What Julia Child knew about Midlife Ambition
Watching Julia, you might infer that there’s a reason St. Augustine compared food to sex: the two dance in a space somewhere between necessary sustenance and greedy desire. For Julia Child, the two were inseparable. “I feel like I only exist until I see you and hug you and eat you,” she wrote to Paul Child ahead of their wedding, as she followed cooking classes in Beverly Hills to try to transform into a more married prospect. Their marriage has fueled her appetite for both. Julia’s Memoirs, My life in Franceand the movie Julia and Julia (along with Meryl Streep in an Oscar-nominated performance as a child) documented how voluptuously and shamelessly she embraced the pleasure that food and love gave her.
Juliaa sparkling new series on HBO Max, jumps beyond that early period (perhaps assuming its target audience knows it well by now) to focus on a different craving that Child found herself with in her forties: the simply hungry for more. Juliacreated and co-written by The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel‘s Daniel Goldfarb, shares the exuberance of this series, as well as its central conceit of a funny, privileged woman who fights to be more than a wife. (Julia avoids, thank goodness, minute monologues.) But it also presents, in eight episodes, a sharper and more rewarding portrait than this idea: a character who discovers – in her 50s – that she doesn’t just have a gift, but a vocation. The show’s version of Julia, played with sharp finesse by British actress Sarah Lancashire, brings unchecked hunger to a joyful life. The more Julia enjoys herself, the more she broadens her conception of what an opportunity can be. His appetites, untamed, become not only undisciplined but totally radical.
Stories about waking up in midlife tend to explore fleeting indulgences or vaguely spiritual quests (the recently divorced writer Julia Roberts munching on an ice cream in Eat Pray Lovegrieving writer Reese Witherspoon contemplating his blisters in Wild). Julia expands the canon, treating professional gratification as the most elusive pleasure of all. When the series begins, Julia and Paul are in Oslo, Norway, where he is stationed as a diplomat and where she is co-editing a French cookbook, when they are summoned to the United States and Paul is pushed to retirement. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, they hang out until Julia is invited to discuss her book on public television, during a literary segment hosted by an impeccably pompous academic. Faced with searing condescension, she makes him a three-egg omelet on live television and – 27 crushing fan letters for public television later – his fame ignites very slowly and uncertainly.
The series, like its central figure, is fun-oriented, tweaking the synapses with beauty, coziness, and the kind of comfort that food has long shown. To like Maisel, Julia is awash in detail and lavishly rendered: A street scene, in which Julia enters WBGH studios for the first time, features intricate vintage window displays, a handful of vintage cars, and a crowd of students in sweaters and loafers. Charles McDougall, who directed the first two episodes, uses quick cuts to absorb viewers into the onscreen world (a clock, projector, and on-air sign emphasize the tension of Julia’s TV debut, as if his antagonist was someone more menacing than a professor of letters). More than any high-profile television show, however, Julia reminded me fraser, this happy 90s dig into snobbery, privilege and cultural disconnect. On the one hand, it has David Hyde Pierce (playing Paul Child), Bebe Neuwirth (as Julia Avis’ friend DeVoto), and a penchant for slapstick and physical comedy. But like fraser, Julia also dances around a question that its warm tone resists digging deeply into: who elevates art and culture, and who do they exclude? Is Julia’s mission to elevate American cuisine by inspiring women, or simply to raise the bar for womanhood even higher?
A show in the 90s could get away with some form of myopia. But no series can explore ambition today without having to consider the girlboss model’s many flaws. Julia sometimes seems so preoccupied with anticipating criticism of her subject that she loses sight of her more human complexity. To counter accusations that this is yet another show about an upper-middle-class white woman, he created the character of Alice Naman (Brittany Bradford), a young black producer at WBGH who discovers Julia and defends her show, and who is constantly undermined and neglected by her male associates. This positions Julia as the indomitable leader of what she describes as “a confederation of women, an estrogen safety net”, while the real child, by all accounts, was alarmed by women-only groups. , which she would have compared to “a banging hen”. house.” In a late episode, the series imagines a searing critique of Julia’s work by a well-known second-wave feminist, briefly throwing her into doubt. It is Paul who rallies her by reminding her that her responsibility is not not to please everyone, even a few sunny days are better than nothing.
Anchoring the show, however, is a performance that sometimes challenges Juliathe lightness of touch. Lancashire, who was a soap opera star in England in the 90s before having a dramatic revival later in his career with the acclaimed series happy valley and Last tango in Halifax, plays Julia less as a naturally friendly and generous soul and more as someone who has long practiced softening people up to get what she wants. “One of the benefits of being like me,” she tells her skeptical male producers, “is that you learn at a young age not to take no for an answer.” His desire to be on television is portrayed in the series as innate, selfish, inexplicable. She presents it to Paul as an altruistic mission, a journey to share the rich lessons of their life in France with American women attached to their kitchens. But for her, it’s also deeply personal—another newly discovered appetite she can’t imagine not nurturing. “At this stage of my life, she says, I don’t want to feel invisible. I want to feel relevant. I want be relevant.”
Despite the clumsy ways Julia massages story, he gets one thing absolutely right, arguing that satisfying one’s desires can be a revolutionary act for women all on his own. Despite all she has done to define American cuisine, Julia’s admission of ambition and food for desire still seems surprisingly progressive. “I want to do it,” she says in one scene as her TV project evolves. “I don’t care if it’s crazy or a terrible business decision…I want it more than anything.” And, the series suggests, that might be enough.