Julia was a childhood friend of Lillian Heliman's, and "Julia" is about friendship - a special kind of friendship between two women that grows and changes, becomes distent and reattaches, makes demands and is later remembered.

Lillian (Jane Fonda) remembers as she bangs away at her first play in the beach house she shares with writer Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards). She also remembers some years later in her second volume of memoirs, "Pentimento," from which "Julia" was taken.

As girl, lillian and Julia (Vansessa Red-grave) spent holidays in the mountains. New years's Eve in cold Fifth Avenue splendor at the apartment of Julis's wealthy grandparents; later in the '20 s, they swapped dreams as young women.

Now is 1934, and news that Julia has left medical school in Vienna to join the anti-nazi underground filter home. Frustrated, Lillian heads for Paris to finish the play and winds her way to Wienna, where she finds her friend beaten and bandaged in a hospital that denies she was ever there.

Two years later, Lillian's play ia a hit. on her way to Moscow for theater destival, she hears from Julia, who wants her to travel via Germany to smuggle $50,000 of underground money and to care for her baby girl (named Lilly). And demands and consequwnces of friendship unravel.

The film has a nice gauzy, with Doug Slocombe's blue-gray background shots giving the flashback sequences an aura of cool detachment, enchancing the frozen memorty of things past.

Although it has few flaws, "Julia" is a respectable, poignant fulm that serves up significant roles to women, a welcome exception to this age of box-office schlock. Regrave plays a convincing Julia, perphaps her finest role since "Isadora." White fonda is not as convincing a writer - and a few tantrums seem contrived - she is a convincing friend.

"Julia" is also about the frienddhip hellman shared for some 30 years with Dashiell Hammett, and Robards, a gracefully rumpled found of wisdom, makes as fine a Hammett as he did a Benjamin Bradiee in "All the President's Men."

The film is aldo about writers and writing and success and the people you leave behind in doing your work. Yet there are light moments such as a camping scence after Lillian's play becomes a smash.

Hellman: "Dash, I like being famous . . . I buy mayonnaise and I'm famous, I get letters from people in Idaho . . .

Hammett: "Just remember, it's only fame . . . It's only a sable coat, just a paint job. It doesn't have anything to do with writing."