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Months of Meryl: Julie & Julia (2009)

The Filmography: Across 52 films, Meryl Streep taught America how to act, and how to accept awards. It’s been 41 years since Ms. Streep’s first film. Today we might think we live in the world Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson, and Alicia Vikander made, but beneath it all is Meryl, 69 if she’s a day, and no one can touch her.

The Contenders: Too young to recall The Hours press tour, and much too young for any pre-Devil Wears Prada context, really, Matthew and John  were looking for a challenge. And from Still of the Night to Dark Matter, they found it. Risking their sanity, their jobs, and Ingmar Bergman centennial retrospectives, they have signed on for a deranged assignment.

365 days. 52 films. A dozen-plus accents. Three Oscars. Two boys. One refurbished Blu-Ray player. How far will it go? We can only wait. And wait. And wait...

The Months of Meryl Project. Wrapping up soon on a blog you’re already reading.

#41 — Julia Child, beloved chef and unanticipated television star of singular personality.

MATTHEW: In surveying all 21 of the films that constitute Meryl Streep’s history-making haul of Academy Award nominations, Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, to my mind, represents an acting challenge that only this stupendous performer could have possibly played and been rewarded for playing...

An adaptation of two memoirs about self-activating female discovery, Julia Child’s My Life in France (completed and published in 2006 by Alex Prud’homme after Child’s 2004 death) and Julie Powell’s eponymous blog-turned-2005 bestseller, Ephron’s cinematic swan song tells two true stories. One centers around the revered Child (Streep), trying to make a name for herself in the world of culinary arts as an American expat living in 1950s Paris. The other belongs to Powell, a would-be writer in post-9/11 New York City who decides to make all 524 recipes in Child’s influential, debut 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year, while simultaneously documenting her journey on the web. As Julie, Streep’s Doubt costar Amy Adams, for some reason saddled with Mary Badham’s haircut in To Kill a Mockingbird, is endearing if overly finicky while doing most of the heavy-lifting, dramatically speaking. Streep, on the other hand, is tasked with playing Powell’s idealized image of Julia Child as a faultless good fairy and a fount of near-boundless optimism in her own intertwined segment, which comes to focus on Child’s years-long struggle to write and publish that first tome.

What other actress could have taken on a persona as prone to imitation as Julia Child’s and ridden this role all the way to the Dolby Theatre, receiving hosannas from mainstream audiences and major critics’ groups along the way? Save for perhaps Angels in America’s Ethel Rosenberg, Streep had never before slipped into the life of a real human being quite so familiar, which is perhaps why she herself was somewhat ambivalent about classifying her performance as a direct imitation, to the extent of arguably diminishing her own efforts and achievements in the process.  Streep told The Telegraph upon the film’s release:

I’m playing Julia as Julie’s idea of what she was like, so I’m not really ‘doing’ Julia Child. While I felt a responsibility to her memory and the legacy of the work she did, I didn’t feel I was replicating her because I don’t presume to know what she was like. That’s my rationalisation, my ‘out,’ because I thought that even if I made a big, glaring mistake with her I’m really only a figment of someone else’s imagination.”

To my eye and ear, Streep’s deft, smart yet purposely limited performance nonetheless feels like an act of unmistakable and unadulterated mimicry, evident from the second the actress opens her mouth and lets forth that notoriously high-pitched voice with its fluty inflections, loopy vowels, and continent-hopping accent. Knowing that her half of the movie is a frothy yet deeply-felt divertissement, a nostalgic period distraction from Julie’s slowly alleviating and far more present drudgery, Streep keeps her touch light and hews closely to the Julia Child known and adored by millions, all the while taking lip-smacking pleasure in an assignment that necessitates a certain largesse of spirit. The performance is consequently ample in its affection (and affectation), but also able to function as a big-hearted valentine to all of the things that defined the films and writing of Streep’s dearly-departed pal Ephron, from her insatiable love of food to her belief in the soul-strengthening power of sisterhood to her staunch allegiance to intrepid, unapologetic, independent-minded women. Streep further used the character to show her appreciation of another woman particularly close to her heart, her late mother, the artist and homemaker Mary Wilkinson Streep, a choice she noted in an extremely poignant Golden Globes acceptance speech for the film. As Streep told The Telegraph:

 [Julia Child] transformed cooking for regular people… even if my mother wasn’t a good cook, she had a similar joie de vivre and an undeniable sense of how to enjoy her life… [Julie & Julia] is my homage to her spirit.”

