During a montage of media appearances, Julia features a clip of Chef Child with Fred Rogers, making spaghetti Marco Polo in 1974. There, together on screen, are two 20th century icons that have fascinated the 21st century. As so many idols have fallen, from Michael Jackson to J.K. Rowling, Mr. Rogers and Julia Child have remained beloved figures who become more, rather than less, impressive the longer and more closely their lives are examined. Maybe add Bob Ross to the list.
That said, when the new documentary strains to argue that Child remains under-appreciated, it’s a lift. Child (1912-2004) was perhaps the most famous cook in American history, a woman whose name became synonymous with ambitious but accessible recipes. It’s a commonsense that she rescued the postwar United States from T.V. dinner purgatory and paved the way for the surfeit of food programming that fills cable channels and streaming services today.
The fact that deserves to be more widely appreciated, as filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West note, is that Child didn’t step before a television camera until she was in her 50s. In an era of growing awareness of age discrimination, Child is dramatic proof that you can start an entirely new career at midlife and enjoy decades of successful work. She also stood apart for the complete confidence she brought to the screen despite an outsize physical presence that no one at the time would have written on a casting sheet. Indeed, a quality that gratifyingly comes through both in the film and in the Bob Spitz biography on which it’s partially based is Child’s sensuality. Her beloved husband Paul was a skilled photographer, and Julia includes a glance at an intimate nude portrait that suggests the lasting warmth the seemingly unlikely pair shared.
Julia Child wasn’t one to make love to her food, though: she handled it with respect but without kid gloves, showing her millions of viewers that it was okay to make mistakes. Julia opens with Child introducing “the chicken sisters,” their raw corpses lined up unceremoniously as the cook knights them with her knife. “Miss Broiler! Miss Frier! Miss Roaster! Miss Caponette! Miss Stewer, and Old Madam Hen.” The filmmakers intercut Child’s vintage clips with fresh footage of food shot up-close in the style of more contemporary cooking shows; the approach is a little distracting, but does serve to remind us that Child’s tutelage helped Americans achieve much more palatable results than many were used to seeing in the heyday of casseroles and Jell-O salads.
The film, which draws on interviews with Child’s family members, friends, and latter-day peers, covers a lot of ground in 95 minutes. That keeps it brisk, but also a little cursory; this is definitely Julia Child 101, but it’s an accessible introduction to the life and work of a culinary pioneer.
Image: Julia Child, courtesy Sony Pictures.