Julia Child is remembered as many things – a larger-than-life television personality, cookbook author, catalyst for a change in the way Americans view food as a means of sustenance and Entertainment. But how did she become such an enduring icon?
In their documentary film “Julia,” which was shortlisted for an Oscar and will be released to digital retailers on February 1, co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen use never-before-seen stock footage, personal photos, first-person narratives and gorgeous cinematography to chart Child’s decades-long journey to revolutionize the world of food.
West and Cohen, who also collaborated on the 2018 documentary “RBG,” told Salon how Child became an unlikely TV star at the age of 50, her feminist marriage to Paul Child, how the point of view de Child on homosexuality has evolved over his lifetime and the they have strived to meticulously replicate Child’s signature cuisine.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Something that struck me watching this film is that people today can sometimes lose sight of how anomalous Julia Child’s presence on television would have been when she first appeared times on Channel 2 in Boston.
Julie Cohen: I think you really hit the nail on the head. In the early 1960s, when Julia Child appeared on television, there were two main role models of what a woman on television was going to be. She was either going to be a superwoman – you know, wear a little apron, serve her husband, speak when spoken to, and her behavior is constrained in some way. Then there’s the “sexy girl,” as it will throughout history and into the future. She’s going to be young, a perfect hourglass, a blonde bombshell. Television will always have plenty.
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What a woman isn’t going to be is 6-foot-2, very loud, a little clumsy and awkward, and frankly, telling people what to do. There was this assumption that, “Oh, people don’t want to see that.” But then Julia shows up on TV — very, very coincidentally — and really knocks everyone’s socks off. Not only women craving for this kind of model, but guys also really loved her.
Betsy West: I was watching television in the 1960s. I remember perfectly what it was like, and certainly on public television you did not see any women. It was mostly pointed-headed white academics giving lectures. There wasn’t much children’s television, and it was all very serious and nascent. What was amazing about Julia, as Julie said, was how the audience reacted to her authenticity. Here’s that person who was just totally confident and sure of herself but wasn’t afraid to make a mistake, laugh about it, and have a good time. People loved it and they really reacted.
I was also very personally excited to learn more about Julia’s relationship with her husband, Paul Child. If anyone saw Meryl Streep’s 2009 film “Julie & Julia”, they might have understood how affectionate he was. But you were able to delve into an archive of photographs and letters – what did you learn about their relationship?
computer: I mean, it’s a real feminist love story. Julie McMasters meets Paul Child during World War II when they are both stationed in the Far East. He was 10 years older, more sophisticated, better read, with just a lot more sense of the world. He really introduced Julia to the world. Then, because of his job as a diplomat after their marriage, they are assigned to France where, of course, Julia discovers her passion.
It was while having a very fulfilling and wonderful marriage with Paul. We love in the archives not only the diary entries and letters that Paul wrote to his brother about Julia and their evolving relationship and those of Julia to various friends, but also the photographs therein. Paul Child was an extraordinarily talented photographer. You can just see his love in all the photos he’s taken of Julia since they first met.
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Then, of course, there’s the incredible turning point that occurs when Julia becomes a superstar, Paul’s career is in decline as he leaves the State Department. But rather than feeling sorry for himself or bitter, he so appreciates Julia’s success and such a part of Julia’s success. He throws any way he can to support his wife, so the tables were turned. We loved being able to illustrate this feminist love story when feminist marriages weren’t so common.
You know, it’s funny – I just wrote how when I moved into my first “adult apartment” with a kitchen, a friend gave me a Julia Child prayer candle where she is pictured as a saint. That said, its appeal has not faded over time. In making this film, why do you think this is the case?
JC: I think it’s for some of the same reasons that she appealed to people when she appeared on television in 1963. People love someone who is just their true, authentic self. At first this seemed like a problem. She makes a lot of mistakes when she cooks – everyone makes mistakes when they cook, but not everyone has a TV camera on them. It wasn’t in a time when they could shoot twice as much footage as they wanted and cut it down.