What do you make of what we might call Streep’s tripartite tribute of a performance?

on the set

JOHN: Quadripartite? Is it possible to pay tribute to yourself? Well, it’s certainly possible if you’re Meryl Streep. Maybe I’m overly identifying myself with Julie Powell in noticing the parallels between Child’s pioneering work in cooking and Streep’s own strides in film acting. But Streep herself is clearly dipping into her own renewed audience popularity following a string of box office and/or critical hits over the past three years. Julie & Julia is as much a gift to Streep fans as it is to bloggers, foodies, and Child devotees, serving up an atypical biopic performance in which Streep actively eschews her penchant for precise and nuanced characterization, which has defined her previous screen incarnations of real-life women. Instead, Streep’s Julia Child is a figment of our cultural imagination, capturing more of the spirit than the specifics of this oft-parodied but much-loved culinary icon — which is just what the film calls for.

After twice watching Julie & Julia, it’s still hard to know what exactly made Child’s cooking as revolutionary as the film purports it to be; most of what we glimpse about Child’s actual cooking faculties are lampooned, and the difficult recipes she helped author seem better suited to professional chefs than the “typical” American housewife. Nevertheless, Streep ensures that we unmistakably understand Child’s essence, that outsized and indomitable nature, brought to a boil while pursuing this mid-life dream. Streep’s performance is almost campy, a conflagration of breathless vocal work, relaxed yet heightened physicality, and unembarrassed glee. Her verve is infectious: I guffawed at Julia leaping out of bed in the morning to shout, “I’m alive!” This spry naïveté, however, does not curb Child’s healthy sexual appetite; it’s incredibly refreshing to watch Streep, age 60, be this sexy and titillated on screen. And all she needs to do to deepen the genuine bond between Child and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) is flutter the heart on her dress across the table from him at a couples’ Valentine’s Day party.

Is it possible, then, that this same woman would later rip Julie Powell’s reverential homespun project to near-shreds? Is this really the same woman from Pasadena who once worked as a secret agent? How do we square this harmless, people-pleasing ham with the celebrity who gave Streep the brush-off for daring to question her use of food pesticides in the late 1980s? Nothing about Streep’s performance hints at these other facets of Child. By abstaining from subtlety, Streep’s performance becomes rather static and, after a while, routine. As in Mamma Mia!, Streep is allowed here to be as free and unbuttoned as ever, throwing herself into the film with unbridled, exuberant energy. She remains undoubtedly exciting to watch, even if I wished for more variation and a surer directorial hand to reign in her impulses to go big and broad. Do you also wish that Streep had done more to dimensionalize her heroine, or would that be like trying to make duck à l’orange from a cheese soufflé?

MATTHEW: As Streep’s belly laughs and cooing, flighty asides ran the risk of repetition, I definitely found myself wanting to see more of the Julia Child who publicly called into question the seriousness of Julie Powell’s experiment and went so far as to paint her most popular enthusiast, via various sources, as something like a foolish, attention-hungry nonprofessional. But that’s not the Julia Child that Streep is playing nor the Julia Child that Julie & Julia is especially interested in portraying, aside from the brief, almost climactic mention of Child’s critique within the film. What Ephron has done instead is cull together the passages of Child’s pre-stardom life that most directly reflect Powell’s narrative in order to position the former as a bubbly beacon of determination for the latter to admire and echo. Therefore, that toothy, pink-cheeked smile remains plastered on Streep’s face, slipping only when Julia is confronted by disheartening reminders of her infertility or one of multiple, condescending adversaries, upon which she wears her opponent down into submission with the sheer, “I’ll show you” gumption of her oversized personality. In attempting to mirror a specific, widely-known model, Streep is always colorful without necessarily coloring outside the lines.

Luckily, there is plenty else to relish in Ephron’s film, and much of it has to do with Tucci, the rare scene partner of Streep’s who is confident enough in his own abilities to not just blindly follow the lead of this intimidating master. Tucci keeps Streep on her toes at all times by keeping his own readings and reactions beautifully loose and spontaneous. Without saying a word or doing anything more than tensing his gaze and taking a weary breath, Tucci offers the closest thing to a critical perspective of Julia, giving us tiny glimpses at the occasional exasperation of living with so eccentric and irrepressible a force of nature. The two maintain such a delicious and genuinely sexy chemistry, commingling the couple’s love of food with their famously healthy bedroom activity; just look at the way Streep sensually stares at Tucci as he tastes a forkful of her first meal in a Paris bistro, her uncontainable ecstasy at being able to share a dining experience with the one she loves and desires spreading over him and, inevitably, over us.

