Julie & Julia: Mastering the art of feminist filmmaking

With a cameo by my favorite casserole dish!

With a cameo by my favorite casserole dish!

I got out to see Julie & Julia today–it was a very fine movie.  Sentimental, of course, as are all of Nora Ephron’s movies, but it was a terrific story that centered on women characters–not just Julie Powell and Julia Child, but their wider circles of friends (and the occasional nemesis or frenemy) were dominated by women, and for the most part, by middle-aged and non-Hollywood looking women.  Seriously–I’d bet that this movie cast more women actors than the rest of all of this summer’s movies combined, so for that reason alone it deserves the support of all right-thinking grown-ups everywhere.  All of the major characters (except for Paul Child and Eric Powell) are women.  Other people have written about the sympathetic and supportive husbands in this movie–you can go read elsewhere about them.  I’m more interested in the women and the food. 

The next most important stars were the dishes cooked and/or eaten by the Julie and Julia characters–one must admire the on-set chefs who needed to produce these dishes to be photographed and used as props.  (The Julia Child scenes featured more actual eating–the Julie Powell scenes had more food-as-comedy-props in them–for example, the calf’s leg, the lobsters, and the chocolate cake, in pretty much the cliched ways you’d expect.)  I was also thrilled that a Le Creuset casserole in the fabulous color called “flame” had significant cameos in both the 1950s and the 2002-03 scenes, since I own the very same dish!  And I too have cooked many a fine Boeuf Bourguinon in the very pot you see here.  (Watch for it!)

More thoughts, and a spoiler, after the jump:

Roxie’s World has a great review of the movie and of the reviews the movie has received so far, which I fully endorse.  Roxie notes that many reviewers slight the Julie Powell portions of the film:

 Some of the film’s critics . . . have . . . dismissed the Julie half of the film as wan, insipid, and overwhelmed by the Julia half. A. O. Scott in the Times blames the imbalance on a flaw in the film’s premise: “Julie is an insecure, enterprising young woman who found a gimmick and scored a book contract. Julia is a figure of such imposing cultural stature that her pots and pans are displayed at the Smithsonian.” Ann Hornaday in WaPo is even tougher on Julie, arguing that she is a whiny sad-sack whose cooking is only another sign of her self-absorption. “As for Powell,” Hornaday sniffs at the end of her review, “her project resulted in everything she wanted in the first place: fame, a book contract and a movie deal. That’s it. No matter how strenuously Ephron tries to draw parallels between her protagonists’ friendships, marriages, struggles and triumphs, it’s no use. In pure style and strength of character, Child reigns supreme. And Powell’s arms are too short to blog with God.”

The blogging bitches of Roxie’s World are here to tell you that such readings of Julie & Julia are as wrong as margarine, nonstick cookware, and frozen TV dinners. Moreover, they smack of ageism, elitism, don’t-touch-the-hem-of-the-iconism, and the print journalist’s fear and loathing of anything that has its origins in the blogosphere.

I’ve written here before that I didn’t think the book Julie & Julia was all that great–in fact, I said that “I enjoyed it, but thought that she needed a heavier-handed editor. It read too much like reading a blog–a little too informal, not quite as much time or thought given to the writing as I would have liked to see. . . it seemed like it was a better project to read about on a blog than in a book.”  Ephron saw the value in Powell’s project and more fully realized “The Julie/Julia Project” than the book did.  So what if she got “a book contract and a movie deal” out of it?  The original “Julie/Julia Project” took moxie and drew a large and very interested audience.  Besides, far, far dumber books and movies have been greenlighted, most of which were written and directed by men and starred men, and received much worse reviews than Julie & Julia has.  That kind of carping should be beneath a writer with a perch at one of the few remaining top American dailies.  (But darlings, it’s not nearly as great as tenure, is it?)

As for what Roxie calls “the print journalist’s fear and loathing . . . of the blogosphere,” I thought that it was interesting that this movie whose origins were in a blog started in 2002 actually demonstrated the real limitations of the blogosphere.  Yes, Julie Powell got “a book contract and a movie deal” out of a project that started on her blog eventually, but only after her blog was fluffed and publicized more widely by dead-tree old media like the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor.  The movie makes that very clear, as did Powell’s book.  I’ve got a lot of readers for a writer who writes and self-publishes for free (and you get what you pay for here, folks!), but only a very few blogs have the kind of traffic that a bricks-and-mortar print institution can deliver.  My view is that blogs and social networking sites can give you more visibility, and they might help you sell a few more books to your readers, but they alone won’t sell a book to a publisher. 

