Before Katniss, There Was Julia

Diana, the forebear of Katniss (photo: public domain)

Diana, the forebear of Katniss
(photo: public domain)

Before Katniss Everdeen emerged as a strong, vital female character, there was Julia. The year was 1977, and feminism at its most fervent reached the screen. The movie, Julia, garnered 11 Oscar nominations, winning 3 awards. Vanessa Redgrave, in a luminous performance, plays the title character, a young leader of the antifascist underground in Nazi Germany. Jane Fonda portrays her lifelong friend, who with Julia’s encouragement leaves the comfort and safety of her writer’s beach house in America to smuggle money into Berlin for the Resistance.  Each time I watch this movie, I marvel at Jane Fonda’s artistry.

[Repost from April]

In a scene that defines Julia’s character and sets the tone for the way the film depicts women, Nazi hooligans invade her university’s campus in Vienna and begin gleefully tossing Jewish students and professors over a balcony. Brandishing a table leg, Julia leads her fellow medical students in a charge to defend the mob’s hapless victims. In the ensuing combat, she endures a savage beating and loses a leg as a result. Later, swathed in bandages and lying in her hospital bed, she is visited by her friend from America, Lillian, who insists on staying by her side. When Julia recovers, she returns to the Resistance.

In the mid 1970s, the feminist movement was newly ascendant. Julia and Lillian as screen characters epitomized sisterhood in the face of peril and reaction against progress. Their camaraderie glows from the screen. In art, they dramatized the reality of the ferment in society. They did more; in the film, Julia and Lillian presented a counter vision of how social change might proceed. The glow was the light of hope.

Julia is intrepid, while Lillian must master her fear as best she can to support her comrade. Jane Fonda’s portrayal of her character’s inner battle compels  the viewer’s attention, as it takes the film beyond politics to the heart of humanity.  The two characters represent a duality within a dialectical unity: Julia is assertive and Lillian is solicitous.   Screen chemistry ensues, and invites the viewer to identify with each character. We have both the admiration of the activist and the empathy for the supporter who must combat her anxiety.

Forty years on, Katniss Everdeen combines within herself both the heroic and the solicitous. She can battle the haughty lords of the Capital without losing her identity as a protector of the defenseless, including her sister and her ally in the first Hunger Games, Rue. She is solicitous to those most in need of solace. In that respect, her character, in both senses of the word, is the heir to Julia.

Yet, there has been no film successor expressing the potential seen in Julia, for women in solidarity leading a movement for social change. Quite the contrary, there has been a retreat from the film portrayal of this political counter vision. It could be that the movie, Julia, while grounded in the social change of the 1970s, was art ahead of its time–and we are still waiting for the changes of the years since to be reflected in a new spirit in politics and a new counter vision.

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9 thoughts on “Before Katniss, There Was Julia

  1. Pingback: Close Encounters: Spiritual Aura and Renewal | Spirit in Politics

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