And despite the restraints placed on her character and thus her creativity, Streep is perfectly capable, as ever, of making our hearts flutter all on her own, whether her Julia is whooping with pride and joy at seeing the long-awaited fruition of her hard work or just carrying herself like the tall, twinkling candle that she was — flooding every space with light, unable to be extinguished.

Next Week: It's Complicated


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Reader Comments (25)

One of my top 5 Streep performances. No one could do what she does in this film and that is why the oscars and critic groups took notice. Hate the idea that she lost to Bullock and Blind Side. Would have been happy if she had won here instead of The Iron Lady.
Also when can her and Tucci do a film again?

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Is there a subliminal reason we took Julie out of the title?

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

@Jamie - Agreed.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

Meryl's performance here is a gift. No one would call it her best work, but it's so joyful that it's impossible to deny. It's like the fatty, buttery food that Julia Child gave American housewives: delicious to consume, unexpectedly so in some cases (like those braised cucumbers), but afterwards you feel a little bad because the movie itself isn't as good as perhaps it could have been (like the stomachache you get after eating so much butter -- was it worth it?)

That food analogy got away from me. Apologies.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCash

That 2009 line up was weak,I am pleased Streep didn't win,I am in the she should have a 3rd for Bridges camp,Bullock's is a bad win,Mulligan was best in the line up,Swinton in that other far better Julia film is a clear winner.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I agree with Jamie, too. I love Streep's joy throughout this performance.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Streep was unstoppable as Child. No other actress could have pulled this role off nearly as well as Streep.

I wish the Julie part had been omitted. Child had an extremely interesting backlife, also.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I guess the title is a tribute to the best performance of that season. Yes, I mean TILDA

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Streep and Tucci (and Lynch!) are a delight. The less said about the Adams half, the better.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Carden

I think of this film fondly. It is the bookend to the partnership of Ephron and Streep. The last time they worked together and they both put so much of themselves into this work.
I'm happy that Meryl Streep made a living person out of a person that people didn't know, or knew only through the Dan Akroyd impression on SNL. In other words, most people only knew a caricature and Nora Ephron and Streep fleshed out the background of Julia Child.
The scenes with Jane Lynch and Meryl Streep are simply perfect.

I also think the Julie part with Amy Adams is unfairly maligned. I happen to like the contrast, It's somewhat silly to be so critical of Julie Powell for being annoying at times. She is a woman taking on a huge, daunting task and she sometimes is overwhelmed by it. I see no shame in that.
Finally, I still miss Nora Ephron. She was the Hildy Johnson (His Girl Friday) of our time. She was that fast talking, sharp, savvy commentator with a wit that never faded. She managed to put together a love letter of a film, work with a great cast, and serve it up to us, before she died.
What a woman, what a life. Every bit as amazing as Julia Child.
I also wanted Meryl to win her third Oscar for this, but that was not to be. They just never take comedy seriously.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

I've heard Meryl and Nora were at lunxch or dinner together and Meryl said "Bon Appetit!" Julia Child style ant that's how the movie idea was born. Hopefully that's true, because that's awesome.
It's sad that only Meryl was nominated. I mean of course I know why, she's wonderful, but I really wished Stanley Tucci was also nominated for his equally wonderful turn as Paul Child, not that creepy child murder…. *sigh*
And yes, even Amy Adams is underrated here. Read the book of Julie Powell, and you'll see she captured her narotic bitchy character really good. Powell doesn't deny her behavior.

The less we say about BA 2009... the better. Although 2011 made it up for me. #SorryNotSorry

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

I also really hope to see Meryl and Stanley once again in a movie. They're so good together, just as they were in TDWP. Three time's the charm!

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Great write up. I also love this film and thank you for recognizing Stanley Tucci. This and A League of Their Own are classic, inspiring films directed by women.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

My number 1 Meryl performance and film. This film meant so much to me when it came out - I saw it every Wednesday for a month. Absolutely adore it!

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Lewis

This is second to A Cry In The Dark as my favourite Meryl Streep performance.
And agree, I soooo wish Stanley Tucci was nominated for this film, he was so deserving here.
Their scenes together are just sublime.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJB

"Hate the idea that she lost to Bullock and Blind Side. Would have been happy if she had won here instead of The Iron Lady."