Finally, some of you who expressed enthusiasm for The Joy of Cooking in the comments thread on one of my recent posts on American Cuisine before Julia Child, part I might wonder about the unflattering portrait of Irma Rombauer in Julie & Julia.  (The woman who plays Rombauer is the same actress who played Charlotte York’s dreadful and domineering mother-in-law, “Bunny” in Sex and the City, if that gives you any hint of how we’re supposed to react to this character.)  I have no idea if the scene has any basis in historical reality, but after Louisette Bertholle introduces Rombauer to Child and Simone Beck, their other co-author, Child gossips that “all she did was complain” about being ripped off by her publisher.  But, the wise viewer knows that that’s something that women authors must watch out for–although Eprhon’s rendering of the conversation doesn’t make it clear either that Rombauer is foreshadowing Bertholle’s, Beck’s, and Child’s difficulties in securing a publisher, or if they’re just making fun of her as an unserious housewife who paid to have the first edition of her book published.  (That’s the story the Rombauer character tells, along with confessing that she didn’t test all of the recipes she included in the book–something we’re supposed to disapprove of strenuously!)

Have any of the rest of you seen the movie?  Did you have fun?  What did you think?

30 thoughts on “Julie & Julia: Mastering the art of feminist filmmaking

  1. Hmmm. Haven’t seen the movie, yet, but I do have that same Le Creuset set; “flame,” is that what cha call it? Can’t find the casserole at the moment, but the frying pan from that set is on the stovetop right now. And, umm, I just noticed…. The tiny little 3-inch melting pot is in the back of the refrigerator, looking like a science project.

    Uh, oh.


  2. Yo, cowgirl — Thanks for the shout-out and the excerpt. We loved the flick, obviously. You are quite right about the crucial role of the dead-tree media in Julie Powell’s success. That’s part of why we’re so fascinated by the fear and loathing of the print journalists toward the Julie part of the film. What are you so damn scared of, dudes? You’ve still got so much of the cultural capital, even as your industry dies its slow, painful death.

    Btw: We also have the flame Le Creuset casserole! What can this mean?

    Also: We just updated with a post that follows up on our review of J&J and links back to your earlier (wonderful) posts on Child and American culinary history. It’s here: http://roxies-world.blogspot.com/2009/08/in-praise-of-peaches.html.

    Bone Appétit, kids!


  3. >>“all she did was complain” about being ripped off by her publisher. But, the wise viewer knows that that’s something that women authors must watch out for<<

    This is the favourite topic of all authors — the perfidy of publishers. In any book with a writer or a publisher as a character, the author will almost always be unable to resist a dig or two at publishers and/or editors.


  4. I really liked it! Mostly because Streep and Tucci were so very charming together. And the combination of Streep and Lynch was HYSTERICAL. (Jane Lynch could probably make me laugh reading the phone book, though.)

    I just thought the Rombauer character was kind of amusing, rather than terribly unflattering; more a warning for Julia and her co-authors of what they might be getting into. (But that actress amuses me. Way back when, she played Cliff Claven’s mom on Cheers!)

    I really hated Amy Adams’s haircut, which bugged me throughout the movie.

    I was also a little annoyed with the bits where Julia grieves over not having kids – now, I should add that they were pretty well done, and of course there are plenty of people who want children who can’t have their own and for whom this is a profound source of grief. And I have to assume it’s true to Julia’s life. But for me it seemed to imply – at least a teeny bit – that part of her success came about because she had to find something to do because she couldn’t have kids. That sort of bugged me. But it’s a very minor point.

    The funniest thing, for us, was the demographic in the theater where we saw it. There were a few 20- and 30-something women, then us, and everyone else was probably late 50s and up. And NLLDH described them accurately as a surly crowd – I don’t think they liked Julie Powell at all and I think they thought Streep was too close to parodying Julia. It was VERY weird.


  5. Haven’t seen it. Want to. But I just left my Le Creuset casserole (bright green) on the stove this very minute, busily slow-simmering fresh tomatoes from the garden into tomato sauce. So funny to drop by and see a picture of its cousin on Historiann!


  6. I really like it, too. And OMG, two not-too-tall, sort of stocky brunet boys …

    Um, sorry. But Stanley Tucci.

    I did love the interaction between the Childs, and the fact that the big, loud women attracted interesting men. Tucci didn’t look the more than 10 years older that I think Paul Childs was, though.

    But that brings me to my real point, which is sort of in response to NK. One of the things that wasn’t made clear in the movie was some of the more recent stuff on Julia Child’s roll in the OSS, which seems to have been something more than a secretary. And I think that a lot of what you see in the beginning is exactly what bugs NK, but was probably true. Here’s this woman who had an interesting job during the war, married an older man with an established career in government, and was, like many wives of her generation, especially those who couldn’t have children, stuck at loose ends.

