Monday, August 24, 2009

Julie & Julia: Take Two

In Which We Aim to Dispel the Post-Vacation Blog Fog by Re-Watching a Film and Writing About It Again, Because Summer Repeats Are Good

Julia Child made the front page of The New York Times this morning because the book she co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle and first published in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is selling better than it ever has, boosted to the top of the Times best-seller list (in the advice and how-to category) by the film Julie & Julia. Directed by Nora Ephron, the film tells the parallel stories of Child's emergence as a culinary translator and pedagogue and of Julie Powell's year-long adventure cooking and blogging her way through the massive Mastering. Julie & Julia has done well with critics and at the box office and has also boosted sales of Powell's memoir, which has the same title as the film.

The gyno-critics of Roxie's World raise their paws, their whisks, and their specula to this I Am Woman Hear Me Shopping tale of female triumph in the cultural marketplace. As we noted in our original review of the film, "If Julie & Julia -- as blog, book, and film -- reconnects us to that history [of American cooking] and introduces Child to another generation of cooks, then it is worthy of our applause." We stand by that assessment but return to the film because my typist spent part of her vacation reading Powell's book and then insisted on seeing the movie again. It's all because she has been ruminating on a comment that a new reader, RachelB, left on that original review. Rachel liked the flick, too, but she astutely noted a troubling aspect of its gender politics:
Female friendship was portrayed as necessarily competitive in Julie's part of the story. Julie's college "friends" are mostly people she feels obligated to socialize with. When Julie and Sarah, the one woman she has regular honest conversations with, discuss how frustrated they are by social dynamics among women, one of them flat-out states that women don't like their friends.

Julia's success and ambition, on the other hand, is never portrayed as if it's at someone else's expense. Her scenes with her sister, her collaborator Simka, and her editor are all convivial and supportive. What's the implication-- that female camaraderie used to be possible, but isn't now?
Having read Powell's book and seen the film again, we would like to take up RachelB's question in light of significant differences between the two versions of Powell's story on exactly the point of female friendship. In some ways, it is neither fair nor especially interesting to compare a book to a screen adaptation and complain about changes made and liberties taken. The screenwriter must be a brutal editor, condensing, distilling, and cutting some aspects of a story while punching up others for dramatic effect. For the most part, this distillation process serves Julie & Julia well, for Powell's book, though affecting and amusing, is rather longer than it needed to be. Ephron's screenplay is more tightly constructed, more sharply focused, and more adept at pivoting back and forth between the two plots than Powell's memoir is, though it is generally true to the dramatic and affective core of Powell's story.

In its depiction of Julie's friendships with other women, however, Ephron's screenplay departs significantly from its source. In the book as in the film, Julie Powell is an insecure young woman who faces her thirtieth birthday with a sense of uncertainty and under-achievement. In Powell's telling of the story, though, that insecurity doesn't result in relationships with other women that bristle with competitive tension and only make the protagonist feel more inadequate. Far from it. Without sentimentalizing her female friendships, Powell depicts a core group of women friends who are loyal to her and invested in her project. They eat her food, read her blog, and are present when Powell gets the devastating news that Julia Child had spoken contemptuously of what she was doing. Powell takes in the disappointment as she is preparing to serve Paté de Canard en Croute, one of the more intimidating recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Once Powell, her husband, and friends have feasted on Julie's perfectly made version of the dish, her friend Gwen delivers this pièce de résistance: "Well, if Julia isn't happy with this, then there's just no pleasing the bitch." That, my friends, is friendship. (NB: Powell seems to exercise some dramatic license of her own in telling this story in her book. In the blog version of Paté de Canard en Croute, Gwen isn't present, and the duck isn't mixed up with the reporter's phone call about Child's snooty response to Powell's project. It's interesting that in the memoir Powell conflates the two in order to highlight her girlfriend's strong support. The film gives husband Eric sole credit for helping Julie to weather this disappointment.)

In the film, as RachelB's comment suggests, same-sex friendships leave a bitter aftertaste for the women of Julie's generation, while Julia Child inhabits an idyllic post-war world of female love and ritual. The difference is made most dramatic in a scene that Ephron seems to have whipped up out of thin air -- the scene, early in the film, of Julie enduring an obligatory "Cobb salad lunch" with three friends who are shallow, self-absorbed, and condescending toward her. One of them proves to be downright duplicitous toward Julie, as she interviews her for a magazine story she is writing that ends up depicting her as the poster girl for a lost generation of New Yorkers approaching thirty. There is nothing comparable to this betrayal in the book.

