It’s been ten years since Nora Ephron’s swan song, Julie and Julia. It was an ambitious film for her and it also wasn’t, because it features expected and loved Ephron trademarks of witty dialogue and deft character development. What’s unusual for the Ephron canon is that Julie and Julia juxtaposes the lives of two unique women in two separate time periods. It’s challenging from a plot standpoint, but there’s so much to enjoy that it must have been an utter pleasure to develop and shoot.
The film follows the lives of Julie Powell and Julia Child. Julie (Amy Adams) is a clerk for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a government agency set up to redevelop the Port Authority section of Manhattan, as well as deal with the fallout of 9/11. Her job consists of helping survivors, the bereaved, and their families, as well as providing general support in rebuild efforts. It’s not an easy job, let alone fun, and Julie comes home emotionally exhausted every night. Her only release is cooking.
Julie’s a frustrated writer, and much to her embarassment, her fellow writer-friend Annabelle writes a less-than-flattering piece about her for the New Yorker. Annabelle is also a blogger, sending out salacious details of her current love affairs to the Interwebs, and it bugs the heck out of Julie, because she feels like her life is going nowhere.
By way of rebelling against the professional and emotional hole she finds herself in, Julie decides to write her own blog, only hers is going to be about cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With the help of her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), Julie starts a blog at Salon, which hosted Blogspot at the time, and gets to work. It’s definitely not easy, as Julie’s kitchen is tiny, the sink gets clogged, and some of the foods are just plain unappealing to the twenty-first century palate, like aspic. Julie, however, soldiers on, finding joy in cooking roast chickens and Queen of Sheba cake.
At first Julie seems to be spinning her wheels and sending her posts out into a cosmic void, but suddenly her readership explodes. A lot. Her readers send her fancy hot sauce and comment like crazy on her latest exploits. When she’s interviewed by Amanda Hesser of the New York Times, publishers and producers flood Julie’s phone with messages.
As for the second true story in Julie and Julia, the first time we see Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is when she arrives in France. She and her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci) drive from the dock to Paris and stop at a restaurant in Rouen, where Julia has soul Meuniere, and it’s a revelation. Equally epochal is her arrival in Paris, where she and Paul set up house in an apartment on the 81 Rue de l’Universitie.
While they’re blissfully happy, Julia has to wonder what she’s going to do with her life. She tries hatmaking, which falls flat. She tries bridge, which is boring. What Julia really likes to do is eat, and she wants to find a French cookbook in English, but none exist, so Julia enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu. This is where she blossoms, and Paul sits back and watches in loving fascination.
At a party one night, Julia meets Simone “Simca” Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), who are writing a French cookbook for Americans. She becomes instant friends with them, and they open a cooking school after Julia graduates from Le Cordon Bleu becoming Les Trois Gourmandes. What’s more, Simca and Louisette ask to collaborate with her when their publisher rejects their cookbook. Thus begins a long, long process of developing and testing recipes, only it’s mostly Julia and Simca doing the work, with Louisette making slight contributions now and then.
Throughout various assignments to Marseille, Plittersdorf-on-the-Rhine, and Oslo, Julia plugs away at her book, with Paul taking photos and Julia loving every minute of the process. Naturally, the next step is to find a publisher, and when Houghton-Mifflin rejects them, our Trois are back to the drawing board. Also naturally, history shows how everything turned out.
Where these two stories converge is when Julie Powell finds out Julia Child thinks she’s a pill. And it seems sort of odd, because Julie is winsome and completely cute. In the end, though, Julie has to decide which Julia is more important: The Julia who lives in her mind, or the real-life Julia who dissed her.
When it came to bringing these two works to the screen, Ephron did a lot of slicing and dicing because she had to make Powell look good. Read: She had to give Powell some niceness. That part when Julie finds out that Julia thinks she’s a pill? And it’s a total mystery because who could not like Amy Adams? Well, it turns out that Julia did have quite a bit of justification in her assessment.
Julia said, ‘I don’t think she’s a serious cook.’ Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called ‘the flimsies.’ She didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.
