Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, whose 2018 documentary RBG charted the life and impact of Supreme Court justice Roth Bader Ginsberg, are back with a new film looking at the life story of another woman who made an impact on American cultural – Julia Child, the first celebrity television chef.
Julia follows her rise from cookbook author and quirky host of a local Boston public television cooking show, The French Chef, to becoming such a part of the cultural zeitgeist that slightly injuring herself would lead to Dan Aykroyd to impersonate her in one of the most iconic sketches from Saturday Night Live‘s early days. Along the way, Child’s success drove the American appetite away from much of the processed foods and frozen TV dinners of the 1950s towards better and healthier alternatives. Her occasional on-air flubs served to teach viewers that it was OK to make mistakes, a lesson we see her being thanked for by women later in her lifetime. And most importantly, she drove a movement to get more women into restaurant kitchens as chefs, disrupting those previously men-only spaces.
As expected from the directors of the directors of RBG, Julia is a well put together documentary. Drawing on a wealth of materials – the opening credits alone list three different books on the chef, including her own autobiography – the film tells her story cleanly and with more than a touch of humor, usually supplied by Child herself. Footage from her original show and other television appearances is intercut with interviews with relatives and former associates as well as on screen snippets from letters and personal journals. It creates a somewhat clear picture of the woman and her work as the run time allows.
Granted, their are a few omissions, such as her hand in developing a shark repellent for the Office of Strategic Services during the war. And once the movie gets her to the point in her life where she realizes she has nothing much in common with her sharply conservative father anymore, they pretty much disappear from the story. Did she just cut off all ties with him? Did they come to some sort of reconciliation later? None of that is addressed. An odd omission considering the participation of other family members as some of the documentary’s interviewees.
Julia also doesn’t dig too much under the surface of Child’s public persona. The bubbly face she presented on screen is pretty much what we get here. There is a mention of some casual homophobia in how she would refer to some of her male fans who would come out to her personal appearances, but we are told that word and attitude disappeared overnight in the late 1980s after a close friend died of AIDS. She would be an avid campaigner for AIDS awareness for the rest of her life.
But Julia does make sure to devote sometime to Child’s husband Paul. When the pair first met during World War Two in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) it was not love at first sight. But as they got to know each other their relationship blossomed and after the war ended they returned to the United States and married. Paul proved to be very supportive of his wife, first when she enrolled as the only woman in her class at the Cordon Bleu and then through all of her career that blossomed out of that. In an era where women were expected to be homemakers and little more, her career outside the home was not the norm and his support and willingness to work hard for her was unheard of.
But in an era where there is a whole cable channel devoted to cooking shows and more celebrity chefs than one can shake a whisk at, Julia does an outstanding job of memorializing the woman who started it all.