Documentary Review: All Hail the Founding Foodie — “Julia”

The first time Julia Child appeared on TV, it was on “Educational Television” in Boston in the 1960s. She was to plug her culture-shifting new cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” But what she was most concerned about was having something plugged in for her. She needed a hot plate, and the malnourished TV operation at WGBH wasn’t sure they could provide one.

It was for a book talk program, after all. But she insisted, in that bizarre, fluty/fruity, patrician-accented voice, that it was simply a must.

And when she showed up, a lifelong member of the production crew there recalls, she made an omelet, live on the show. She brought the ingredients, her own pan and walked the program host and the viewing audience through the mesmerizing, mouth-watering process of how to make one perfectly.

No one had an omelet pan in greater Boston,” that crew member marvels. And if Boston, of all places, didn’t, how many could there have been in all of America?

That’s the country and culinary sophistication that Julia Child, ex-OSS agent-handler and office clerk, rare female graduate of Paris’s famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking academy and new New Englander walked into on that set. A nation of tinfoil-covered TV dinners, SPAM hors d’oeuvres and “convenience” eaters was about to have its taste buds and its mind blown.

That culture shock is the great take-away from the fun and fascinating new documentary, “Julia.” Here’s a film, opening in a nation overrun with cooking shows and entire TV networks devoted to food and a whole section of society labeling itself “foodies.” And bless her big, butter-basted heart, here’s the woman changed it.

Interviewing friends and relatives, chefs from America and France and the World’s Chef, Spanish-born José Andrés, professional acquaintances and TV cooks who followed her, “Julia” digs deeper into Child than the delightful, fictionalized “Julie & Julia” of a few years back, and captures a true pioneer in her element.

Yes, we see that first omelet on the primitive TV of the Kennedy “Camelot” era. We see the accidents, the improvising, the unflappable chattering on that made her “inimitable,” until, well everyone from comedians to cooks to anybody you met on the street could offer a fair imitation of PBS’s first superstar.

“Save the liver!”

Yes, she stumbled into the Dan Aykroyd “Saturday Night Live” sketch in the ’70s, laughed, and proceeded to show it to dinner guests on video for years afterward, a bit of gory, affectionate mockery she wholly embraced.

The film starts with a bracing montage of Julia cooking-on-TV moments and quotes — “I find that if people are not very interested in food, I’m not very interested in them.” — set to Jimi Hendrix’s “Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire.” It takes in her upper class upbringing in Pasadena, her Smith College education and the start of World War II.

That’s where she jumped into government clerical work, and eventually made her way to the OSS, which would morph into the CIA. That’s where she met and fell in love with her greatest influence, the dashing epicurean Paul Child — her tour guide to the finer things, her champion, her TV cue card writer and biggest fan.

Co-directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen are covering a lot of familiar ground in this Sony Classics/CNN Films production, so they make quick work of it. There was already a definitive PBS documentary, and “Julie & Julia” skipped through her life with no less than Meryl Streep putting everyone else’s Julia Child impersonation to shame.

The co-directors of “RBG” come closest to breaking new ground in recalling Child’s old fashioned, ignorant homophobia, something she (like Fred Rogers, as we saw in his documentary) abandoned the moment she learned better. But even Child’s twilight years — bristling at the “farm to table” fuss of those who followed her, refusing to slow down or give up her various TV gigs, her battles with PBS, which took her for granted in ways they never did her fellow Founding Icon, Mister Rogers — have a triumphant air as showcased here.

Here was a “broad” with moxie, staying power and charisma. There would be no dimming of the light, just an ABC’s “Good Morning, America” gig, endless chat show appearances and one last PBS series with Jacques Pepin as a victory lap for the Woman Who Changed Eating in America when no one thought that could be done.

Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language/sexual reference, and some thematic elements

Cast: Julia Child, José Andrés, Ina Garten, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch, Jacques Pepin, Charles Gibson, Ruth Reichl

Credits: Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.