NEW YORK — For “Julie & Julia,” Meryl Streep said, she based her portrayal of chef-de-TV Julia Child partly on her own mother, who had “an undeniable sense of joie de vivre” — and a tenuous relationship with the kitchen.
“My mother’s motto was, ‘If it’s not done in 20 minutes, it’s not dinner.”” As a kid, Streep said, she once found herself watching the neighbors carving up what she thought were “tennis balls.” They were potatoes.
“Those aren’t potatoes,” Streep recalled thinking. “Potatoes came in a box.”
But such was the world to which the larger-than-life Julia Child brought her book and herself in the mid-1960s, the apron-clad universe of American “cuisine” that she led by the hand, from the woefulness of Irish spaghetti (pasta awash in Campbell’s tomato soup) to the high-wire-and-wine adventures of boeuf Bourguignon. For New York women like Nora Ephron, Child’s book was the bible.
“I had already done many, many of the recipes from Julia before she went on the air,” said Ephron. “The book came out in ‘62 and she didn’t go on the air till about ‘64, ‘65. I, meanwhile, was slicing and dicing away, because that’s what you did in New York — you cooked from that cookbook. Or be ashamed of yourself. People were always saying things at dinner parties, ‘Is this Julia’s ... ?’”
This time around, Ephron — the writer-director of such frothy confections as “Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail” and “Bewitched” — has attempted the cinema version of lemon souffle, essentially two new movies under one title. “Julie & Julia,” which opens Friday, is based on “My Life in France” (by Child and her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme) and on author Julie Powell’s yearlong effort to cook — and blog — her way through Child’s landmark “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
Amy Adams portrays Powell; Chris Messina plays her husband, Eric; Stanley Tucci is Julia’s husband, Paul, and Streep — all 5 feet, 6 inches of her — plays Child, who was, oh, about 6-foot-3. Given the demands of perspective and illusion, this height differential leads one to think of the casting call for “Julie & Julia” as a remake of “Under the Rainbow.”
“It’s true, absolutely true,” said Ephron, admitting she had to hire every short actor in Hollywood (OK, an overstatement). “They weren’t midgets — that’s not fair. But it’s absolutely true. When we’d be on the street, Meryl would cast an eye on the tall extra and ask politely that they be put further away from her. And there’s no question that there were all kinds of wonderful actresses I ruled out for Louisette and Simca” — two of Child’s Paris friends — “because they were tall.”
Few women come as tall as Child, who wasn’t just physically imposing: She was a pioneer, in both the kitchen and the battle of the sexes.
Though hardly a feminist firebrand — as Ephron put it, her subject didn’t “become” Julia Child until she was almost 50 — Child was a vessel of passion. It might have been a passion for food, rather than conflict, that made her who she was (she died in 2004). But she was, without a doubt, a role model for women, and cooks of both sexes: Julie Powell’s herculean effort to complete 524 recipes in 365 days was as much about the inspiration she got from Child as it was her own tenacity.
When asked, Adams said she hadn’t met Powell (“We met through her blog,” she offered), adding that her version of her character was approached through Ephron’s words. Child, of course, is another story. “Everybody can do their own version of Julia Child,” said Streep — who, as soon as she opens her mouth in the movie, cues our mental theme music to “The French Chef.” But, she added, “How do we know if we’re doing Julia or Dan Aykroyd?”
Aykroyd’s high-pitched, hemorrhaging Julia Stepchild of “Saturday Night Live” fame remains indelible enough to be included in the film. But in addition to her mother, Streep said, her Julia was based partly on Powell’s elevated image of the older woman — half real, half whisk-wielding angel.
One truly angelic thing in “Julie & Julia” is Paul Child, who, as played by Tucci, is that rare thing in a modern story — a selfless, supportive husband, in this case one born considerably before such qualities were even considered, much less considered assets. He’s positively ...
“Nice?” Ephron said. “I know, yes, I know. Well, I know nice men. But that was a true thing for both of those women, that both Eric and Paul were nice. I didn’t have to change either of those guys, they were fantastically nice guys. You don’t think there were nice men in the 1950s?”
The ‘50s, yes; ‘50s movies, not so much. “The one thing I didn’t do,” Tucci said, “was Paul’s Boston Brahmin accent, because Meryl was already doing Julia’s voice and I figured the less I did the better. Which I think in some ways was their relationship: He was there, and supportive, but it was really about her.”
Tucci and Streep shared the screen in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and when asked what it’s like being in another “chick flick” with the actress, Tucci laughed out loud. “I gotta say, a lot of guys come up and say, ‘Oh my God, I loved that movie. I crossed some threshold. But this is different. I felt like I was making this little, intimate movie about two people, and it was very comfortable, you never felt anyone was working at cross-purposes. And Nora knew how to tell both stories truthfully. And besides, everybody loves food. People are going to go to the movie because they love food. And they love to see people eat.”
FEAST ON THESE FLICKS
Five movies guaranteed to make you hungry:
‘BABETTE’S FEAST’ (1987) — Blue cheese, papaya, grapes and pineapple; buckwheat cakes with caviar and sour cream; turtle soup; quail in puff pastry shell with foie gras and truffle sauce; Belgian endive and walnuts in vinaigrette; and rum sponge cake with figs and glaceed fruits — such is the menu in Gabriel Axel’s Danish feature about the indelible link between the spiritual and the culinary. Based on a story by Isak Dinesen (who also wrote the story behind “Out of Africa,” which starred “Julie & Julia’s” Meryl Streep).
‘BIG NIGHT’ (1996) — Two restaurant-running brothers — one of whom is a genius of the kitchen who refuses to compromise — stake everything they have on one spectacular evening of Italian delicacies (the tub-sized timpano being the coup de grace). Co-written and co-directed by “Julie & Julia’s” Stanley Tucci.
‘EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN’ (1994) — Ang Lee’s celebration of Chinese family and cuisine looks as good as great food tastes. It’s not egg rolls you’ll be craving.
‘RATATOUILLE’ (2007) — He may be a rodent, but Remy, the furry hero of this animated Pixar feature, personifies the chef as artist, who embodies the passion behind all epic cooking, and even epic eating.
‘FOOD INC.’ (2009) — Despite being about corporatized food and crimes against agriculture, this documentary by Robert Kenner inspires the viewer to eat healthier food — which also means better-tasting food. Free-range, drug-free, rosemary-and-lemon-accented roast chicken anyone?