Long before Julia Child became a television star, her husband, Paul, had noticed that she had a remarkable effect on people. Nobody was immune: Julia would turn her attention to someone, quite possibly the grumpiest person in the room, and that person would open up and blossom like a flower in the sun. It was as if she awakened a spirit of delight wherever she went. Paul called it “la Julification des gens”—the Juliafication of everybody. When she first appeared on TV, showing up on those little black-and-white screens in 1963 and talking intently about cuts of beef, her spontaneous charm leaped right across the camera, and we were all Julia-fied.
Now, five years after her death, the same thing is happening again—this time at the movies. Meryl Streep’s deep, detailed evocation of Julia in the new Nora Ephron film, Julie & Julia, has the power of the original to win every heart in the crowd. As you might expect, she inhabits Julia beautifully—the size, the voice, the physical mannerisms—but to me it’s even more impressive that she gives an account of Julia’s character very much in tune with Julia’s own sense of herself. “I am continually trying to keep ‘ME’ out of as much of my relations with people as possible, and transfer a full interest to you/them, which automatically...makes me a more lovable person to them, and them to me,” Julia wrote to Paul in 1946, shortly before they were married—quite a good description of what it was like to have an ego that expressed itself most pleasurably in generosity.
I knew Julia only slightly during her lifetime, but after her death we spent a couple of companionable years together as I worked on a book about her (Julia Child: A Life, reissued by Penguin in paperback this month). Reading my way through the huge stash of personal and professional papers that she donated to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I could feel her emerging from every typewritten page I studied, livelier and funnier and more inquisitive on a wisp of a carbon copy than most people are in their living and breathing prime. Streep captures that vitality, and she also captures the dignity and civility that accompanied it. Julia was entirely modest beneath her buoyant good humor; and it’s clear in every inch of Streep’s personification that this woman is never going to carry on like a me-me-me celebrity, no matter how famous she gets.
In short, I sat there in the movie theater beaming like a lunatic during approximately half the film. The other half is a different story—literally. Ephron based her film on two books about Julia that have nothing whatever in common, starting with their treatment of Julia. One is Julia’s own memoir, My Life in France, which she wrote with her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme. This describes the years in which she discovered Paris, food, and her life’s work, ultimately producing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The second is Julie Powell’s book Julie & Julia, which describes the year Powell (played in the film by Amy Adams) lived in Queens, N.Y., and discovered her true self by making every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, blogging as she went. There’s no question that Powell had a great idea for a blog. What she didn’t have was anything interesting to say about cooking her way through Mastering. Her writing is hollow, narcissistic, and unforgivably lazy—qualities so foreign to Julia that it’s not at all surprising that she once said she couldn’t abide Powell’s work.
In the film, the two stories run by side side. First we see France, looking glorious as Julia and Paul (Stanley Tucci, perfectly cast as Julia’s mini-tower of strength and sagacity) arrive in 1948 and Julia gets her first taste of paradise, in the form of a sole meunière glittery with butter. Then we dart over to Queens, where Julie Powell is pouting about her aimless life. It’s awfully hard to care. Adams is cute, but this is a thankless role: There’s no there there, and for some reason she’s adopted a pert, high-pitched voice that makes every line sound inane. Back to France, where Julia meets her colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (Linda Emond and Helen Carey, wonderful casting once more—both look deliciously French, from their tight little faces to their chic little shoes). And over to Queens, where Powell has triumphs and failures in the kitchen while trying the patience of her husband (Chris Messina, who nicely personifies New York as the opposite of Paris—he’s loose and friendly and eats like a hungry bear). And back to France, and so forth. There isn’t a lot of drama in either story. For all their wit and loveliness, the scenes in France flip by like pages from a photo album; and Powell progresses from cute to famous without anything happening on the inside. Just like life, it all comes down to character.
Ephron takes some liberties with the Julia story, but only a few of her changes go so deep that they misconstrue Julia herself. The movie portrays Julia as a slow and reluctant French speaker, for instance, which is all wrong—she jumped into her French lessons eagerly and couldn’t wait to be conversant, because she wanted to experience a French France, not an American one. In another instance, Paul suggests that maybe someday Julia will be on television, and she dismisses the idea with a girlish simper that strikes a rare false note in Streep’s portrayal. It’s true that Julia wasn’t planning on a TV career. But she was definitely anticipating a teaching career, and she understood the power of the visual, so much so that she once urged Beck to stop using her own ad-hoc techniques in the kitchen and learn professional knife skills. “Who knows, we may end up on television,” she wrote.
But Ephron is wholly faithful to the essence of Julia’s experience, and to the reasons why her years in Paris contributed so markedly to American culinary history. When Julia went to the Cordon Bleu and learned how to cook—by hand, without fancy equipment, from the ground up—she was also learning that passion and appetite weren’t enough. She needed technique, confidence, patience, and a host of finicky skills that only came with practicing. It was an approach to cooking that had all but disappeared from American kitchens, and without it Americans were never going to know what they were missing. That’s why she wanted to teach—because mastering French cooking had ushered her into a world so fascinating, so enlightening, and so endlessly delicious she thought everyone deserved access to it.
The idea of Powell as a contemporary heir to this personal and culinary epic is absurd. Nothing in her relation to the kitchen offers the slightest hint that she has learned anything at all from her heroine. In the film, Adams tackles each recipe as if it’s her opponent on a battlefield and the only point of cooking is victory. If the dish comes out well, she glows; if it fails, she throws a tantrum. Watching tapes of The French Chef (splendidly recreated with Streep as the 1960s Julia), her sole reaction to the sight of a genuine master at work is to coo, “She’s so adorable.” This is a journey of self-discovery? At the end, she visits the Julia Child kitchen exhibit at the Smithsonian, and her husband takes a picture of her mugging at a portrait of Julia (i.e. Streep). It’s completely unbearable. Bring a book and a penlight for the Powell half of this movie. But the Julia half? Vaut le voyage, and I can’t wait to go back a third time.