Mrs. Jones wasn’t wrong. I tried and failed to read Powell’s book after seeing Ephron’s film, so for this review I purposely gave myself a lot of time to reattempt it, but the second shot wasn’t any easier. After about a third of the way through, I pushed it aside in disgust. Good thing it was only a library book. I hesitate to even include the book’s Amazon link here because it’s that bad, but I believe people should draw their own conclusions, so I’m gonna do it anyway.
In my opinion, Powell can be mean and she doesn’t seem to care. There’s very little in the book on food or cooking; it’s mostly about Powell’s friends, her husband, her maggotty Long Island City kitchen, and so on and so forth. The sum total feels like snarky, pseudo-intellectual bloviation. Powell doesn’t seem to have any class or finesse, even when it comes to her friends and family, and she haaaaates Republicans. Like, she thinks they’re evil incarnate.
Regardless of where one falls on the belief spectrum, when one is trying to build an audience or keep one, touchy subjects need a light hand. Powell obviously didn’t get that memo when writing Julie and Julia. I honestly don’t know why the book is this way, because Powell’s tone is kinder in the blog. My guess is that she felt like she had a ready-made fan base who wouldn’t give a flying fish what she wrote. However, as evidenced by the poor reviews of Powell’s second book, Cleaving, disrespect can only take one so far, if anywhere at all.
The other book that Julie and Julia is based on, though, My Life In France, is absolutely wonderful. Seriously, if you can get a copy, go for it–it’s that good. Julia Child co-wrote it with her nephew, Alex Prud’homme, and when she died towards the end of the writing process, Prud’homme finished the book. It mostly focuses on the Childs’ time in France, as well as Paul’s Embassy work in various countries.
Julia and Paul arrived in France in 1948. Paul had lived there before, but Julia was uninitiated at the time. She felt she was Parisian right off the bat, and threw herself into learning the city and the French language. Unlike in the film, however, Julia didn’t see leaving Paris as life-ending. She saw all of their time in Europe as an adventure, even when Paul’s work led them to other locales.
Naturally, there were changes made between Child’s book and the movie. While Louisette came across as the weakest link, in actuality it was Simca who was the difficult one. She was even more meticulous than Julia when it came to method, and had a very my-way-or-the-highway approach. She and Julia collaborated until the early seventies, when Julia became fed up with Simca’s nagging. The two stayed friends, but at more of a distance.
When it came to publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the trick was, as portrayed in the film, of finding a publisher who caught the vision. Julie and Julia shows an editor at Houghton-Mifflin who said that housewives wanted something quick from a mix, and this really happened.
Again, Judith Jones, played by Erin Dilly in the film, was the heroine of this story. The woman was brilliant, and she had a nose for memorable books. Not only did she publish Julia Child’s work, but she saved Anne Frank’s The Diary of the Young Girl from the reject pile when Otto Frank was looking to have it published in English.
Julie and Julia is fascinating for a lot of reasons. Julia Child is always fascinating. The idea of spending a year cooking through Mastering the Art of French Cooking is fascinating. Nora Ephron’s dialogue is fascinating. The movie is meticulously accurate in terms of looks and costume–Julia’s niece, Dorothy Cousins was awed by how dead-on the Paris apartment sets looked, and the film accurately represents New York City just after 9/11, with fashion non-existent and people picking up the pieces after tragedy. What ties it all together is love of food and gorgeous presentation of it. One of the nicest aspects of the movie is that Ephron had Powell doing what she didn’t do in either her blog or the book, which was simply enjoying food.
Plus, it’s fun remembering blogging when it was in its infancy and seeing how much it’s changed since 2002. Bloggers in particular can appreciate how much harder formatting a post was eighteen years ago. Just inserting a picture was tough, let alone embedding a YouTube video, unless one knew HTML. There was no Patreon, there was no WordPress, and blogs were hosted by existing journalism platforms like Salon.
What hasn’t changed is the rush one gets when people start commenting on posts. Or the dream that plenty of bloggers have to some extent of seeing their work recognized on a larger level. Blogs may be much more common nowadays, but certain aspects of blogging are still a big deal.
In all, Julie and Julia is a fine end to the career of one of Hollywood’s most adept writers and a tribute to a woman who changed cooking in America forever. And it just might make anyone who watches it hungry, which isn’t a bad thing, either.
Thanks for reading all, and see you next week, when I’ll be contributing to Crystal’s Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Have a good one…