What to make of this manufactured contrast? Perhaps Ephron felt she needed it for dramatic purposes or to avoid the charge of looking at her characters through rose-colored glasses. Even if we grant her that leeway and acknowledge the deep pleasures of the film -- which we experienced fully on our second viewing -- we have to acknowledge that its depiction of relationships between and among younger women marks a troubling lapse in the generosity that otherwise characterizes its vision. The scene of the Cobb salad lunch traffics in numerous stereotypes about the politics of the post-civil rights generation of white, middle-class, American women. It assumes that this generation has no self-conscious politics, that it has replaced lofty radical dreams with mindless careerism and gender solidarity with catty competitiveness. On first glance, the Cobb salad lunch looks like an homage to Sex and the City, but the scene merely borrows the look of that show while sardonically misreading both its feminist politics and its queer sensibility. The book version of Julie & Julia comes closer to understanding both. As we continue to savor the delights of this story in its several incarnations, it is important to note that not all of them depict female camaraderie as a lost possibility for GenX women. In Julie Powell's telling, the girl with the spatula is backed up by a posse of women with big hearts and bigger appetites. One wonders why Nora Ephron relegated them to the cutting room floor.


  1. Brilliant, Roxie! You hit it. I'm sure Ephron's changes were all in the service of telegraphing a lot of ideas in just a few scenes, but you've explained why some of those shortcuts are pernicious.

    I will say this, though: the "Julia" side of the movie was not just about warm, affirming sisterhood--remember the cruel teacher/examiner of JC, who was more dismissive of Child than any of her male instructors, and remember too the difficulties that Beck and Child had with their co-author, Louisette Bertholle, before they ended up cutting her out of an equal share of the book.

    For my part, I thought the friends more as caricature of how they made Julie feel than as portrayals of real women. That is, making her friends so obnoxious and self-absorbed was a strategy to make the audience empathize with Powell's (perhaps equally self-absorbed) obsession with success before 30. But this doesn't contradict your larger point, which is perhaps that functional friendships and relationships between women don't make for good copy/box office.

    How many of you have watched mother-daughter movies or movies about sisters or movies about women friends about how they loved and supported each other? No, it's all "Goodnight, Mother," and "Whatever happened to Baby Jane." Thelma and Louise was an interesting and perhaps never-to-be-repeated experiment!

  2. Candy Man3:16 PM EDT

    Thanks, Roxie, for this -- having just seen the film last night, I agree the cobb-salad scene stands out as a parody of female "friendship," which is all the more jarring in light of Julia's magnanimous embrace of all those around her (and their embrace of her... leaving aside the dismissive examiner). I wonder if part of the point is that Julia's openness to others facilitates her eventual success, and that something different is going on with Julie's shyer, more anonymous public persona (via the blog)?

    Lots of love from up here in Kingston, where two of Julia's biggest fans will be cooking up her beouf bourguignon tomorrow evening. Wish you were here!

  3. Good complication of the treatment of the theme in the Julia part of the film's narrative, Historiann -- and of course it's important that Simka calls the mean examiner a bitch, and Julia concurs in her judgment. You're no doubt right about supportive women's relationships being anathema to Hollywood -- Hell, even Thelma and Louise had to end up driving off the edge of a cliff in order to neutralize the threat posed by their intimacy.

    Oh, Candy Man, I cannot believe you are going to fix boeuf bourguignonne without us all the way up there in Canada! Is it snowing there yet? ;-) Much love to you and your optimistic friend.

  4. Dudley's human7:11 PM EDT

    What historiann said, with one addition.

    (I just saw the film this afternoon, so it's fresh in my mind.) What stuck out like a sore thumb to me was the scene in which Julia and Simka talk to Louisette about the fact that she hasn't been holding up her end. Simka says she hasn't got the courage to talk to Louisette, so Julia will have to. At the luncheon, Simka ends up doing the talking, and Julia promptly undercuts her by contradicting the statements she makes to Louisette, especially about the name placement.

    So, ultimately, both women have astoundingly supportive and generous husbands, and their female relationships are lacking. Which, as you observe, is rather odd in a film of this nature.

    Still loved the film, though.


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