Julia Child is remembered as many things — a larger than life TV personality, a cookbook author, the catalyst for a shift in how Americans view food as sustenance and entertainment. But how did she become such an enduring icon?
In their documentary film “Julia,” which has been shortlisted for an Oscar and will be released to digital retailers on Feb. 1, co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen use never-before-seen archival footage, personal photos, first-person narratives and gorgeous cinematography to trace Child’s decades-long journey to revolutionize the world of food.
West and Cohen, who also collaborated on the 2018 documentary “RBG,” spoke with Salon about how Child became an unlikely TV star at the age of 50, her feminist marriage to Paul Child, how Child’s views on homosexuality evolved during her lifetime and the lengths they went to meticulously replicate Child’s iconic kitchen.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Something I was struck by when watching this film is that it can sometimes be lost on folks today how anomalous Julia Child’s presence on TV would have been when she first busted onto the scene on Channel 2 in Boston.
Julie Cohen: I think you really hit the nail on the head. In the early ’60s, when Julia Child shows up on television, there are two main models of what a woman on TV was going to be. She was either going to be super-wifey — you know, wearing a little apron, serving her husband, speaking when spoken to and her behavior is constrained in a certain way. Then there’s like “sexy girl,” as will be true throughout all history and going into the future. She’s going to be young, perfect hourglass figure, blonde bombshell. TV is always going to have plenty of those.
What a woman is not going to be is 6 foot 2 inches tall, really loud, kind of gawky 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 much by happenstance — and really knocks everyone’s socks off. Not only women who are hungry for this kind of role model, but guys really loved her, too.
Betsy West: I was watching television back in the 1960s. I totally remember what it was like, and certainly on public television, you didn’t see any women. It was mainly kind of white pointy-headed academic men who were giving lectures. There wasn’t much children’s television, and it was all very earnest and borning. What was amazing about Julia, as Julie said, was the way the audience reacted to her authenticity. Here was this person who was just totally confident and sure of herself but not afraid to make a mistake, laughing it off and having a good time. People loved that, and they really responded.
I was also really personally delighted to learn more about Julia’s relationship with her husband, Paul Child. If someone saw the 2009 Meryl Streep film “Julie & Julia,” they may have gotten a sense of how affectionate they were. But you were actually able to dig into archives of photographs and letters — what did you learn about their relationship?
BW: I mean, it’s a true feminist love story. Julie McMasters meets Paul Child during WWII when they’re both posted in the Far East. He was 10 years older, more sophisticated, better read, with just much more sense of the world. He really introduced Julia to the world. Then, because of his job as a diplomat after they were married, they were posted to France where, of course, Julia discovers her passion.
This was while having a very fulfilling and wonderful marriage with Paul. We love in the archive not only the diary entries and letters Paul was writing to his brother about Julia and their evolving relationship and those of Julia to various friends but also the photographs there. Paul Child was an extraordinarily talented photographer. You can just see his love in all the pictures that he took of Julia from the time they first met.
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Then, of course, there’s the amazing turn that happens when Julia is becoming a superstar, Paul’s career is in decline as he’s left the State Department. But rather than feeling sorry for himself or bitter, he is so enjoying Julia’s success and such a part of Julia’s success. He pitches in every single 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 about how when I moved into my first “grown-up apartment” with a kitchen, a friend gave me a Julia Child prayer candle where she is depicted as a saint. This to say, her appeal hasn’t faded with time. In putting this film together, why do you think that is?
JC: I think it’s for some of the same reasons she appealed to people when she showed up on television in 1963. People like someone who is just their true authentic self. At first, that seemed like maybe it was going to be a problem. She’s making a lot of mistakes when she’s cooking – which, everyone makes mistakes when they’re cooking, but not everyone has a television camera on them. This wasn’t during a time when they could shoot twice as much footage as they wanted and cut it down.
But she’s like, “Ah, well. Look at me! I screwed up, and I’m moving on.” It turned out that was one of the things that audiences gravitated to immediately. It’s one of the things that people remember best about her show.
