“To Julia,” said Fern Berman, the late Julia Child’s onetime publicist and longtime friend, raising her glass in a circle of some of Child’s closest companions. “We miss you.”
This small group of food luminaries had gathered at the invitation of The Washington Post for an early look at the new film “Julie & Julia,” which opens in theaters Friday.
They discussed its portrayal of their friend, the droll cookbook author and iconic TV teacher known as much for her warbling near-falsetto voice as for her impact on American cooking.
Does Child come alive in the film? Does the movie accurately depict her cuisine, her recipe-writing technique, her personality? Is the big-screen version of Child as intellectual and as political as the woman in the flesh?
As they nibbled on fresh-baked bread, cornichons and charcuterie, those assembled at L’Ecole, the restaurant of the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, could agree only that Child was too important and indelible a personality for a film to easily capture.
“She didn’t look like anybody else, sound like anybody else, have a life like anybody else, teach cooking like anybody else,” said Laura Shapiro, who wrote a biography of Child. “It would be very, very hard to persuade Julia’s closest friends.”
The film tells the story of Child’s culinary awakening in France in the 1940s and 1950s as recounted in “My Life in France,” a book she started with nephew Alex Prud’homme that was published after her death in 2004 at age 91.
Her story is juxtaposed with that of Julie Powell, a young New Yorker who in 2002 started blogging about a year of cooking each of the 524 recipes in the first volume of Child’s seminal cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
The film’s opening scene shows Child, played by Meryl Streep, moving with her husband to a grand apartment in Paris. She comes close to sobs, wordless, over a life-changing taste of buttery, browned sole meuniere. She has encountered the cuisine she will dedicate herself to learning and exporting to an American audience.
Then viewers meet Powell, played by Amy Adams, moving with her husband to a dingy apartment over a pizzeria in Queens.
She soon is nearly weeping over her life’s disappointments, frustrations and lack of direction.
That dissatisfaction leads her to seek a vocation in a blog about cooking Child’s food.
When the film ended in the Sony screening theater on a recent Monday, the first words from some of Child’s friends were, “Julia would not have liked it.”
Some said Child would not want her life cast in parallel with that of Powell, who she believed was trying to capitalize on her name and oeuvre with the blog, which became a book.
“She thought it was opportunistic,” said chef Jacques Pepin, a close friend of Child’s who hosted cooking shows with her.
Others said the cinematic Child was too fluffy and showed too little of Child’s drive, and of her scientific approach to testing and writing recipes, as she strove to respect French tradition while making dishes accessible to the American cook.
Some noted that when Child was in France, she was in her 30s: slimmer, more athletic and less eccentric and awkward than her later self on television — or Streep in the film.
Still, Child’s friends marveled at Streep’s achievement. She got the voice right.
And somehow, the 5-foot-6-inch Streep gave the sense of Child’s 6-foot-2 frame.
What about Streep making an omelet?
“Entirely accurate, exactly as Julia did it on TV,” said Nick Malgieri, a New York pastry chef and author who appeared on “Baking With Julia,” one of Child’s shows.
Child’s niece, Phila Cousins, said later in a phone interview that Streep’s characterization was unnervingly real.
Cousins, a clinical psychologist in Colorado, said she visited the studio during filming to watch a scene between her famous aunt and her mother.
“It’s a pretty surreal experience seeing your dead relatives come to life,” Cousins said. “Meryl is inches smaller than my aunt. She said her characterization was based on the voice and getting the movements of a big person right. It’s an amazing feat.”
Powell said in a telephone interview that she understands objections to the parallels in Nora Ephron’s screenplay between her life and Child’s.
“I didn’t do anything all that special,” Powell said. “I did what thousands of women did: I cooked Julia Child’s recipes.”
Powell said she sought to honor Child’s legacy, not to exploit it. “I’m not religious; I don’t believe she’s up there in heaven with Paul (her husband) eating sole meuniere,” Powell said. “The extent to which a person lives on is in the minds of other people.”