“In the food world, Julia Child is the GOAT!” beams Julie Cohen, co-director of Julia, a delectable documentary about the improbably tall, enchantingly boisterous woman who, at 49, produced a groundbreaking cookbook that changed the course of America’s relationship to home cooking. We went from a nation of Jello molds bastardized with marshmallows and bland, frozen TV dinners to savory aspics and luscious boeuf bourguignon.
“We’ve spoken to a lot of chefs, several generations after Julia, and it’s amazing how uniformly they revere Julia Child,” adds Cohen’s co-director Betsy West. “As José Andrés says in our film, go to the home of any chef worth his or her salt and what book are you going to see there? [Mastering the Art of French Cooking] by Julia Child. And it’s dogeared. They’ve used it.”
The pair, who in 2018 delved into the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in RGB and earlier this year released the profound and potent My Name is Pauli Murray, spent two years making Julia. For those who think they’ve already seen the full story in 2009’s Julie & Julia, a light narrative drama with a blockbuster turn by Meryl Streep as Child, Nora Ephron’s film barely scratches the surface of just how revolutionary Child was to America’s cuisine and its eventual onslaught of televised celebrity chefs.
The 95-minute Julia (★★★★☆) is a luminous swirl of entrancing stories, profound insights, and brisk, bright recollections, interwoven with an explosion of stunning visuals, from photographs taken by Child’s devoted husband Paul (including the French Chef herself, stunningly in the buff), clips galore from her PBS shows, and glimmering, mouth-watering recreations of her most famous dishes as they’re being prepared.
And while Julia is largely a warm, sweet tribute to Child, Cohen and West don’t shy away from the occasionally uncomfortable truth, including a head-turning recollection of “casual” homophobia on the French Chef’s part.
“Just to be clear, we did not find any video or audio tape or writings of Julia herself saying homophobic things,” says Cohen. “It’s just that she had a pretty bad blind spot.”
Child eventually embraced the gay community, using her celebrity to raise funds for AIDS research in 1988 after her longtime lawyer, Bob Johnson, passed away from the disease. “Julia suddenly sees the light and understands,” says West. “It’s an incredible transformation story.”
Few truly understand the impact Child had on PBS, helping the network evolve from a repository of stuffy, numbingly dull educational programming into a magnet for viewers. She brought creme bruleé and joie de vivre into homes nationwide.
“Julia really changed the face first of public television, and then of all television,” says West. “In the midst of all of those professorial guys wearing tweed jackets or lab coats for their television appearances, in bursts this lady who’s cooking, bringing exuberance and enthusiasm to the teaching process. Julia was a breath of fresh air.”
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