I love the moment that we have very near the end of the film where Julia is doing a book signing, and a young lady comes up to her for a signing and says, “You taught me that it’s OK to make a mistake. I don’t need to be perfect.”
That’s actually the lesson that everyone in general — and women in particular — really not only want to hear, but really need to hear.
BW: The other thing that I would add to that is that over the course of doing this film, we discovered the reverence with which the cooking world holds Julia. First of all, the chefs that we spoke to — Jacques Pépin, José Andrés, Marcus Samuelsson, Ina Garten — they really give Julia credit for opening up America to this kind of cooking. Not just French cooking, but understanding the role of cooking and food in our lives and celebrating that. She is the founding mother of this awakening that Americans had about food that seems to be lasting.
The film also tracks how Julia Child evolved not only as a cook but also as a person. Were you surprised how her views on homosexuality shifted through time?
JC: Julia made a very marked evolution from her earlier life when — like unfortunately many of her generation, were not just homophobic as a feeling — she would speak derogatorily and disrespectfully about gay people. It’s kind of crazy because she’s in the professional food world, where there were certainly plenty of gay people. James Beard, for instance, was a close friend of hers.
But then her close friend and lawyer, Bob Johnson, gets AIDS, and she becomes a huge supporter of him in his final months of life. But then, beyond that, it just makes her stop and think like, “Well, this is crazy. Why doesn’t the country care more about people with AIDS and speak out?” And the reason is because of stigmatization having to do with homophobia. So, all of the sudden, she’s speaking out for people with AIDS and for AIDS research publicly at a time when not too many people — and certainly not too many celebrities with middle America fanbases — were coming out doing an AIDS benefit in 1988. It’s pretty astounding.
I had read that your producer, Holly Siegel, took extra care to reconstruct Julia’s kitchen. Do you know what that process was like for her?
BW: Extra care doesn’t really describe the kind of detailed, dedicated and intense way that Holly was about replicating Julia Child’s kitchen. She had drawings done, and she really designed it not only to match the look of Julia’s kitchen with the colors and the pegboard, but also she found an old rundown Garland stove in New Jersey and restored it to working order — well, at least the top stove part of it.
She worked really hard, and she did it in a way that would allow us to film in the kitchen. So, for example, we had a removable panel behind the stovetop that our wonderful camerawoman, Claudia Raschke, could get behind and shoot in that direction.
It was all done in service of making the food that we were going to film looking its best. The food was absolutely central to how we were envisioning the documentary.
JC: That’s right. We didn’t want the food to just feel like it was an intermission or decoration for the film. We really wanted it to be part of the story. It was the last step of making this movie, and we worked with a cook and food stylist Susan Spungen — who actually also was the food stylist for “Julie & Julia” and is a real expert on Julia Child’s recipes.
Everything you see in that film is an authentic Julia Child recipe filmed exactly as Julia Child prepared it.
I left the film hungry because of that beautiful cinematography. Did putting this film together change, at all, your relationship with food or cooking?
BW: When we began this film, both Julie and I liked 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 experience some amazing food. After we came back to start our edit, the pandemic happens. One day, we’re in the office with everybody else working, and the next day, we’ve all retreated to our home offices where I am right now.
I think everybody’s relationship to cooking into food has evolved during this time, as it has just become 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. To tell Julia’s story and to experience her love of food, I think that did affect us.
It didn’t cause me to go to the beginning of “Mastering” and start moving my way through the cookbook, but I certainly did start to cook some of Julia’s recipes. Julie and I discovered we were both doing salad nicoise, which was something I had really liked to do before, but I adjusted the presentation based on Julia’s instruction. That’s one of the recipes that ended up in our film as the wonderful credit sequence because it’s so beautiful.
During a pretty tough and difficult time, when so many people were suffering, we felt super lucky to be sharing our time with Julia and to take some of those lessons about the meaning of sharing food with our families.
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