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

 
 

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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