More than makeup, clothing, hairstyle, elevator shoes and cinematography tricks transform Streep into Child: It’s also her uncanny replication of Child’s distinctive voice and enunciation, gestures and, not least, exuberance.
That exuberance came through in television shows, appearances and biographies, one aptly titled Appetite for Life. It’s also apparent in her autobiography, My Life in France, published posthumously, upon which the Julia portion of the movie is based. It covers the time when Child and her husband, Paul, moved to France in 1948 until her seminal masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, becomes accepted for publication in 1961.
The Julie portion concerns a year in the life of Julie Powell. Powell is frustrated with her life in 2002 — a depressing, dead-end job dealing with 9/11 victims’ families, her politically-connected bureaucrat bosses and a crummy apartment in Queens. But Powell is primarily frustrated with herself. She hits upon an idea to cook all 524 recipes in MtAoFC in 365 days and blog about the experience. Powell enjoys cooking, but has no thoughts of becoming a chef or other food professional. She’s primarily a wannabe actor and writer; as she says about her “Julie and Julia Project,” “When I started my blog, I certainly entertained daydreams about unlikely fame and fortune.”
Well, she got them. Powell’s blog became a sensation. She was interviewed in print, radio and national television. New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser (who plays herself in the movie) came to dinner. Julie and Julia, the book, became a bestseller, and, of course, then a movie.
But while critics have raved about Meryl Streep as Julia, and been positive about Stanley Tucci’s “perfectly casted” role as Julia’s beloved and loving husband, they have been downright hostile about the Julie character. NPR’s David Edelstein called her a “whining cipher,” and said, “I prefer to lop off Julie and her obnoxious husband and concentrate on Streep and Stanley Tucci.” Child biographer Laura Shapiro (Julia Child: A Life) says Julie “tackles each recipe as if it’s her opponent on a battlefield and the only point of cooking is victory.” In last week’s IT, Chuck Koplinski says, “…there are far too many moments in which we have to see her wrestle with doubt and rage at the heavens at the injustice of working in a small kitchen. This… quickly becomes annoying. When her husband takes a brief hike from her for a much-needed break, I wished I could join him.”
The criticism isn’t directed at Amy Adams’ portrayal of Powell, although she’s perkier and less crude than in the book. It’s the Julie character herself. In both book and movie, just when she finally hits the big time, Powell is hurt and bewildered to discover her idol is critical of her and her project. “Julia hates me,” she cries after receiving a phone call from a reporter who just interviewed Child. “She thinks I’m not respectful or not serious or something.” In the movie version, Powell asks her husband if it might be because “I use the f-word sometimes.”
Neither book or movie offer any explanation, but I understood why Julia wouldn’t have approved of Julie’s Project, as surely did many others familiar with Child’s work. It wasn’t because of the f-words. Julia Child had a tremendous sense of humor that was not infrequently bawdy. She wasn’t above swearing, either, although, she might well have found what Powell herself called her “gutter language” excessive (as did I). In both blog and book it occurred far more than “sometimes.”
I don’t think it was primarily because of Powell’s whiny angst or self-doubt either. Child was naturally generous and tolerant and didn’t disdain those who struggled to find themselves and their place in the world. Outgoing and gregarious herself, Child wasn’t given to introspection or depression. In 1946, shortly before her marriage, she wrote to Paul, “I am continually trying to keep ‘ME’ out of as much of my relations with people as possible, and transfer a full interest to you/them, which automatically….makes me a more lovable person to them and them to me.”
She didn’t waste time or energy regretting might-have-beens. One of the few false notes the Julia scenes strike are the attempts to imply that Child began her cooking career because of dissatisfaction with her life or unfulfillment because she didn’t/couldn’t have children. True, her great energy needed outlets. But Child’s own words make it clear that she began cooking seriously out of enthusiasm and excitement rather than to fill a void. Of having children, she wrote, “We tried. But for some reason our efforts didn’t take. It was sad, but we didn’t spend too much time thinking about it and never considered adoption. It was just one of those things. We were living very full lives.”
What Child didn’t tolerate and did disdain was what she called “the flimsies.” Sloppiness. For Powell, cooking — the Julie and Julia Project — was a marathon, an endurance test, the means to an end of fame and fortune. She was out to prove that she could finally finish something. As Shapiro says, “If the dish comes out well, she glows, if it fails, she throws a tantrum.” More important to Child than the tantrum would have been that Powell didn’t keep working on a failed dish until she got it right. Judith Jones, now in her 90s, was Child’s editor at Alfred Knopf publishers. In cooking and editorial circles, she’s almost as famous as Child herself. As a young assistant, she persuaded her superiors to publish a manuscript they’d rejected: The Diary of Anne Frank. An enthusiastic amateur cook who’d lived in France at the same time as Child (although they never met there), it was she who recognized MtAoFC’s potential. For decades she was the editor-of-choice for any aspiring cookbook author. She said of Child’s reaction to Powell’s blog,
“What came through… was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She [Powell] would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. She [Child] didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.”
For Child, cooking was a quest for perfection, an end in itself. She (along with partners Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) spent eight years writing — and rewriting — and rewriting MtAoFC. Certainly they wanted to publish it. But more important was getting the recipes and instructions absolutely right. It didn’t matter how long it took. What money they might make was uncertain. Child’s passion and dedication are illustrated in her preface to MtAoFC’s roast chicken recipe: “While it does not require years of training to produce a juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird, it does entail such a greed of perfection that one is under compulsion to hover over the bird, listen to it, above all see that it is continually basted, and that it is done just to the proper turn.”
That “greed for perfection” was Child’s quest. Her early TV shows that seemed so off-the-cuff were in reality meticulously planned and practiced. The spontaneity was because they weren’t edited, and filmed without breaks.
I enjoyed the entire Julie and Julia movie, though I did like the Child segments best. True, as Edelstein said, the connection between the two stories is labored. But it works if it’s not viewed as an attempt to equate the two women’s journeys and accomplishments. As Powell herself says in her book, “It would have been almost heresy to consider the actual Julia Child and my own endeavor within the same theater of possibility.”
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.