Before Ina, before Rachael, before Emeril, there was Julia, the woman who forever changed the way America cooks. Now comes “Julie & Julia,” the new film starring Meryl Streep as Child and Amy Adams as secretary-turned-food blogger Julie Powell. The film, set in post-9/11 New York and post-WWII Paris, is a delicious exploration of the ways people can feed one another physically and, more importantly, emotionally.
Written and directed by Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “You’ve Got Mail”), “Julie & Julia” interweaves the stories adapted from two best-selling memoirs: Julie Powell’s “Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen” (reissued in paperback with the subtitle “My Year of Cooking Dangerously”) and “My Life in France” by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme.
“What unites these two stories is passion,” says producer Laurence Mark (“Dreamgirls”). “Julie Powell and Julia Child both discovered a passion — in each case, a passion for food — that got them through tough or uncertain times.
“When you talk about passion, Julia Child didn’t just have it for her husband or cooking. She had a passion for living. Real, true joie de vivre,” says Streep, who portrays the 6-foot-2, button-down shirt and denim-apron-wearing icon’s unbridled joy for life with her typical panache. “She loved being alive, and that’s inspirational in and of itself.”
Powell discovered her passion in 2002 when, approaching 30 and stifled by a dead-end cubicle job, she hit on a remarkably unconventional way to break out of her rut: She would spend a year cooking every recipe — all 524 of them — in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and, without realizing she’d become a digital pioneer, blogged every day about it. The experience quickly became cathartic — and about more than just food. A typical Powell post exhorted, “Julia Child wants you — that’s right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end secretarial job and nothing but a Stop & Shop for miles around — to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste all right.”
Powell’s blog caught the attention of producer Eric Steel (best known for the controversial documentary “The Bridge,” which examines why San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is such a popular suicide site) and before her book “Julie and Julia,” a chick-lit-style retelling of her cooking and blogging experiment, was published, Steel had already optioned it for a film.
At the same time producer Amy Robinson (“Twelve and Holding,” “The Great New Wonderful”) was developing a film adaptation of “My Life in France” about Julia and Paul Child and their life and love in post-war Paris. The two settled in Paris after the war as Paul worked in the American foreign service and, with her first exposure to French cuisine, Child’s life changed. Her ardor for fresh, flavorful food made with joy, instead of the cold, processed “food” frequently used then in the U.S., started her on a path that lead to her becoming the first American woman to attend the Cordon Bleu cooking school, co-author of a world-famous cookbook, and the beloved host of a television program that would help revolutionize American cuisine — and 50 years later, the inspiration that transformed Julie Powell’s life. When Steel and Robinson met to discuss their related projects, the idea of combining them into one seemed not only obvious but downright brilliant.
The project attracted the interest of writer/director Ephron, with her witty sensibility and interest in food as it relates to life, and producer Laurence Mark and executive producer Scott Rudin came on board to shepherd the project.
Ephron, for one, found the concept irresistible. “As soon as I heard the idea, I thought, ‘Oh, I have to do that,’” she says. “In 1962 or so, when I first moved to New York, everybody was buying a copy of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ — it was a way of saying you were intelligent and therefore you were going to cook in a way that a smart person was going to cook. So Julia Child became an imaginary friend for me.”
Soon after Ephron became attached to the project she ran into the prodigiously talented Streep at a Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City. When the actress heard what Ephron’s latest project was, she immediately went into a dead-on impersonation of Child’s signature high-pitched voice. From the moment on Ephron knew who her leading lady would be.
“Julia Child is so vivid in everybody’s mind,” says Streep. “You can just call up her size, her shape, her voice, her laugh, her way of breathing. It’s so familiar to us. In a way, it sort of meant my work was half done. I didn’t have to make anything up — there she was.”
For many of us who may have known Child best through Dan Ackroyd’s absurd “Saturday Night Live” impersonation, it’s easy to forget what a strong, inspiring role model she was when she first appeared on television in the early ‘60s on “The French Chef.”
“She was a television personality in a pre-television age,” Streep observes. “People responded to her because she was a real person and they needed a real person on television.”
Amy Adams, in portraying Julie Powell, faces the dual challenge of playing a much lesser known character than Julia Child and inhabiting the screen when the scenery-chewing Streep is absent. But the gifted young actress, who has already deftly handled major roles in “Doubt” and “Enchanted,” more than rose to the occasion, finding inspiration in Powell’s own insecurities.
“‘Julie & Julia’ is about diving in and not being intimidated by things that seem overwhelming,” Adams says.
Portraying the supportive partners of Julie and Julia, Chris Messina as Eric Powell and Stanley Tucci as Paul Child demonstrate the ways in which gender roles have evolved — and not — over the decades. “It’s about partnerships and how you can support each other in good times and bad,” says Streep.
Messina, who memorably portrayed Lauren Ambrose’s last boyfriend during the final season of the acclaimed HBO series “Six Feet Under,” shines in the role in part because “he is a brilliant eater,” according to co-star Adams. “I don’t know how he does it. He eats like a man, yet he doesn’t make it look grotesque. It’s a talent.”
Messina did indeed spend much of the shoot chowing down on his screen partner’s French dishes, at one point complaining about the effort. “Nora yelled from the other room, ‘Robert De Niro would do it!’ — and that got me back in there and focused for another seven lobsters,” laughs Messina.
Tucci, who did a memorable turn opposite Streep in 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada” as Miranda Priestly’s fashion editor, for his part was in awe of the commitment Streep brought to this role. “It’s not an imitation,” says Tucci. “She became Julia Child.”
And how does the real Julie Powell feel about the transformation of her online and literary efforts into big-screen fare? “They’ve made a beautiful movie,” she enthuses, “about being brave and creating yourself.”
— ’Julie & Julia’ opened at theaters Aug. 7. Check local movie listings for times and locations.