@ Jamie, exactly! not mentioning the snubs over the decades, Julia Child should've been her 3rd Oscar, not The Iron Lady. What a missed opportunity.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

I also think the Julie portions are unfairly maligned. In fact, when I first saw the movie, I interpreted the Julia Child scenes as Julie's idealized version of who Julia was through what she knew about her, mostly because of how almost angelic Meryl's performance is. I had a hard time squaring what Meryl was offering with how Julia criticized Julie for her project. To me, Julie saying "I love you" to the portrait of Julia was her way of holding on to the idealized version she always had of her, because that version drove her to do what she did and she was proud of that. Yes, Meryl is delightful in this and even more so when she's sharing a scene with Stanley Tucci, but for some reason I was more captivated with the Julie portions of the film (I guess I also like my protagonists a bit on the annoying side, it makes them more reliable, because who hasn't annoyed someone at some point)...

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

This is one of my favorite performances of hers. Meryl is REALLY good with comedy and has an excellent, light touch. I would have liked to have seen her win for this.

I generally really like Amy Adams and think that she's been flat-out sensational in many things, but this is not one of them. I didn't care for her in this film. I get that the character is supposed to be annoying in spots and I generally admire when actors are unafraid to be unlikeable. That said, I felt like she leaned into the more unappealing aspects of her character a little TOO hard, and it didn't quite fit the tone of the film, which is pretty frothy.

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

Issit criminal tt I prefer Meryl's terrific turn in It's Complicated released in the same yr than J&J?? 😂

She's sweet n lovable in J&J, but Julia was seen entirely fr Julie's perspective n as such, a rose-tinted version o the real Julia Child n somehow, it never really goes deeper beyond her famous persona.

Imo, Meryl owns only half the movie. But i can see why it was singled out by critics n award bodies, above It's Complicated. It's a crowd pleasing n award baity souffle. Bon Appetit! 😋

Even so, it's still miles betta than Sandy B's undeserving win... Sigh...

October 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

I’ll third (or whatever) the motion that the Julie portion of the film—and Adams in it—was unfairly dismissed. It’s her story that grounds us in the modern understanding, which give Julia and her cooking gifts continued relevance and buoyancy for our times. Julie & Julia was well balanced that way, and I genuinely enjoy both halves of the film (and Tucci *and* Chris Messina as the sexy spouses). This holds up as a delightful film.

October 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Agree w/ all who criticized Sandra Bullock's BA win that year - she's someone who's perfectly good in most everything she does but ugh, the Blind Side is 100% mediocre with a very problematic white savior message. Looking over Bullock's filmography, it's not exactly a stellar list of films. I don't think she got the Oscar for artistry as much as thanks for being a popular movie star who has sold a lot of tickets over the years.

October 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I heard Ephron was already working on the movie but couldn't find the right actress for Child. She ran into Meryl when they were both Christmas shopping, Ephron explained what she was working on and what her problem was, and Meryl immediately launched into her Child impression. Ephron was like "you're hired."

Love Meryl's half of this film. Just like Devil Wears Prada, her scenes are so much more satisfying than than her younger co-star's she has to share the film with. Adams is saddled with a whiny character but I agree with others that maybe she leaned a little too hard into it. I mean, she wasn't constantly miserable throughout the whole project. She made a lot of good food! That she enjoyed! I feel like that got minimized for the sake of conflict.

Oh and yes to Tucci, so unassumedly sexy.

October 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Ephron crafted a story about outsiders breaking through into the mainstream. This is Julie & Julia's major theme. It's a perfect film, period.

October 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Burge

Love Meryl and Jane Lynch playing off on another!

“Good...but not great!”

October 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBC

They play this movie constantly on tv, so I’ve seen parts of it over and over. I agree that the Julia Child story is more interesting than the Julie story.

But oddly, it’s the Julie parts that have stayed fresh and the Julia parts that have staled.

Amy Adams brings such enthusiasm, energy, and commitment to her part. You realize it’s supposed to be two parallel stories of extraordinary enthusiasm.

But the Julia part isn’t. The criticisms of Streep being mannered and imitative show even more clearly over time. It’s like Streep is only interested in the craft of acting and has only a cold disinterest in the women she plays.

Stanley Tucci found the way to overcome Streep’s habit of sabotaging her male co-stars (she’s afraid of being criticized for having no sex appeal). Tucci’s strategy is to shower his co-star with adoration, love, constant total attention. Streep warms up and relaxes with him.

I would have liked to have seen Geena Davis in the part of Julia Child. Oscar winner Davis was six feet tall, red haired, and the right age. Look at the scene of Davis chopping vegetables in the kitchen in “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and you can see how she could be both a famous chef and a spy.

October 16, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

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