Long before Martha Stewart and Sohla El-Waylly, there was Julia Child.
Child, who found her calling at age 50 as “The French Chef” (though she was neither), blazed a path not only for women as chefs but for the notion of cooking as a visual medium.
Directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, the team behind the Ruth Bader Ginsburg film “RBG,” tell the story of the cookbook author and television personality in their new docu-bio, “Julia,” now playing in theaters.
The filmmakers started at the beginning and went to the source. Russ Morash, now 85, was a 27-year-old producer at Boston public-television WGBH when the phone rang one day in 1963. On the line was a woman, with a “gasping, strange, very distinctive voice,” who had written a cookbook titled “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” She requested to use a hot plate for her appearance on Professor P. Albert Duhamel’s book-review show. Child cooked an omelet and the phones lit up, a public broadcaster’s dream.
Cohen and West suggest that things did not come easy to the statuesque Julia McWilliams, who left a comfortable life in California to attend Smith College in Massachusetts and, during World War II, hopscotched through Asia as an OSS officer smitten with Paul Child, a diplomat 10 years her senior. Posted in France with her now-husband after the war — you’ll know this from the very first accordion notes — she became enthralled with French cooking and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu.
LABOR OF LOVE
With friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, she set about laboring over “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” sharing edits by mail. Alfred A. Knopf published “Mastering” in 1961, two years after Houghton Mifflin rejected the manuscript, claiming that it would “prove formidable to the American housewife.”
“The American housewife,” in those days, was being pushed to convenience through TV dinners and Jell-O molds. Child brought a whiff of flair and endearingly awkward theatrics while demystifying continental cooking, first on PBS, then on ABC, and back to PBS. All the while, she was a regular on the talk-show circuit.
Child achieved the pinnacle of 1970s pop culture on the night of Dec. 9, 1978, when Dan Aykroyd, in character wearing a brown wig and pink blouse on “Saturday Night Live,” demonstrated how to debone a chicken, slipped with the knife, and bled to death — remaining upbeat all the while.
The Childs were watching “SNL” that night, unaware of the skit, says her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme, who says in “Julia” that she was flattered at the parody. Besides Prud’homme, whose books inspired the movie, the directors interviewed such food figures as Ruth Reichl, Sara Moulton, Jacques Pepin, Jose Andres, Marcus Samuelsson and Ina Garten.
We’ve seen the Childs, incidentally, in the 2009 comedy “Julie & Julia” (with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as the leads). Cohen and West use their correspondence to put meat on the bones of their story. When Paul Child’s career was derailed by innuendo and he was drummed out of the foreign service, he dove into the role of his wife’s manager and booster. He died in 1994 at age 92.
The film does butter up its subject, to be sure, but it is not hagiography. A friend mentions that Child privately referred to a gay man with a slur, but when Bob Johnson, her attorney, died of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1986, she became an advocate for AIDS awareness. She also championed reproductive rights for women and lobbied for Planned Parenthood. Child died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday.
More than any other documentary, “Julia” will leave you hungry. Cinematographer Claudia Raschke deployed macro lenses for the most food-porniest of cooking scenes.
Roast chicken oozes with juices, poached pears for a tart are sliced lovingly, and the plating of boeuf bourguignon alone may have cinched the PG-13 rating, aside from a dash of salty language.