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GUEST BLOG #40: Tom Brinkmoeller on "Julie & Julia" -- and the Real Julia Child
August 7, 2009  | By Tom Brinkmoeller
 

[Bianculli here: Contributing TV critic Tom Brinkmoeller is a long-time Julia Child fan, so he approached the new Julie & Julia movie with a grain of salt (and pepper). Turns out he enjoyed it a lot -- but savors the real Julia Child, and her TV legacy, even more...]

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Julia Child: In New Movie and on TV, A Lot More than Just "Save the Liver!"

It's about an hour into the film Julie & Julia that Dan Aykroyd's 1978 Saturday Night Live parody of Julia Child shows up.

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It's a famous skit, in which Aykroyd's over-the-top caricature of the chef on her original TV show accidentally cuts herself, and tries to carry on as she bleeds uncontrollably. Though not doing much to advance the story line, the piece is valuable because it shows how awful a movie this might have been in the hands of someone who sees Julia Child only as a caricature. (Watch it HERE.)

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Thank you, Nora Ephron, for writing and directing a film that treats Child as a real person. And thank you, Meryl Streep, for showing Child's humanity in playing this icon whom I, like the film's other title character, consider a hero.

In 2002, 29-year-old Julie Powell decided to make, in a year's time, every recipe in Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking book and blog about the experience -- an experience that led to a popular book and to this movie. Simultaneously, it tells the story of how a woman in 1949 Paris transformed from the under-challenged wife of an American diplomat into America's first celebrity chef.

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I'm not a film critic, and critiquing this enjoyable movie might be more suited to a site called MOVIES WORTH WATCHING. But everything Child ever did for television solidly belongs here. And I think it's fair to guess that many people who stop here to read about high-quality television will see the new film. Go knowing you'll be more entertained than disappointed.

But, if you're as much of a Julia junkie as am I, be ready, also, to feel a little cheated that the Julia Child whose four later cooking series still are regularly shown on many public stations doesn't show up in this film.

You will see the problems she and her collaborators had in getting the first book published. And you'll see Streep doing versions of the original PBS black-and-white series, The French Chef (the show Aykroyd parodied). It's that period of Child's life that is relevant to this film.

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Too bad there's a bit of the Aykroyd in Streep's re-created French Chef clips. Before writing this, I scanned episodes of The French Chef three-DVD set (which I previously have watched in full) just to check my memory. Child is like no other television personality who preceded her, but her enthusiasm for cooking does not reach the quirky level the film portrays.

And for those whose knowledge of Child is minimal, there's no hint of how the host of that original series grew into a seminal model for future cooks and chefs.

She was the original celebrity chef. But she didn't open restaurants or endorse cookware to play on her name, and she rarely lectured her viewers, showing off her superior knowledge, the way many of today's TV cooking stars love to do.

Watch the series on which she cooked and baked with A-list chefs, and you'll see her advance the knowledge of her viewers by asking questions to which she undoubtedly already knew the answers. The chefs would skip over an important point, and she would unselfishly put the viewer at the head of the line again, by making sure the visiting expert would explain the use of an ingredient, technique or piece of equipment. Viewer first, while never calling the chef to task.

In these series, though she had a level of fame some of her guests must really have envied, her role was sidekick. She rarely took the spotlight off the visitor to her kitchen, happily making her guest the star. And in one series, she moved the spotlight from the kitchen in her Cambridge, Mass., home and into the kitchen of whatever chef was guest that week. She did intros and wrap-ups to the episode, but the attention almost totally was on the guest.

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Only when she shared her kitchen for a series with her good friend Jacques Pepin did a Julia Child program turn into a team effort. They were funny together, and they didn't always agree. Child, for instance, insisted on white pepper over black, apparently for cosmetic reasons, while Pepin favored the taste of black pepper over the other's aesthetic merits.

The pepper rivalry showed up more than once, and the inside joke seasoned the shows without ever crossing over into nonsensical. Always, viewers who wanted to watch artists at work weren't disappointed.

The main reason for mentioning this side of Julia Child is to mitigate a hint the movie makes that the famous chef didn't think much of Julie Powell's endeavor. In the film, After a New York Times story takes the young cook's exposure to a much higher level, Powell gets a call from a reporter who says he thinks Child doesn't approve.

Child, by this time, had sold her Cambridge home and moved to California and a small Santa Barbara apartment. The reporter from the local paper relates to Powell, in a phone call, what he interprets from a call he made to Child, asking for a reaction.

After a moment or two of Julie's angst over the possible rejection by her hero, the movie moves on. Child died in 2004, and she and Powell never did meet or talk. But those who don't know much about Child might take away from the movie that the star of The French Chef was jealous, heartless, senile or just mean.

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Wolfgang Puck, whose series was running on The Food Network at the time, devoted an entire episode to cooking with Child in her new, small kitchen. Puck's series now runs on Fine Living Network, and though the Puck-Child episode is not, at the moment, scheduled for a timely repeat (talk about a missed bet), if you ever see it on the schedule, watch. It's the Wolfgang Puck episode called "Wolfgang & Julia: In the Kitchen."

What you'll see is an aging Julia Child -- working in a kitchen that's incredibly small -- as gracious, smart and wonderful as ever.

Julia Child mean? As likely as Julia Child driving up to a Burger King and ordering a Whopper.

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Tom Brinkmoeller, who does what some might call cooking daily, loves to watch people who actually know what they're doing in the kitchen. And nobody, in his opinion, makes the watching more enjoyable than Ms. Child.


1 Comment

 

 

Tom Brinkmoeller said:

A friend pointed out to me today that the really cool PBS Video Web site has, among its great collection of shows one can watch on a computer, a wealth of Julia Child offerings.
My personal favorite is a black-and-white egg-making episode from 1964 -- maybe because it contrasts to the b&w Streep version from the movie and shows a calm and easy-to-understand TV chef versus one who picks up a chicken by the wings and looks a bit too goofy. Forty-five years ago, most Americans knew little about any egg that wasn't fried or scrambled. Fair to say, if any of us had ever heard the word "ramekin," we had no idea what one was. (I would have guessed a Speed Racer character.) She starts by showing what one of these small cooking vessels is and using them to make a variety of egg offerings that have nothing to do with American cheese slices or bacon grease.
There are other delightful episodes from her series in which she cooked with restaurant chefs--Michel Richard, Michael Lomonaco, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Charlie Palmer and Lidia Bastianich, among others.
Complete episodes, great examples of Julia's skills and style and you don't have to pledge a cent to watch.
http://video.pbs.org/program/1073557581/

Comment posted on August 12, 2009 3:34 PM
 
 
 
 
 
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