By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
NEW YORK -- "To Julia," said Fern Berman, the late Julia Child's onetime publicist and longtime friend, raising her glass in a circle of some of Child's closest companions. "We miss you."
This small group of food luminaries had gathered at the invitation of The Washington Post for an early look at the new film "Julie & Julia" and to discuss its portrayal of their friend, the droll cookbook author and iconic TV teacher known as much for her warbling near-falsetto voice as for her impact on American cooking.
Does Child come alive in the film? Does the movie accurately depict her cuisine, her recipe-writing technique, her personality? Is the big-screen version of Child as intellectual and as political as the woman in flesh and blood?
As they nibbled on fresh-baked bread, cornichons and charcuterie, those assembled at L'Ecole, the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, could agree only that Child was too important and indelible a personality for a film to easily capture.
"She didn't look like anybody else, sound like anybody else, have a life like anybody else, teach cooking like anybody else," said Laura Shapiro, who wrote a biography of Child. "It would be very, very hard to persuade Julia's closest friends."
The film, which opens Aug. 7, tells the story of Child's culinary awakening in France in the 1940s and 1950s as recounted in "My Life in France," a book she started with nephew Alex Prud'homme that was published after her death in 2004 at age 91. Her story is juxtaposed with that of Julie Powell, a young New Yorker who in 2002 started blogging about a year of cooking each of the 524 recipes in the first volume of Child's seminal cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
The film's opening scene shows Child, played by Meryl Streep, moving with her husband to a grand apartment in Paris. She comes close to sobs, wordless, over a life-changing taste of buttery, browned sole meuniere. She has encountered the cuisine she will dedicate herself to learning and exporting to an American audience.
Then viewers meet Powell, played by Amy Adams, moving with her husband to a dingy apartment over a pizzeria in Queens. She soon is nearly weeping over her life's disappointments, frustrations and lack of direction. That dissatisfaction leads her to seek a vocation in a blog about cooking Child's food.
When the film ended in the Sony screening theater on a recent Monday, the first words from some of Child's friends were, "Julia would not have liked it."
Some said Child would not want her life cast in parallel with that of Powell, who she believed was trying to capitalize on her name and oeuvre with the blog, which became a book.
"She thought it was opportunistic," said chef Jacques Pépin, a close friend of Child's who hosted cooking shows with her. Others said the cinematic Child was too fluffy and showed too little of Child's drive, and of her scientific approach to testing and writing recipes, as she strove to respect French tradition while making dishes accessible to the American cook. Some noted that when Child was in France, she was in her 30s: slimmer, more athletic and less eccentric and awkward than her later self on television -- or Streep in the film.
Still, Child's friends marveled at Streep's achievement. She got the voice right. Somehow, the 5-foot-6-inch Streep gave the sense of Child's 6-foot-2 frame.
And Streep making an omelet? "Entirely accurate, exactly as Julia did it on TV," said Nick Malgieri, a New York pastry chef and author who appeared on "Baking With Julia," one of Child's shows.
Child's niece, Phila Cousins, said later in a phone interview that Streep's characterization was unnervingly real. Cousins, a clinical psychologist in Colorado, said she visited the studio during filming to watch a scene between her famous aunt and her mother.
"It's a pretty surreal experience seeing your dead relatives come to life," Cousins said. "Meryl is inches smaller than my aunt. She said her characterization was based on the voice and getting the movements of a big person right. It's an amazing feat."
Powell said in a telephone interview that she understands objections to the parallels in Nora Ephron's screenplay between her life and Child's.
"I didn't do anything all that special," Powell said. "I did what thousands of women did: I cooked Julia Child's recipes."
Powell said she sought to honor Child's legacy, not to exploit it. "I'm not religious; I don't believe she's up there in heaven with Paul [her husband] eating sole meuniere," Powell said. "The extent to which a person lives on is in the minds of other people."
Still, it is difficult to settle on a single version of someone's life, or to agree on how to honor a legacy, especially for someone as much in the public eye and yet also as private as Child.
Nearly a half-dozen biographies of Child are completed or in the works, each presenting its own view of her. Child wrote her own book with Prud'homme late in her life, precisely because she did not want to reveal herself earlier, her friends said.
She was extremely protective of her name as a brand and refused to endorse products. And she never confessed even to close friends a fact revealed after her death: that she worked as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA.
"Each time we talked about it, she said, 'I just pushed paper! Can you imagine me, with my height, my voice -- a spy?' " Pépin said.
Despite her secret life, many Americans felt they knew her intimately because of what she did for food on television. The 1950s were a low point for American cooking, said Judith Jones, the editor who first published Child, in a telephone interview. Supermarkets had no fresh garlic or herbs, no shallots, no leeks, no lettuce other than iceberg.
To a country infatuated with cake mixes, TV dinners and instant foods that would not mess up the kitchen, Child and co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle brought a French sense of tradition, art and quality in food. Then for a decade starting in 1963, Child's wildly popular television program, "The French Chef," persuaded home cooks to venture into complicated territory.
These days, Americans have entered a new era of the homemade, and the film could help bring this generation of foodies back to Child. To coincide with the opening, the publishers have released new editions of "My Life in France" and Powell's book "Julie & Julia" with Streep and Adams on the cover. Even the latest edition of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" is being sold in a wrapper promoting the movie.
But at the French Culinary Institute, Child's friends had their own sense of how to honor her memory. It starts with stories.
"She was not a snob about food," said Berman, her publicist. "I remember lunch one day at her house: There was iceberg lettuce on the table, Hellmann's mayonnaise and chicken. I said, 'This chicken is delicious,' " only to have Child reveal that it had come from Costco. "She loved chicken and hot dogs from Costco," Berman said.
Child was particular about the setting for food, and when eating at a restaurant she would ask the staff to turn up the lights, said Rebecca Alssid, director of the gastronomy program at Boston University. "She would say, 'I don't eat what I can't see,' " Alssid recalled.
Pépin, who cooked with Child for years and drew her into his family circle, described her as "someone enticing that you would like to spend time with."
As he told yet another story, impersonating Child's trilling tone, he said, "You cannot talk about Julia without doing her voice."
Nowadays, few use Child's "Mastering the Art" because it calls for so much cream and butter, said Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder of the French Culinary Institute. After the film's release, she said, "I hope people will be eating more butter."