Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West make documentaries about extraordinary women. Their Oscar-nominated 2018 “RBG” followed around the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Cohen and West have returned with “Julia,” which traces the rise of Julia Child from her Southern California beginnings to becoming the world’s first celebrity chef.
“Like a lot of people in my generation, I encountered Julia Child on television,” Cohen said recently during a conversation we had together. “I had the kind of parents who wouldn’t let me watch TV except [for] PBS. There weren’t that many figures who [sic] were cool to me [except] Big Bird, Mr. Rogers and Julia Child. As far as I knew, that’s who celebrities were.”
At a time when few women went to college, Julia Carolyn McWilliams went to the all-women’s Smith College in Massachusetts, and then initially eschewed marriage. She joined up to serve in the World War II, and in the European theater she worked with spies as part of her duties with the OSS. In Sri Lanka she met Paul Child, who would become her husband.
The couple moved to France, where she attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the only woman at the time to do so. After she and Paul relocated to Massachusetts, she was soon teaching Americans, on TV, how to make French recipes at home (the film relates that an omelet was considered exotic in America at the time).
“My Julia Child recollection was really more as an entertainer,” said Cohen, “she was so hilarious on TV; she was so cool. But I didn’t really give that much thought to how important she was.”
In addition to her TV shows, cookbooks and appearances on talk shows Child also was an advocate for Planned Parenthood. Though childless herself, Child pushed the importance of female health screenings and easy access to birth control.
“It was a really groundbreaking thing for her to be doing back in the eighties when celebrities really weren’t going around involving themselves in politics in a way that’s much more common now,” Cohen said, “especially for Julia, who had a very mainstream, middle-American audience. She was doing that at some risk to her career, and, in fact, people boycotted her and protested her cooking demonstrations.”
But Child shrugged off the naysayers and continued to advocate on behalf of other women, showing the exact same strength of character and resilience as she had being the only woman at Le Cordon Bleu.
“Julia Child appealed to us because we realized how much she changed our culture in ways that people often don’t think of,” said Cohen of her subject, “and we liked the idea of making a food film.”
Cohen and West were editing the film last spring when the coronavirus pandemic hit. They were forced to improvise in order to get their final shots, including shooting chef Ina Garten through her windows to make it appear as if they were in the room with her.
“We had already done most of our big interviews and our big trip to France in fall of 2019,” Cohen said. However, there were still insert shots to be captured of Child’s recipes being prepared, which was the very last bit of production. Some of that was done in New York and some in France, and via the magic of cinema, the two were married in post-production by editor Carla Gutierrez.
Child’s relatives allowed Cohen and West unfettered access to Julia’s letters, photographs and various other archives, many of which are housed at the female-centric Schlesinger Library at Harvard, not far from where Child taped her cooking program.
“We told them that we planned to do a respectful portrait, but not one that was going to necessarily avoid anything negative,” Cohen said of working with Child’s relatives. “They understood […] they weren’t going to have any editorial input and were just going to have to trust us.”
Indeed “Julia” is a celebration of its subject in all of her complexity, and the filmmakers were helped along in this task by using several audio recordings of Child discussing not only food but the value of family and hard work.
“I’m sure it is not exactly the film [the family] might have envisioned, but they all seemed to really like it because the film is told so much in Julia’s own voice,” Cohen said, adding that it “always makes it special for someone who has passed away to hear them speak.”
Unsurprisingly, attendees at some initial screenings have come away from the documentary, well, hungry. In addition to appreciating Child’s passion for food, Cohen said she hopes that audiences will contemplate how much the vaunted chef changed the cultural landscape (a lover of haute cuisine herself, Cohen said that during her press stop through the Washington, D.C. area recently she planned to dine at Jaleo, chef José Andrés’s restaurant).
“We want people [to be] thinking about the major impact that this one literally towering lady had on our culture and country, and the way we think about not only cooking but also eating,” Cohen said. “Ultimately this movie is more about feeling than thinking. Julia’s spirit was just so full of buoyancy and ebullience and joie de vivre.”
“People often use the term feel-good movie like it’s dismissive. If our audience comes out of the theater feeling good, then we’re completely happy.”
“Julia” begins playing in select theaters this week