There never was another movie like Julia. There never was a moment more vulnerable, dramatic, and romantic than that scene where Jane Fonda, as Lillian Hellman, tells Vanessa Redgrave “I love you, Julia,” and Vanessa Redgrave, as the heroine Julia, sits proud and tall and wild in Jane’s adoring arms around the campfire.
During my last three years as a teenager (1978 to 1981) Julia was the only movie in my life, the sanctum sanctorum of my brooding adolescent lesbianism. The film is an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s short story about her beloved childhood friend, who became an anti-fascist activist and was subsequently murdered by Nazi agents.
Julia is an extraordinary tribute to the friend whose convictions often baffled even Hellman. The impassioned Julia, as she did in real life, moves from their teenage games in America to medical studies with Freud in Vienna, then to radical socialism, and finally uses her family fortune to save Jews and political prisoners in Hitler’s Europe. Hellman, at first reluctant and frightened, is enlisted to assist her friend’s resistance work by playing courier, and though a Jew herself, travels by train through Nazi Germany with Julia’s money. Soon after their clandestine meeting to exchange the smuggled booty, Julia is murdered, and Hellman begins a fruitless search for Julia’s hidden baby—a baby named for Lillian.
I saw Julia for the first time when I was seventeen, with a friend whose father had survived the concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen. It was a period when I was awakening, popeyed, to the legacy of the Holocaust which was my own family’s history but had hardly been addressed in my schooling at all. An insightful adult friend, who saw me struggling to locate my identity as a Jew and as a woman writer, recommended seeing Julia. Thenceforth I lived on a steady diet of Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave and their campfire embrace.
The adult Julia was portrayed by the unutterably gorgeous Vanessa Redgrave, and I learned that this casting choice had troubled many in the American Jewish community. Redgrave had recently caused havoc by supporting the PLO and denouncing Israeli Jews as “Zionist hoodlums.” Some Jews urged a boycott of Julia, and I—torn between Judaism and lesbianism—found I could not forego the power of the movie and its actresses, even while I was pining over an Israeli girl at my high school.
Like many young feminists I had been starving for a storyline about women’s political convictions and losses and intense love for one another, with male characters in the background. Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave themselves declared to the press that Julia had no “aberrant” overtones, but we who read the original short story in Hellman’s book Pentimento knew the real score. Hellman had carefully written, in a paragraph never incorporated into the film’s narration, “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 for one girl for another. And yet certainly that was there.”
“I love you, Julia,” says Lillian Hellman. In the film, Julia says nothing and does nothing in response, merely permitting the radiant Hellman to snuggle into her arms; but in the original story, Hellman wrote “She stared at me and took my hand to her face.” Simply knowing, when I was eighteen, that Hellman and Julia had lived these moments at eighteen themselves made possible a world of risk and woman-loving. And yet, the Hollywood film Julia denied this might be so. On screen, a drunken young man, Sammy, hints that Hellman and Julia have been adolescent lovers. “The whole world knows about you and Julia,” he leers, and Jane Fonda, as Hellman, slaps his face so hard he falls backward, and she overturns the table and walks out.
The scene is powerful enough to have many interpretations. But at seventeen, the message I got was loud and clear; how dare anyone imply that women’s love for one another might contain an element of passion and desire! I reflected on this logic as a pimply, hormonal teenager in the dark. Every film I’d seen where a woman slapped a man or otherwise knocked him silly made clear that this was permissible if he had been “fresh.” Audiences everywhere went home reminded that to call a strong woman a lesbian is the ultimate insult, to be answered with violence.
I never once forgot that the movie was about Lillian Hellman, a Jewish woman writer and a role model for me, who, when called before Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee declared “I will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” and rather than naming names was blacklisted for years. I felt, in the slap delivered by Jane Fonda, all of Hellman’s rage that the innuendoes of smug men—like McCarthy and his minions—were all it took to silence women’s writing, women’s credibility as political agents.
When, confused and irritable, I finally re-read Hellman’s short story to see if she really had slapped Sammy’s face, I was surprised by what I found:
He said he rather liked his sister Anne-Marie, because he had slept with her when she was sixteen and he was eighteen. Then, perhaps because I had made a sound, he said who the hell was I to talk, everybody knew about Julia and me….I leaned across the table, slapped Sammy in the face, got up, turned over the table and went home.
How different was this, the original version, from the movie’s homophobic scene! In real life, Lillian Hellman took a whack at Sammy for comparing her romantic relationship to his incestuous knowledge of his sister. Yet in the film, Sammy declares it was his sister who initiated their sexual relationship. “My little sister gave me a look, she gave me a tender touch and within minutes…” Watching those scenes, audiences might believe that real women do not suffer being called lesbians, but willingly suffer, or even initiate, the crime of incest.
I saw Julia for the last time at age 19, when I was immersed in Judaic studies and reading Pirkei Avot. This Talmud selection contains Hillel’s famous proverb “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I and if not now, when?” I was studying that passage when I saw Julia again and heard Julia say to Lillian Hellman, “We can only do today what we can do today, and today you did it for us.”
That line is in Hellman’s original short story; it is the greatest modern parallel to Hillel’s quote that I have found. It is a mantra of feminist action and interdependence. The we in it, of collective action, is also a smaller we of two strong women loving each other across the chaos of the twentieth century. And it meant, for me, the sliding of my Jewish consciousness over my lesbian consciousness in perfect bonding, at long last; which is a lot to be grateful for, from one imperfect movie.
Bonnie J. Morris teaches women’s studies at George Washington University and Georgetown University. She is the author of two books on Jewish women’s history. This essay is adapted from Girl Reel: A Lesbian Remembers Growing Up at the Movies (Coffee House Press, 2000).