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An imperfect icon, Julia Child returns to the screen in new documentary

Julia Child holding a tart. (Courtesy Jim Scherer/Sony Pictures Classics)
Julia Child holding a tart. (Courtesy Jim Scherer/Sony Pictures Classics)

Across four decades Julia Child invited television viewers into her kitchen with a promise of something grand — bringing home a little piece of France — but without the pretense of effortless perfection. Instead, she embraced the fact that her imposing 6-foot 2-inch frame and cock-eyed voice would never embody the feminine ideal. How else could she pull off lining up a row of poultry carcasses and calling them “the chicken sisters?”

Child’s unpretentious and sometimes kooky approach endeared her to the generations that tuned in to “The French Chef,” produced at WGBH-TV in Boston from 1963 to 1973. Testimony abounds of people who would watch her cooking show, together or separately, then make her recipes and hash out the results over the following week. Child almost singlehandedly brought public television into its own, putting GBH at the center and paving the way for chefs to become multimedia personalities. Everyone from Ina Garten to Stanley Tucci owes her a nod.

A new documentary, “Julia,” sweepingly presents Child’s formative life and influence, largely through the lens of family and friends. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen staged elaborate, fleshy recreations of her most famous recipes in kitchens in New York and France. (I’ve never seen a carrot look so... irresistible.)

Julia Child on the set of her cooking show, "The French Chef." (Courtesy Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Shutterstock)
Julia Child on the set of her cooking show, "The French Chef." (Courtesy Fairchild Archive/Penske Media/Shutterstock)

West and Cohen will be on hand for a live discussion following the Boston premiere of “Julia.” The in-person event takes place on GlobeDocs Film Festival's opening night, Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the Coolidge Corner Theatre. The festival’s 25 other nonfiction films screen in a hybrid format — some in-person, some virtually — from Oct. 13-17.

Divided into roughly three parts, “Julia” first tells of how Julia McWilliams grew up in California under a strict father and proper mother. She joined the Office of Strategic Services during WWII and met Paul Child, 10 years her senior and a self-taught renaissance man. The film parses together their evolving love story with archival photos, family commentary, and creative use of quotes from diaries and letters. (They later married.) It also shows how while living in France, Julia fell for French cuisine. She spent more than a decade pouring that passion into the revelatory cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961), which she wrote with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, a challenge to get published.

The next phase of her life, and the film, takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While promoting the cookbook on GBH, Child cooks a particularly fluffy omelet. The phones start ringing and soon she has her own cooking show, a first of its kind. Here, the documentary’s pace picks up with archival clips that give a taste of Child at her best, including the “chicken sisters.” Producer Russ Morash weighs in as one of several present-day interviews; both he and Paul (as told by recollections) grasp that Child was on to something and should be supported, not directed.

Julia Child and Paul Child. (Courtesy Brian Leatart/Sony Pictures Classics)
Julia Child and Paul Child. (Courtesy Brian Leatart/Sony Pictures Classics)

Those unfamiliar with Child may go looking to “Julia” for a feminist icon and find something more complicated. West and Cohen have become a trusted duo for ennobling America’s unheralded heroines in documentaries. Their Academy Award-nominated “RBG” catalyzed mainstream adulation of the Supreme Court justice in 2018, just as her endurance became breathlessly urgent to American liberals.

This year, they released “My Name is Pauli Murray,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime, which hails the gender fluid minister, anti-discrimination legal strategist, activist and former Brandeis professor for laying the groundwork for legal arguments made by Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall. (“Pauli Murray Should be a Household Name,” suggests the New York Times.) The filmmakers told Variety they’re currently editing another “secret” film about “an absolutely spectacularly, incredible woman.”

But while Child has been and can continue to serve as a role model to feminists, the film points out that she never called herself one. Under that light, “Julia” makes a subtle case for the incongruity between labels and behaviors.

The third section of the film digs into the grayest phase of Child’s career, from about 1980 on, when things fizzled out with PBS and she took her star power elsewhere. (She continued to make television appearances through her late 80s; she died in 2004 at age 91.) I’ll confess my own instinct was to wonder why Child didn’t see that her cultural moment had passed. There’s a desperation that celebrities can telegraph when things start to go downhill. I was reminded of Joan Rivers after Jay Leno took her spot on “The Tonight Show.” But then, I had to check my own judgment. I considered how the documentary “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” shifted my mindset.

While as a film, “Julia” has nowhere near the energy of “RGB,” full of verité scenes with a then still-living legend (how can you top a planking octogenarian?), its plodding insistence echoes Child’s own. Again and again in the film, the people who knew her say, “Julia did not care what others thought.” If only the cameras could have caught her breaking down that complex recipe. After all, to persist without compromise on American television as a woman from age 50 through her 80s is an astounding feat.

The born digital generation may not turn to Child, or “Julia,” for political inspiration, or even cooking lessons. But I bet they’ll cherish her as an example of a late bloomer, unwilling to stop. “Julia” gives them a place to start.


The Boston premiere of “Julia” screens at the GlobeDocs Film Festival's opening night, Oct. 13. The film releases theatrically in Boston at AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square and Embassy theaters on Nov. 19.

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Erin Trahan Twitter Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.

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