Julia (1977): Women’s Death On Screen–Vanessa Redgrave’s Oscar Role

In mainstream Hollywood movies, on screen death seems to have “resolved” the problem of men having to deal with women as equal partners, particularly women who are strong political activists.

Julia (Vanessa Redgrave in an Oscar-winning performance), the heroine of Zinnemann’s 1977 picture of the same title, based on Lillian Hellman’s memoirs, is a good example.

A bright and alert woman, Julia rebels against her aristocratic family by becoming a fighter in the European anti-Fascist movement. However, she is killed off in the course of the narrative, thus becoming a more of a symbol of political heroism than a real-living woman. Screen death has often functioned as a safety valve, permitting audiences to admire courageous and independent women as martyrs, but relieving men of the burden of dealing with women as equals on a realistic level.

If the hero of Julia were a man, he would probably have survived.  Male fighters in American film usually succeed in accomplishing their missions.  A case in point is another Lillian Hellman work adapted to the big screen, Watch on the Rhine (1943), in which the hero (played by Paul Lukas, in an Oscar-winning performance) is like Julia an anti-Fascist fighter.