Julia: Portrait of a Life Lived Well

Screenshot from the trailer for ‘Julia,’ Sony Pictures



The new documentary Julia works to explain why Julia Child still matters culturally, both as the first TV-chef icon and as a feminist who paved the way in two sexist fields: professional cooking and media. The film is directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who were nominated for an Academy Award in 2019 for RBG, and is produced by many, including Ron Howard and his partner Brian Grazer.

But one of the film’s more valuable effects is its view of a smart person with her own needs and strong preferences, who lived so as to make the most of her life, and who kept up that effort despite everything and to the end.

Child (née McWilliams) rebelled against what she found unacceptably limiting: her father, his politics, and his expectations for how she would marry; gender conventions at Le Cordon Bleu, where she trained, and in France (and everywhere) in general; and the staid broadcast forms, sexism, and ageism of the one-would-think more enlightened PBS (née National Educational Television), which she left when she felt undervalued and returned to when it suited her.

Some people use their influence to become irreality agents. Child’s persona was all about getting real. Her looming figure was never hidden by the extra-high countertops her husband, Paul, made for her, and her odd, warbling voice was not something to ignore but her trademark. Her unpretentious manner went along with her insistence that anyone could cook delicious food from ingredients bought at a supermarket.

And while the documentary overstates the ubiquity of American TV-dinner culture in order to lionize Child’s efforts to make Americans eat more like the French, the point is well-taken that many in this country had no idea what a leek was back then, and that Americans have often confused convenience with progress. Making a good omelet or cooking a hearty stew with wine from scratch was a revolutionary lesson in a better reality for some.

Child was a sensualist, which did not have to go with being a chef, and the film overlays modern food porn on old footage to convey that. It also tells semi-erotic tales from her marriage, and there is one brief shot of her nude, presumably shot by Paul, who was a photographer. An old friend of hers tells the interviewer that Julia Child advocated “the three Fs”: “You had to feed your man, flatter your man, and you had to fuck your man,” her friend says and laughs.

Julia and Paul Child clearly adored each other, and after he retired early from the Foreign Service he dedicated himself to her career. When she had a mastectomy, she was stoic, a friend says, but in a bath she once looked down her body at her long scar and asked Paul if he could still love her. He said, “I didn’t marry you for your breast. I married you for your legs.”

Her friends and colleagues speak of her flirtation, and how much she loved the company of men, even in old age. But she was often obstinate and passive aggressive with cooking partners such as Jacques Pepin, who covered his discomfort and perhaps anger with grinning. It was Jacques Pepin who saved the tip of her finger when she cut it off right before they went live. (This was the event Dan Ackroyd lampooned.)

As all good realities must be, Julia Child’s was sometimes unsettling. She is shown waving knives, one as big as a machete, and other tools, and throwing a turkey carcass, splat, onto a cutting board, always looking not-entirely in control. The doc spends a couple of minutes on her famously-failed potato pancake, which crumbled on the stove when she tried to flip it on an early episode.

“When you flip anything, you just have the courage of your convictions,” she says calmly. “See, when I flipped it I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have. But you can always pick it up. And if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see? But the only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them…. Anytime that anything like this happens, you haven’t lost anything, because you can always turn this into something else.”

Child does not carry on (only) because the relatively primitive studio technology cannot allow another take. She carries on because what others think is failure is not loss at all, or even a thing. A bungle is not a step we must get through to reach a polished version. It is simply life in process, which creates a kind of hardness in the awareness of inevitable, seeming failure—and of death, too. There are several closeups of stunned-looking fish heads in this film.

After the film explains Paul’s failing health and death, she is shown tottering, top-heavy in the way of the aged, down a sidewalk. It may be irreverent to say, but the filmmakers are skilled enough that I think we are meant to remember Child explaining the life stages of roaster chickens and stewing hens. Time, despite our pixelated immortalities, is real, and age has consequences. She died two days short of 92.

Julia Child showed us how it was to keep going, with intention, ambition, appreciation, and awareness. It was good to see her again.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.