“When you’re flipping something, you have to have the courage of your convictions….and if you happen to drop something in the process, and you’re alone, whoooO is going to see?”
With words like those, and many others, delivered in an almost improbable, sing-song-y falsetto, Julia Child endeared herself to American home cooks over the last four decades of the 20th century.
Critics are falling all over themselves praising Meryl Streep‘s channeling of the Child persona, but to this food fan, who was practically raised by the woman (in a kitchen sense anyway), Streep strives too hard to capture the humor and pathos of said persona, at the expense of the gravitas behind Child’s personality. Because as the brilliant Stanley Tucci (playing her husband Paul Child) says to her in the movie: “You would make a great teacher.”
And so she was.
Those bits of theatricality are what sells both the movie and the Streep legend, though, so to the extent all the joy and laughter and tears are played to the hilt (and drive foodies and non-foodies to the theatre), all is forgiven. Julia, for all of her pedantic ways, probably would have loved it
By the early 1970’s, Child was well known to anyone with a television (which was everyone) as that gangly, oddball cooking teacher on “educational television” (what they used to call PBS). She had her fans from coast to coast (remember, this was when there were only four channels to choose from), but no one took food as seriously as we do today. Housewives looking to impress their guests and husbands were her primary audience, and the rest of America was too caught up in the politics (and war and corruption) of the sixties and seventies to afford Mastering The Art Of French Cooking the respect it has now gained.
It deserves that respect of course, because in retrospect, it stands as the first, serious cookbook for American home cooks — as opposed to just a collection of recipes. What Mastering did was dissect, then reassemble, all the joyous parts of the second greatest cuisine on earth, and the one Americans were paying the closest attention to in the glorious years of Franco-philia following WWII. (The Chinese equivalent of Child’s masterpiece will have to await until sometime in the mid-21st century, we’re thinking. Little known fact: Julia’s first food epiphanies occurred in China, not France)
But if Child had only been a cookbook author, we wouldn’t be talking about her today. It was that TV show (called “The French Chef” — even though she was neither French nor a chef), that launched her into the American consciousness. That part of her life hasn’t even begun when the movie ends, and its point of view concerns itself solely with the overlapping stories of two women, fifty years apart, each trying to get published.
To the extent it can make such an exercise in solipsism interesting (and fun) it succeeds, especially in the evocation of Paris in the post-war fifties. Paris may have been the best tasting place on earth in those years, and from the scenes of Julia shopping to her devouring a sole meuniere, you can practically taste the flavors through the elegant, slightly-sepia-toned cinematography.
Queens, New York, on the other hand, gets the short straw, being portrayed an environment steeped in drudgery, from which its protagonist (Amy Adams as the 30 year old writer Julie Powell) seeks to escape. As charming an actress as she is, she (and Queens) are chewed up and spit out by the other half of the story. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, and the fact that Child is such an icon to anyone over fifty, but the souffle falls, and the movie just seems duller (and whinier) whenever it cuts back to Powell’s little hovel and listens to her Gen-Y carping about how unhappy she is.
Julia Child* was unhappy (and childless) and frustrated too in 1949 (and quite a bit better off it should be noted), but she got to bask in the bounty of France before discovering her metier in her late forties. Director Nora Ephron tries to be fair and give each story equal weight, but at the end of the day, Julia was a woman whose fortitude and talent taught two generations how to cook (the right way, not the Rachel Ray way), and Julie is just a blogger** who got a book deal.
* Child died in 2004 at the age of 91. To hear our KNPR obituary of her, click here.
** A. O. Scott of the New York Times described Powell’s book (Julie and Julia) as “rambling.” He was being kind. It is unreadable.