Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Featuring Julia Child, José Andres, André Cointreau, Susy Davidson, Barbara Fairchild, Ina Garten, Charles Gibson, Jacques Pepin, Alex Prud’homme, Cecile Richards, Marcus Samuelsson
While we reflect on the teachings of Richard Williams, another story unfolds in theaters this week, that of “Julia,” the sublime documentary chronicling the life of Julia Child.
Co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG), the duo seeks to tell the origins of television’s most famous culinarian, Julia Child. The exciting aspect of “Julia” is not just her onscreen exploits but her humility and grace. The documentary makes it a point to demonstrate her beginnings before diving into her first television appearance in 1952 on public television.
Because of her background and education, she worked for the OSS during the second world war, helping track officers with top-secret clearance. During her post in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), she met Paul Cushing Child. Cohen and West dot the doc with their love affair, that of great minds between the two of them. A stint between the couple saw them in France, one of Child’s happiest places, where she learned French cooking techniques before returning to Massachusetts in her late 40’s.
Her bubbly personality led to the publishing of her first cookbook, a stable in any kitchen. More importantly, through interviews with colleagues, friends, and family, Child took to the airwaves on a book review show of all programs. The cookbook, which publishers first balked at, was finally published and reviewed on the program; however, it was Child’s demonstration of making an omelet that sparked audience attention – families were used to heating pre-prepped meals in the oven, a convenience factor. Child demonstrated the ease with which a family could prep delicious meals in the comfort of their own home.
Child was not fearful of rejection or of failure, a point “Julia” also makes. In the early 1950s, linear editing was not a part of the post-production process, so every foible and gaffe, which could easily be edited today, was not possible, let alone having the facilities for cooking on live TV. Child took it in stride and made the most of her time on television and in public.
Yet, PBS knew that they had struck gold, and they developed a show around her appearances. Child was open about her experiences and sharing her knowledge, but she was also as tough as nails when negotiating her share. It led to sour feelings with some but also opened opportunities for a revolution in cooking in the United States, let alone identifying a lack of opportunities for women in professional kitchens. Further, Child’s popularity was so enduring that she was the subject of a Saturday Night Live parody, which pleased her immensely. Child was the envy of men and women alike, but she wasn’t always the equal opportunist that later became apparent in her causes.
The documentary points out her initial lack of respect for the LGBTQ community. Still, a friend’s death at the height of the AIDS epidemic changed her thoughts about the community at large, and her support long after her death is felt today.
Child was a romantic, and her life with Paul and close friends and family are at the heart of the documentary, much like a kitchen is the heart of the home – cooking has a universal way of bringing people and cultures together. It melds the best, and sometimes the worst, of us. Julia Child uniquely connected us through her youthful exuberance, and “Julia” captures the essence of who she was and her effect on the world at large.
As theaters and film festivals begin to show films in person, the movies that lie dormant during the pandemic are now being released. Like the musicals that have graced 2021, “Julia” sits equally with “Roadrunner: A film About Anthony Bourdain.” Both documentaries share the wisdom of their subjects; however, “Julia” genuinely excels at honoring its subject and her life.
PG, 95 minutes, Sony Pictures Classics/Imagine Documentaries/CNN Films