At a certain point in the wonderful new movie “Julie & Julia,” there is a plot twist so shocking the audience gasps. Julia Child does something that seems so totally out of character that even on the way out, people were still shaking their heads. “How could she?” Well, that’s one mystery I can solve. I was right there in the middle of it.
Before I go any further, I have to warn you that this column is as full of spoilers as an unplugged refrigerator in August. If you haven’t already seen the movie, you might want to wait to read this until after you have.
And you certainly should see it. “Julie & Julia” is superb on so many levels. It’s a terrific story to begin with, how two women from completely different generations claim their identities through food.
Meryl Streep is astonishing. The way she captures Julia Child is something special. Streep inhabits her in a way that is eerie. Watch her move: Pay attention to the way she holds her elbows and cocks her head. That’s Julia.
More important, while Streep certainly gets Julia’s sometimes loopy enthusiasm, she also gets the deep seriousness that was obvious only to those who knew her fairly well. This is no Dan Aykroyd skit; this is Julia Child with gravitas, which is to say the real Julia Child. In fact, leaving the theater and looking at the poster, I had to remind myself that Julia Child did NOT have Meryl Streep’s face.
Amy Adams is also appealing as Julie Powell, the blogger who set herself the task of cooking completely through Julia’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a single year. And writing about it on her blog (which she later turned into a book). That likability is no small trick when playing a character whose main literary attribute was pretty much one endless whine.
All of that only makes the plot twist so much more shocking. When Julie is told late in the movie that Julia Child doesn’t like the blog, she collapses in tears.
And we wonder too. How could Julia do such a thing?
Ahem, I’m pretty much knee-deep in that episode. I was the first writer for a major newspaper to write about the “Julie/Julia” blog. (I know, never mind what the movie says: Check the publication dates and you’ll see that my story ran almost a full month before the Christian Science Monitor’s; and don’t even get me started on my good friend former New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser nabbing an actual appearance in the film, skinny little witch.)
When Julia had moved to her retirement home in Montecito, I had taken advantage of her proximity to deepen what up to that time had been a cordial professional friendship. Whenever I traveled north, I would make a point to see her, bring her lunch, take her to dinner, even just stop for a drink and a chat. I was so lucky.
When I found “The Julie/Julia Project” online, I was fascinated by it. It seemed to me that finally here was a cooking blog that was succeeding on its own literary terms. Rather than mimicking mainstream media, Powell was taking what works best about blogs -- the intimate feeling of sharing someone’s innermost thoughts in something approaching real time -- and using it to write about cooking.
“Julie/Julia” worked brilliantly, particularly when read in short bursts. Powell created a likable character (well, as I said, in short bursts), and the plot had a genuine sense of suspense -- remember, it was being posted as it happened, so you really didn’t know whether she would finish or crash and burn. This was true both in the short term (could she succeed with a dish?) and the long (could she really keep her sanity through 524 recipes?).
Of course, I was also interested in what Julia may might think about it. So I printed out the whole thing and took it up to her. She hadn’t heard about it, but promised to have a look and get back to me.
I didn’t hear from her for several days, so eventually I called her up. “So Julia,” I asked, “what do you think?”
There was a silence as she gathered her thoughts. Then in that familiar reedy voice she nailed the answer: “Well,” she said, “she just doesn’t seem very serious, does she?
“I worked very hard on that book. I tested and retested those recipes for eight years so that everybody could cook them. And many, many people have. I don’t understand how she could have problems with them. She just must not be much of a cook.”
She asked me not to quote her, and after thinking it over, I didn’t, choosing a valued friendship over a couple of juicy paragraphs in a story. I’m still not sure it was the right call, but there you have it.
So that solves part of the mystery of Julia’s dis: professional pride.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew her well. One of the marvelous things about Julia Child was that even with all of the honors she had earned, she still approached her work with the earnestness (and competitiveness) of a beginner.
At food conferences, you could always count on her being in the front row taking notes. And she fretted over her work as much as any first-time author. I remember being at her table at a book awards dinner when “Julia and Jacques,” her terrific work with friend Jacques Pepin, was passed over for book of the year.
I know from hard experience that losing awards competitions is a gut-churning business. But I do take some comfort in the fact that it was obviously just as hard for Julia Child as it has been for me.
Still, I think there was more to Julia’s reaction to the blog than simple professional pride. Another possible objection could have been that even though Julia wore her icon status lightly, she protected it vigilantly. She never allowed her name to be used to promote a commercial product.
In the case of the Julie/Julia blog, the line between affectionate hommage and commercial piggybacking is hazy and probably depends on which side of it you find yourself.
But even more to the point is a deeper matter of character. While I don’t think Julia was at all put off by Julie Powell’s character’s constant drinking and swearing, I do think her constant complaining was part of what Julia perceived as a lack of seriousness.
Nora Ephron captures this quite delicately in the movie, juxtaposing two key scenes. When Powell learns that Julia doesn’t think much of her blog, she collapses in a sodden heap, wailing, “Julia hates me!”
Compare that with Julia’s reaction when she gets the letter informing her that her prospective publisher has decided not to go ahead with her book, something she has spent almost a decade perfecting.
“Eight years of my life. It just turned out to be something to do, so I wouldn’t have nothing to do,” she says, obviously heartbroken. “Oh, well. Boo-hoo. Now what?”
Julia Child was part of the generation that had seen Depression and war. She had known bad times, and she believed that the only way to meet them was head-on. You picked yourself up, dusted yourself off and got on your way.
The first time we visited her at the assisted living center in Montecito, my wife commented on her apartment, and Julia replied matter-of-factly, “Yes, it’s a nice little pad. But it’s the kind of place they take you out feet first.”
I don’t think she could begin to know what to think about the blogging generation, where a beef stew can result in 800 words of anguish.
Come to think of it -- just pipe-dreaming here -- wouldn’t it be great if in addition to absorbing Julia’s love of food and zest for life, a few moviegoers picked up on a little of that character as well?