    I think marrying a diplomat probably exacerbated the situation, but I also think that the fact that women did have more options during the war (out of necessity) and then were suddenly ousted so that their menfolk could prosper in the postwar boom likely made a lot of women’s lives a bit more shaky in terms of ‘fitting in’.

    But one of the things I really did like was that it was clear that both husbands understood the need for their wives to succeed at something that was their own.


  7. Haven’t seen the movie. But I have the Le Creuset casserole in Flame. Want one in Lemongrass. Cuz I live near a Le Creuset outlet. Orders, anyone?


  8. Who knew the “flame” casserole was so popular? You must all have inherited yours from your parents’ or cousins’ 1970s castoffs. (Mine came from a garage sale–a total score!) Orange has been back big in this decade, and that lemongrass that History Maven mentions is a nice update on 1970s “avocado” tones.

    As for the movie: New Kid, which are the scenes in which “Julia grieves over not having kids?” I only remember the one scene, in which she gets news of her sister’s pregnancy and she cries and is comforted by Paul. Were there others? (I vaguely recall one adorable toddler, but otherwise the movie was almost entirely child-free.) I didn’t see that scene as undercutting her interest in accomplishing something–it was clear from the outset that she was a career woman and a very busy person who never made having a family her priority. (But I do kind of take your point: why not skip the crying jag? But I don’t know if Child ever wrote of her regrets at not having children–it might be something she wrote about in her letters to her friends). I like ADM’s explanation of JC’s place in history relative to her ambitions and experiences during WWII. (I thought the movie seriously underplayed her work by having her protest that all she did was work as “a file clerk.”)


  9. This was the third film I saw in my weekend “triple feature” (I like movies!): Friday was (500) Days of Summer, Saturday was GI Joe (my dissertation is on military women), and Sunday was the piece de resistance with Julie and Julia.

    I’m absolutely in love with Julie and Julia. I’d read a couple of reviews (local paper, Entertainment Weekly) that focused on the Julie part as “not as good”. While I’ll admit I was most interested in the Julia Child angle, I really enjoyed the Julie story. That may be because hey, I just turned 30.

    All around, fantastic. And if someone wants to make me some boeuf bourgignon, I wouldn’t complain a bit.


  10. I saw it with another feminist historian, and we both liked it a lot!(her husband was not interested in going, but I may go again and see it with my husband) We did agree with the reviewers who felt it was a bit unbalanced, with Julia Child being a bit more interesting, and Meryl Streep a bit more accomplished – but not terribly so, the whole movie was quite engaging and a lot of fun. Plus it has a soupçon of politics – Child’s father was very right wing, and her husband had to deal with McCarthyism. And I highly recommend reading Child’s My Life in France, it is a wonderful memoir which was accurately transferred to the screen.


  11. I am looking forward to seeing it…I had no idea there was a backlash (albeit a mild one) against Amy Adam’s character.

    As for the book, I haven’t read it, but your comment here made me laugh: “Besides, far, far dumber books and movies have been greenlighted, most of which were written and directed by men and starred men.”

    The first thing that came to mind was Kanye West’s book.


  12. I’m glad so many of you seem to have enjoyed the movie.

    Kathie–you’re right, McCarthyism appears in the movie to disrupt Paul Child’s career. I thought it was well-handled–part of the story, but nothing that overwhelmed Julia Child’s story. It would have been difficult to make a movie about people in foreign service in the early 1950s without mentioning it, I suppose.

    I *will* have to go read My Life in France now that so many of you have recommended it to me!


  13. I had read the NYT review and was prepared to see Amy Adams overshadowed by Meryl Streep–but to my delight, I don’t think she was. (NK: I agree about the haircut, though!) I thought she did very well–especially when the movie was rather hard on the Julie character.

    Julie’s ambitions are judged as both too small (it’s a tough deal to be juxtaposed with a grande dame like Julia) and too large. Like many the flick aimed at the ladies, Julie must be wary that her ambitions (even modest ones) don’t interfere with her marriage. I was aghast once I watched the movie, having heard that Julie’s husband was so supportive. Really? He’s presented as a classic “nice guy”–as in he smiles puppy dog smiles, brings her pre-dinner drinks while she cooks, and nudges her towards the blog. But once she’s absorbed in her work (just like Julia) and he doesn’t get laid so often, he accuses her of being self-centered and neglected, and flounces out. He only comes back when he reads her (public!) blog admitting her inadequacy as a wife. She accepts his judgment, the movie seems to endorse it, and I guess a lot of critics and viewers do, too. Maybe this conflict was better developed in the book vs. the movie, but I really don’t understand why Julia is celebrated for finding something of her own to do and getting credit for her accomplishments, and Julie is judged as whiny and selfish for wanting the same thing. I liked the Julie character and wanted to find myself as delighted by her as by Julia. But that was hard when nobody would give her a break–not even herself.


