Back in 2009, the late Nora Ephron would direct her final movie – Julie & Julia – which starred Amy Adams as real-life contemporary food blogger Julie Powell, who would go on to make all 524 recipes found in culinary icon Julia Child’s two-volume cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking while posting the results online. Back then, featuring the vocation of being a blogger was probably seen as a hook by studio promoters to capture a younger audience online.
Alas, many fans of Child – me included – wished that the film would have simply kept its focus on Meryl Streep’s marvelous interpretation of the towering 6-foot-2 chef who spoke with a distinctly throaty trill while single-handedly upgrading American taste buds with her pioneering cookbooks and PBS show The French Chef that was produced from 1963 to 1973.
While Streep would go on to grab her 15th Oscar nomination for her effusive, upbeat and romantic character, Adams, through no fault of her own, was stuck playing a rather dour and obstinate person who wanted to make a name for herself while riding on Child’s coattails. As the A.V. Club’s review noted of the film, Julie & Julia is two movies in one. That’s one more that it needs to be.”
Arriving 12 years later to fill out some of the blanks in the rest of Child’s life is Julia, a swiftly moving account directed by Betsy West and Julia Cohen. The duo behind the Oscar-nominated RBG, which capitalized on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s bad-ass rep that would earn her the rapper-like nickname ‘The Notorious RBG’ by her younger acolytes, is somewhat echoed here.
Julia starts out similarly as it shows Child posing with a chorus line of several uncooked poultry carcasses that she introduces as “The Chicken Sisters.” The music in the background is none other than Jimi Hendrix’s raucous ‘60s-era hit Fire. That sets up this iconic chef as a rock-star of fine French cuisine. But she didn’t deserve that rep until she was in her 50s, when Child caused a sensation by famously cooking an elegant fluffy omelet on air at a PBS station in Boston while atop a hot plate. A chef star was born.
Basically, her life story is served like a three-course repast. Born Julia Carolyn McWillams in 1912, she grew up in Pasadena, California, with her very strict conservative well-off father and mother. She was quite athletic in high school and graduated from Smith College in 1934. During World War II, she joined the Office of Strategic Services.
That is when she would meet the love of her life, fellow OSS employee Paul Cushing Child, who was 10 years her senior. Excerpts from her journal are used to underline their unique passion for one another, even if they had somewhat clashing personalities.
They would marry in 1946. It was Paul who introduced his bride to the sophisticated food found in France that would lead to the third chapter of her life. Their appetite for gourmet food equaled their passion for each other, which is illustrated by a naked photo of Julia that flashes onscreen. She eventually would attend the famed Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and later collaborated with two French cooks, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, on the cookbook that was written specifically for an American audience that would be her first step to her late-life stardom on TV.
One probably should not watch this doc on an empty stomach, given how West and Cohen recreate Child’s famous dishes, including a delectable succulent chicken laid out like a centerfold that might just require an X rating, delicate filets of sole drenched in butter and a delicious example of beef bourguignon, whose aroma seems to virtually waft from the screen.
Of course, more than a few celebrity chefs chime in on how Child influenced their careers, including José Andrés, Ina Garten and Marcus Samuelsson as well as her friends and family. And there are an abundance of clips from daytime TV featuring hosts like Charlie Gibson as well as nighttime talk shows such as Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson and even Mr. Rogers. And it is noted that Child was quite amused by Dan Aykroyd’s blood-drenched imitation of her on Saturday Night Live.
The doc does leave some questions up in the air, however. Child’s collaborators on her status-making cookbook are barely discussed. We are also told she had trouble conceiving a child and that she also struggled with cancer, but these topics are simply brushed aside.
Julia does confront Child’s homophobic leanings that she inherited from her father. But she had a change of heart when she learned one of her male associates died of AIDS. That would lead her to become an activist in the fight to control the deadly disease. She also alienated some of her audience for standing up for Planned Parenthood and legal abortions.
But basically, this pioneer was a jovial and delightful presence and certainly upgraded American palates for the better. As she would say, “Bon appetite!”