is not a film about friendship between women, and I think it is misleading to read this as the film's intent.

First of all the two women are almost never on screen simultaneously. As Vicinus points out, when Zinneman wants to portray the depth of their relationship he retreats into flashbacks of the two women as children. This is a major setback rather than some of the most "exhilarating" moments in the film. To witness children romping through the countryside, or playing in their bedroom at night is all well and good but hardly very meaningful and surely not a solid basis for long-lasting friendship. Their relationship is only treated symbolically. These scenes in particular exemplify Hollywood's reluctance to portray adult women as equals, actively supporting each other regardless of their particular circumstances. The "friendship" we see is based on nostalgia — and the lure of innocence. As adults, Lillian and Julia (literally) remain worlds apart — in fact, this is the point: these two women can be portrayed as friends because they live on different continents.

The function of the political subtext in this film I also think is misleading. Politics (i.e. fascism in this case) separates these women rather than unite them. There is no point in the film where Lillian becomes involved with Julia's ideology or vice versa. Redgrave is portrayed as a romantic heroine, and because she is a "revolutionary" she is barely allowed to exist in the film, given an extremely small amount of screen time particularly when compared to Fonda. It is true that Julia is an extremely appealing character, particularly since we are never allowed to get enough of her. She is particularly appealing when compared to Fonda as she gives a much more realistic portrayal of her character. (Fonda was never meant to be Lillian Hellman.) And this is one of the problems in this film: Its effect is to compare the lives of these two women, not to delineate their friendship. While Lillian opts for the traditional love affair and a career that can be contained inside the domestic sphere (writing), Julia is a martyr to the revolution. She not only dies, but her child, born out of wedlock, is also a casualty of political action. What Hollywood tells us is that women, involved in political action, who have children as single mothers, are not survivors and neither are their children. This is not an extremely positive role model by any means, nor was it meant to be.

It is important to look on the bright side, but it is another thing to read our own desires and aspirations into Hollywood. There are some good moments in JULIA, as Vicinus points out, and there have been good moments in the recent spate of other "women's films." But to call this film a positive portrayal of friendship, or a loving portrayal of a revolutionary woman is wishful thinking on the left. It is not "love" that is missing from this film and realized in Pentimento, but politics.