“Julia,” a brisk documentary survey of Julia Child’s life, is warmly admiring. This makes sense, as there’s lots to admire. It’s not just that Child (1912-2004) did so much to enlarge American culinary life. It’s also how she became an example of female achievement — and empowerment — in a still overwhelmingly male-dominated culture. French cooking wasn’t the only thing that the lead author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” mastered.
“We were ripe for a change,” Child once said, “and there I was.” The change wasn’t limited to cookery and dining expectations. Child’s true peers may not have been anyone from the world of food but such groundbreaking female contemporaries as the urban theorist Jane Jacobs and film critic Pauline Kael. They helped change the world because of who they were as well as what they did.
“Julia” is very good at conveying that who. It helps that the documentary draws on a wealth of historical materials: family photos and letters, home movies, clips from Child’s landmark public television series, “The French Chef,” other TV appearances, and many interviews with her. Yes, the famous Dan Aykroyd “Saturday Night Live” sketch is seen. It says a lot about Child that not only did she own a tape of it, she enjoyed showing it to friends and guests.
Among those seen interviewing Child are Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Phil Donahue, Hugh Downs, Charles Gibson, Jay Leno, and David Letterman. Such a high-profile roster indicates Child’s celebrity. That several of those names are now less likely to be recognized than hers indicates even more about it.
The wondrous ebullience of Child’s personality did so much to make “The French Chef” a phenomenon. The documentary begins with a clip in which Child whacks away at a chicken she’s about cook. It’s a sight to see — and hear. Has there ever been a voice quite like the fruity trumpet sound that emanated from those vocal cords? That, too, was part of Child’s impact, as was her 6-foot, 3-inch height. Formidable in manner, she was no less formidable in appearance.
Formidable was not the same as imposing. “It was a teaching show,” Child once said of “The French Chef.” “I tried to teach the proper way to do things.” Proper never meant fussy or inflexible or pretentious. Child made mistakes on air and laughed them off. One of many talking heads in “Julia” is the author Ruth Reichl. She makes a key point about Child: “She was very much a person about, ‘I can learn.’”
Considering how open to experience Child was throughout her life, it’s hard to imagine her not being the person Reichl describes. Born into an upper-crust conservative family in Southern California, she came east to go to Smith (her mother’s alma mater). She went back to Pasadena after graduating, turning down several marriage proposals. The war changed her life.
“I had nothing to offer except I could type,” Child says in the documentary. She joined the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, and served in what was then known as Ceylon and China. She met her future husband, Paul Child. It was a love match that lasted nearly half a century. After the war, the State Department sent him to France. “One taste of that food, and I never turned back,” she later said.
In the early ‘60s, the Childs moved to Cambridge. They lived near Harvard Square, on Irving Street. Child went on a Channel 2 book show to promote the just-published “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” In a sign of innate media savvy, she asked that a hot plate be in the studio. She cooked an omelet during the broadcast. Thus was born “The French Chef.”
We get to see a bit of the first show. Child made beef bourguignon — “beef stew with red wine,” she explains — and the rest is history. At first she got $50 an episode. The show’s producer, Russell Morash, tells some wonderful stories in “Julia,” and shots of the crew getting to eat leftovers from a broadcast redefine the term “professional perk.”
The documentary is a bit slick, as Child never was. An overly perky score is distracting. There are flossy, slow-motion shots of food being cooked. The filmmakers visit the Rouen restaurant where Child ate her first French meal and we see the same entree being prepared today. It’s a more than a little Food Channel. It’s true that there probably wouldn’t be a Food Channel now if there hadn’t be a Julia Child then. Hey, nobody’s perfect.
Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Waltham Embassy. 94 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language/sexual reference, thematic elements)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.