Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I inherently knew who Julia Child was. “I’m Julia Child!” I could warble in my best imitation, just knowing her as the jovial host of cooking shows on PBS. She was right up there with (“Walkies!”) dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse or gentle painter Bob Ross, pre-internet pop culture icons who made a unique artistic stamp on the country because we were all glued to the same handful of channels on TV.
Julia gives us a high level and entertainingly brisk portrayal of this American icon. Julia Child is the woman who could easily be credited with launching pop culture’s interest in cooking–from her revolutionary cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which came out during an era when boxed, packaged, and instant foods were celebrated and advertised; to her superstar status as a television host of cooking shows aimed to entertain and educate the average cook.
Born in 1912 in Pasadena, California, she came from very well off Republican stock, and was expected to marry well. Well over 6 feet tall and university-educated, she was more intellectually curious than the suitors that she was matched with by her staunch father. Instead, during World War II, she decided to do her part by working for the OSS (which later became the CIA) as a typist, was stationed abroad, and met an older liberal intellectual named Paul Child, who adored her. Their lifelong love story anchored her world, as he was an unflagging supporter of his ambitious wife, and it anchors this film as well.
After the war, while they lived in France, she went to the esteemed culinary school Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and, finding her passion, worked with a friend for a decade on a cookbook about French cooking, with the American audience in mind. First rejected, the published book became a sensation when she went on Boston public television to demonstrate how to make a simple, delicious omelet. (Honestly, I’d love to watch that full early episode to see what the trick is!) From there, a show was born, which quickly became a sensation, and this funny, engaging, and self-effacing woman became a pop culture superstar that is still remembered today.
Julia may not offer much new for the super-fan. My partner proclaimed that there were only a couple surprises, like Child’s late-in life support for fundraising for the AIDS crisis (after a close friend died suddenly of the disease, opening her eyes), as well being a champion for Planned Parenthood. She was a woman who never wanted to retire, even after she was booted from PBS. She worked until she was 87, doing appearances on Good Morning America and talk shows, and passed at the age of 91. Talk about an inspiring life well-lived!
For those not well-versed in her lore, you’ll learn a bit… though I have to admit for someone who was a media icon, there actually wasn’t, well, MORE of her in it. There are a lot of film clips and many still images, but there are also a lot of talking heads: friends and admirers talking about the woman or reminiscing. That, and a lot of glistening, sizzling, juicy food porn. I felt like there was perhaps so much more of Child herself left off the table, to make room for an efficiently edited main dish. I certainly would have liked to hear more of her interviews and have more of her entertaining film clips. But, for the uninitiated, the documentary at the very least certainly serves as a nice introductory sampler for a woman who was a uniquely American success story.