But she said, “Ah, well. Look at me! I messed up and I’m moving on.” It turned out to be one of the things that audiences immediately turned to. It’s one of the things people remember the most about his show.
I love the moment we have very close to the end of the movie where Julia is doing a signing, and a young woman walks up to her for a signing and says, “You taught me that is OK to make a mistake. you don’t have to be perfect.”
It’s actually the lesson that everyone in general – and women in particular – not only want to hear, but really need to hear.
computer: The other thing I would add to that is that during the making of this film, we discovered the reverence with which the kitchen world holds Julia. First of all, the chefs we spoke to — Jacques Pépin, José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson, Ina Garten — really give Julia credit for opening America to this kind of cuisine. Not just French cuisine, but understanding the role of cuisine and food in our lives and celebrating it. She is the founding mother of this awareness that Americans have had about food that seems to last.
The film also traces the evolution of Julia Child not only as a cook but also as a person. Were you surprised how his views on homosexuality changed over time?
JC: Julia has made a very marked evolution compared to her previous life where – like unfortunately many of her generation, were not only homophobic as a feeling – she spoke in a derogatory and disrespectful way about homosexuals. It’s kind of crazy because she’s in the professional catering business, where there were definitely a lot of gay people. James Beard, for example, was a close friend of his.
But then her close friend and lawyer, Bob Johnson, catches AIDS, and she becomes a big supporter of him in her last months of life. But then, beyond that, it just makes her stop and think, “Well, that’s crazy. Why doesn’t the country care more about people with AIDS and speak out isn’t he?” And the reason is the stigma attached to homophobia. So all of a sudden she’s speaking out publicly for people with AIDS and for AIDS research at a time when few people – and certainly not too many celebrities with Central American fans – were going out in 1988. quite amazing.
I had read that your producer, Holly Siegel, took special care to rebuild Julia’s kitchen. Do you know what that process was like for her?
computer:Extra Care doesn’t quite describe the kind of detailed, dedicated, and intense manner in which Holly replicated Julia Child’s cooking. She had some drawings done, and she really designed it to not only match the look of Julia’s kitchen with the colors and the pegboard, but she also found an old, dilapidated Garland stove in New Jersey and got it back to working order – well, at least the top part of the stove.
She worked really hard and she did it in a way that allowed us to film in the kitchen. So, for example, we had a removable panel behind the stove that our wonderful cameraman, Claudia Raschke, could place behind and film in that direction.
Everything was done to make the food we were going to film look its best. Food was absolutely essential to how we envision the documentary.
JC: It’s true. We didn’t want the food to feel like it was an intermission or decoration for the movie. We really wanted that to be part of the story. This was the final stage of making this film, and we worked with cook and food stylist Susan Spungen – who was also the food stylist for “Julie & Julia” and is a true expert on Julia Child’s recipes.
Everything you see in this film is an authentic Julia Child recipe filmed exactly as Julia Child prepared it.
I left the movie starving because of this beautiful cinematography. Did the editing of this film change your relationship to food or cooking at all?
computer: When we started this film, Julie and I loved to cook – and that was one of the most appealing things about doing this film. We had the great experience of being able to go to France and film there for a week and discover incredible cuisine. After we come back to start our edit, the pandemic happens. One day we’re in the office with everyone working, and the next day we’ve all retired to our home offices where I am right now.
I think everyone’s relationship to cooking in food evolved during this time, as it became much more central to what we were doing. We had the added joy of working on this film, which was a lot of fun to edit. Telling Julia’s story and experiencing her love of food, I think it touched us.
It didn’t lead me to go to the start of “Mastering” and start going through the cookbook, but I certainly started cooking some of Julia’s recipes. Julie and I discovered that we both make Salad Niçoise, which I had really enjoyed doing before, but adjusted the presentation based on Julia’s instructions. It’s one of the recipes that ended up in our film as the wonderful generic sequence because it’s so beautiful.
During a rather difficult and difficult time, when so many people were suffering, we felt very fortunate to share our time with Julia and take some of these lessons about the meaning of sharing food with our families.
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