  14. Kathie, thanks for sending in the link. I think it’s unfortunate that Child didn’t appreciate Powell’s blog, but there it is. I would think that even if she didn’t like her style, she’d appreciate the fact that Powell’s blog and book brought a new generation back to MtAoFC.

    b(oston) s(cholar) gets at some of the differences in the presentation of the two women in the movie that that LA Times article talks about in generational terms. I think this is really spot-on: “Julie’s ambitions are judged as both too small (it’s a tough deal to be juxtaposed with a grande dame like Julia) and too large.” But, I think it has to do not just with generational differences, but with the differences between writing a book and writing a blog, and the different timelines therein.

    The movie covers 12 years of Julia Child’s life, 1949-1961, from the time she arrives in Paris, to the day she unwraps her advance copy of her cookbook. On the other hand, the movie covers only 1 year of Julie Powell’s life, in which she cooks and blogs her way through MtAoFC in a single year. That’s a much more pressured timeline, as opposed to a retrospective view of 12 years in the life of someone who goes on for 40 years thereafter to be a leading authority in American cuisine. So, in many ways this difference in timelines and in media may account for the differences in the ways in which Child and Powell appear in the movie.

    All in all, when keeping this in mind, I don’t think Powell comes off so badly. I will say that I can totally see how blogs with big traffic might become a problem in one’s personal life. That is, when a blog shifts from being a hobby to being the major part of one’s identity–I can see why a spouse or family member might feel jilted.

    On the other hand, as I watched the movie, I thought how great it would be to have a spouse who cooked hir way through any cook book, so that I didn’t have to worry about what’s for dinner myself…


  15. I, too, loved the movie. I speculated that the differences between Julie and Julia had to deal with the fact that Julia lived through the War.

    Someone above mentioned disappointment that Julia stressed her roll in the OSS was a “just a file clerk.” I think that sort of public assertion would be pretty realistic, given the security instructions she doubtless received. She had to be “just a file clerk,” especially in public, to maintain the cover story. I don’t know if she would have been in danger from any old enemies, but it’s possible that if she’d violated security protocols, she might have been in trouble with old friends, especially in the McCarthy era.


  16. Now I’ve gotta get me a flame Le Creuset…

    I’ve gotta say I’m sort of on the A.O. Scott train as far as Julie not living up to Julia. But I think that was because Amy Adams was whiny compared with the magnificence that is Meryl Streep as Julia Child. I haven’t read Powell’s book but am enamoured with what she did, and her position is much more relevant to me as a thirtysomething female writer in 2009 than is Child’s. Yet if I hadn’t already had that sympathy/empathy with Powell, I could see how that part of the film would easily seem insipid, despite Ephron’s strong efforts to tease out the parallels between the two.

    Those points are minor, though. It was thrilling–thrilling!–to see a major motion picture about women doing something other than swooning over men. In that, it was wildly inspiring.


  17. Historiann, I can’t remember the other instance of childless-grief exactly – I just know that there was one instance prior to the scene when she finds out Dorothy’s pregnant. It was very subtle – a longing look at an urchin, perhaps? They didn’t beat you over the head with it, I just know that when I saw the scene with Paul my reaction was, Oh, again. (Can anyone else remember this, or am I nuts?)

    And I guess I actually don’t think it was clear from the beginning that she was a career woman who put that before having a family – I mean, she worked in the OSS, of course, but that was before meeting Paul. I actually thought that it came across that after marrying Paul she followed him to France and, like many of the other housewives, found herself at a loss about what to do. I kinda saw the movie as describing the birth of the career woman, not as presenting her as actually being one already when it started. (Which is actually one of the things I love about Julia – MtAoFC was finally published when she was 49, and her public career began at that point and continued almost until her death. She’s like the anti-starlet.)

    I guess I would need to know whether her sadness about not having kids was accurate or not. If that was something she wrote about in her book, then the movie did a decent job with it. I just worry it got added in, which would bug me.

    I kind of feel like the Julie-as-self-absorbed thing never quite got resolved – like b(oston)s(cholar) said, her husband gets all upset and storms off, and comes back when she confesses her self-absorption, but I really didn’t see anything change. She was still cooking. Did she change? Did he learn to live with it? Who really gave in there? It was a little unsatisfying.


