Remembering “Julia”: Fonda and Redgrave’s romantic friendship

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I was flipping TV channels the other

evening in the U.K. when I came across an old film I had never seen before.

Set in the 1930s, it starred Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as two

young American women: Vanessa Redgrave as “Julia,” the idealistic,

left-wing daughter of a wealthy New York family, and Jane Fonda as “Lillian,”

her best friend who also narrates in voice-over. I was instantly drawn

in — not only because it’s so rare to find a film that centers on

two female characters, but also because almost from the beginning, there

seemed to be a strong, haunting, homoerotic quality to the friendship

between the two women that I was sure I wasn’t just imagining.

But what was this film, and why hadn’t

I heard of it before? Doing some quick Googling in a commercial break,

I discovered that it was titled Julia, that it had been made

in 1977, and that it was a rather prestigious production — it had been

nominated for 11 Oscars and won three, including one for Vanessa Redgrave

as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Most interestingly, I discovered

that it was based on a short story by Lillian Hellman, from her memoir

Pentimento
, written in 1973. That’s as in the playwright Lillian

Hellman, author of the lesbian-themed play (and later movie) The

Children’s Hour.

Returning to the movie, I quickly

realized that, alas, any lesbian attraction between the two lead

characters was going to remain subtextual. Jane Fonda’s Lillian becomes

involved with the male writer Dashiell Hammett (as the real Lillian

Hellman did in life), while Vanessa Redgrave’s Julia goes off to Europe

to study under Freud, and becomes increasingly involved with anti-Nazi

causes as World War II approaches. The movie is, in fact, a

compelling and tragic drama about Julia’s participation in the anti-fascist

resistance, and how her best friend Lillian is drawn into helping her

in highly dangerous circumstances.

Since I was (still) certain I hadn’t

imagined the homoerotic subtext, however, I dug out an old copy of

Pentimento
that I had never read. Sure enough, Hellman reflects

on her feelings for Julia, in a paragraph that was omitted from the

film’s voice-over:

“In those years, and the years

after Julia’s death, 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 it is now an aimless

guessing game. It doesn’t prove much that we never kissed each other …”

While the film leaves out these reflections,

it does include a scene (also from the book) where an angry Fonda slaps

a male friend after he has suggested that everyone knew she and Julia

were lovers. Like so many Hollywood movies, in other words, it only

brings up the subject of homosexuality explicitly in order to discount

it. But the friendship portrayed between Fonda and Redgrave’s characters

still carries a special charge for lesbian and bisexual viewers — worth

a look if Julia ever pops on your TV screen, or if you

feel like investing in a new DVD.

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