If there’s no Jell-O salad on your table this Thanksgiving, thank Julia Child.
Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s engaging and intimate documentary “Julia" makes a persuasive case that, through her long-running public television show in the 1960s and 1970s, Child almost single-handedly transformed how America cooks and eats. The film smartly opens Thanksgiving Day in Madison at AMC Madison 6 and Marcus Point.
The movie opens with a typically playful clip from Child’s show, “The French Chef,” as Child lines up six plucked chickens before the camera like prisoners before a firing squad, addressing each one by name. As Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” plays on the soundtrack, Child expertly slices up the hapless birds and prepares them. While most of “Julia” is comprised of historical footage, the film includes mouthwatering, high-definition “re-enactments” of Child’s favorite dishes, including roasted chicken, baked sole in butter, and her beloved beef bourguignon, almost erotically drenched in red wine.
Child’s onscreen presence — cheerful, encouraging, forgiving of mistakes — did much to demystify French cooking in America, a country that was still pouring a can of warmed-up cream of mushroom soup on a boiled chicken breast and calling it cooking.
“Julia” uses copious clips from “The French Chef” (a show that Child started when she was 51) as well as TV interviews of Child charming talk show hosts. But Cohen and West also dig beneath the sunny public persona to show how Child was a savvy businesswoman and an ardent feminist (although she rejected the label). Growing up in a conservative Pasadena household, Child yearned for freedom, and found it while serving in World War II. She was a clerk/typist for the Office of Strategic Services, the American intelligence agency that was the predecessor to the CIA and not, as legend has it, a spy herself.
While stationed in France she met the love of her life, a diplomat and artist named Paul Cushing, and his libertine approach to life — good food, good art, good sex — was everything a spirited girl from Pasadena had been looking for. He would become her most ardent supporter as she launched a television career, doing everything from managing her business affairs to mopping up the television kitchen counter between tapings. The story of their lifelong love affair is a moving undercurrent of the film.
Modern-day celebrity chefs such as Jose Andres, Ina Garten, and her longtime friend Jacques Pepin sing Child’s praises, and credit her with making today’s world of culinary TV shows, TikTok recipes and more adventurous and demanding appetites possible.
The film isn’t entirely laudatory about Child. The film suggests that her one-time friend and cooking partner, Simone Beck, was elbowed out of the spotlight by Child as she became more famous. And Child bristled at the “farm-to-table” movement that suggested cooks should bypass the supermarket and get their ingredients directly from the source.
Still, given their previous documentaries “RBG” and “My Name is Pauli Murray,” one gets the sense that Cohen and West wouldn’t make a movie about a woman they didn’t deeply admire. “Julia” follows that tradition, and their affection for their subject is irresistible. Bon appetit.