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  19. Funny — I wasn’t bothered at all by the whole self-absorbed thing, or by the dynamic in the Julie relationship. I thought the argument they had was really nicely written — part of the issue seemed to be that Julie had started to convince herself that what she was writing was the truth, and her husband gets cranky about the neglect and the fact that he is also getting written off as a ‘saint’ who is willingly putting up with it. Were the genders reversed, I think we’d think the Julie character was even more of a PITA.

    When she blogs about it, I think it’s not because she admits her inadequacy as a wife, but because she has been selfish as a partner. Her post shows that she understands his complaint, which is that he feels left out and neglected. I really didn’t see anything particularly gendered in it. In fact, one of the things I particularly liked is that they seemed to have a partnership.

    I agree that, at the time, Julia did have to downplay her role in the OSS, and am interested in the idea that she wanted to be a career woman per se. My impression of her, based on reading a lot of profiles over the years, as well as excerpts from her book, is that she just didn’t want to be bored! I never got the feeling there was an active feminist agenda, but rather that she was the kind of person who would always have looked for something to do, and was married to the sort of person who thought she pretty much could do whatever she set her mind to.


  20. “a longing look at an urchin, perhaps?”

    Yep, on a Paris street not very long after they arrived.

    I just didn’t get what it was about Julie Powell’s story that was worth the attention it got beyond the confines of her blog. It wasn’t interesting to me, the relationship seemed shallow and not particularly respectful, she didn’t seem all that connected to the food she was cooking, and I got really, really annoyed with how the husband shoveled food into his mouth like he’d been locked up in a P.O.W. camp for years on end. Really? That’s how you show appreciation for food? Ram large quantities into your mouth and chew with your mouth open? They both just came across as incredibly crass, and even more so when contrasted with the Childs.

    But, of course, Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci were to die for.


  21. The Powells’ table manners (as portrayed in the movie) were sub-par, that’s very true. I don’t understand why they were played that way either, although I have to admit that casual suppers a deux at my house are occasions at which I’m glad there are no cameras documenting our eating.


  22. Just some tidbits:

    I’ve been a slavish fan of Meryl Streep since I first saw her in the TV mini-series “Holocaust” and in a tiny part in the movie “Julia” (her first role! How’s that for serendipity?) years ago. She NEVER disappoints!

    Secondly, the reason flame Le Creuset is so ubiquitous is that it was the ONLY color available for many, many years (rather like the Model T: any color you want as long as it’s black) until the company finally branched out into turquoise and a soft butter yellow (that I foolishly did NOT buy when seen, dirt cheap, at a flea market 20 years ago, alas) in the late 1950’s. It’s their signature color.

    Finally, my husband was particularly appalled at the disgusting table manners of the Julie husband character, being rightly offended that the young fellow apparently had NOT paid attention when his mother (or, in my case, my very polite and well-mannered father) instructed him never, ever to talk with his mouth full. Bleah. 😉


  23. I saw the movie last night. Audience reaction was very positive.

    The other point in the movie when Julia and her husband appeared to mourn over the child they couldn’t have was towards the beginning of the movie when they had just arrived in Paris. They were in a park – I think near the Eiffel Tower – there was a smal,white and fluffy dog and some children. Julia appeared to catch her breath, Paul patted her arm and they both seemed to communicate wordlessly that they knew what the other was feeling but they were coninuing on living not dwelling on what couldn’t be – at least that is how I read the scene.


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  26. Hi!

    I will sum up my impressions of this movie thusly: Food part was OK, but the so-called “Feminist” influence (apart from, being woman-centric) was close to Zero (=Nada) score-points in my opinion. The (post)modern-day Julie Powell was (as others have hinted) a big let-down as any type of assertive female/heroine one could root for…she came across as a general, archetypal wimp for me! Meryl Streep’s full-blooded characterization of Julia Childs on the other hand was superb in its feistiness (they don´t make them like that anymore), but
    whatever has happened to that archetype on the big screen nowadays (in contemporary movies)? It seems that the homemakers of the fifties were made of greater stuff than the contemporary, “liberated” woman as symbolically portrayed and perceived in this movie, which makes me speculate on the reason why Hollow-wood/Hollywood let this movie “slip by” in their otherwise quite patriarchally-minded stuff…well, it seems like they wanted to sell the idea (down our throats) that contemporary American women should go back to being cooks and glorified homemakers (with a token career).

    Thanks for letting me have my say…nice blog, by the way!


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