Review: Haven’t we told the story of Julia Child enough?

In the fourth episode of Julia, a new scripted series about Julia Child from HBO Max, the iconic chef has returned from a reunion at Smith College. She was flattered all day, told that she was the only one in her class seeking the life of adventure and passion they all dreamed of in school. She politely listens to women projecting their fantasies onto her, assuming things she doesn’t have time to confirm or deny. One woman even credits Child for reawakening her homosexuality, claiming that it was because of a night of skinny bathing and gin that she is now living with a woman. The child returns home to her husband Paul in a trance. “It’s the weirdest thing,” she said. “People think I belong to them now.”

When does a person become a myth? Julia Child is perhaps one of America’s newest, her stardom only growing since her death in 2004. No matter who she was, her story – or versions of it – has been told so often that we know most of the rhythms. There’s his chirping voice and his tall stature. There’s the passionate, effeminate Paul with whom, everyone agrees, she shared a wild chemistry. There’s butter and sole meunière in France that changed his life, his time at Le Cordon Bleu and the nine-year writing process. Master the art of French cuisine, which revolutionized home kitchens across America. She had her cooking show, and voila, she became an icon, worthy of multiple biopics and portrayals in pop culture.

Juliawhich premieres March 31 and stars Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child and David Hyde Pierce as Paul, is the latest attempt at narrativizing Child’s life, and you wouldn’t be wrong to ask What is there to say? So far we’ve had both the book and the movie Julia and Juliamultiple documentaries, numerous biographies, the memorable Dan Aykyrod SNL printing, as well as Child’s own contributions to the worlds of television, writing and food. There’s an upcoming series of food contests where contestants will attempt to recreate her recipes. If you want to know what happened in Child’s life, the information is there.

What is HBO Max Julia attempts to do is to capture the humanity behind the woman that so many of us now feel we own. Sometimes it succeeds, leaving viewers to soak up the remarkable quality of her accomplishments, but also the impact they must have had on her emotionally and mentally. But despite the show’s best efforts, I still wonder if it’s time to leave Julia Child alone.

The series is positioned as an exploration of the emergence of public television and the changing nature of celebrity and feminism in the 1960s through the lens of Child’s The French cook. Indeed, he’s at his best when dealing with the mud of creating a cooking show. In Juliatells, women — like Child Avis friend DeVoto (Bebe Neuwirth), her editor Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), and WGBH producer Alice Naman (played by Brittany Bradford); Naman is “an amalgam of individuals working at WGBH and public television at that time”, including producer Ruth Lockwood, according to HBO PR – are those who understand Child’s talent and charisma, and who must convince or circumvent men. Even Paul, who thinks TV is a tacky fad, has to be convinced of the concept over dinner, with Jones eventually manipulating him into thinking the show is his plan. Julia depicts The French cookChild’s creation as Child’s idea, with her explicitly pitching her to the network and funding the pilot on her own, rather than the mainstream story that she captivated viewers so much as a guest on a show different that WGBH asked her to come back and do a show of herself.

I watched the first five episodes of Juliaand the parts on The French cook are captivating. In one episode, Child’s inner circle hang out in his kitchen, plotting out his TV choreography and figuring out how to make coq au vin in half an hour. One person foresight suggests that the dish be pre-baked, so Child can reveal the final version right after putting the concoction in the oven. Another person says they should be seen taking a bite and enjoying their own food. After the cameramen don’t know how to film what’s going on in a bowl, a producer sets up a mirror above Child’s counter to allow for better angles.

But the show is not called The creation of ‘The French Chef.’ It’s called Julia, and as such, Julia and her husband Paul are at the center of the narrative. Much time is spent on Paul’s insecurities and resentment over Juila’s growing fame, and Julia’s growing taste for public life and its perks. Paul puts on an art exhibit and complains that people are only there because he is Julia Child’s husband. Julia spends a night at a drag show with James Beard, feeling less and less guilty for leaving Paul behind. It’s compelling, if a bit unsettling in the way it often looks at a fictionalized real-life relationship in which no one is alive to confirm or deny what really happened.

Also, centering Julia and Paul makes the prolonged focus on the rest of the characters seem unnecessary at times. No matter how good we act, we can’t care about Judith Jones juggling clients Child and John Updike, or Naman, a black woman fighting racist and sexist assumptions so she can get credit for his work, without wondering when we’re back to Child’s well-rehearsed narrative. Trying to be both about creating The French cook and about Child herself, Julia goes too far and often misses both targets.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Lancashire achieves a perfectly adorable child, and scenes of her laughing while flaming pancakes or delivering slightly raunchy jokes to delighted audiences may be all anyone is looking to watch in these dark times. Child’s story is a solace at this point because we know her show is a smash hit, she’s writing more and more books, and obviously living happily ever after. Watching Julia’s rise — the fan mail, the lineups to get books signed, the show airing across the country — is at least something audiences can count on.

In his book The creators of taste, Mayukh Sen writes that Julia Child “possessed a unique qualification which enabled her to be an excellent teacher of French cuisine for Americans: she carried no threat from abroad”. Yes, she was loud and funny and immensely talented, and yes, she was a woman who achieved fame and respect in a sexist world. At the same time, she’s a sure fit for an audience in 2022 — a white American from a wealthy family, with ins at American publishing houses and TV stations. Granted, she was and is a slightly unconventional choice for a celebrity, but not an earth-shattering (or groundbreaking) choice.

In one episode, James Beard (played by Christian Clemenson) explains this to Child, explaining one of the reasons his cooking show is a success and his has flopped. “America can’t love a fat old fairy like me,” he sighs. Fifty years later, he continues to be almost right. With a few notable exceptions, the people who dominate food fame remain white, feature straight, and all sorts of other identities that leave them reading as “non-threatening” to white audiences.

After half a century of stories about Julia Child, what would it mean to tell someone else’s? What would it mean to not have comfort or harmlessness as determinants of what art is created or whose stories are revisited? Why not do a show about “fat old fairy” James Beard, or hit TV chef Joyce Chen, or J.Ranji Smile? Representation is a slippery target, too often seen as an outcome of the fight against discrimination rather than a beginning. But tell a story enough and it starts to look like the only one.

JuliaJulia’s existence proves it right – the audience thinks she belongs to them. She lives on because she means something to so many people, whether it’s because they learned to cook from her show or they love her books or they have their own impression of her in their pocket. back. You can argue that any number of chefs from the past are equally talented and worthy and would make for a compelling narrative, but you can’t reverse the nostalgia. Instead, you need to make sure that the next time someone wants to look back, they’ll see more than one face.


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