'Julia' takes on a new side of Julia Child — the challenges of newfound fame
I don't know whether Julia Child was uncomfortable being famous or not. I don't know whether she struggled with what we would now call parasocial relationships with her viewers or not. But the new HBO MAX series Julia is, more than any other single thing, about this. It posits that for a woman who was well into middle age when she became a capital-P Personality, that transition was uncomfortable and complicated – and not always one she managed gracefully.
Played in this series by Sarah Lancashire, Julia Child had been employed in the intelligence world before she published Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961, when she was almost 50. A couple of years later, an appearance on WGBH in Boston led to the creation of The French Chef, her public television show that ran for ten years. While Julie & Julia, the book that became the movie that is probably the best-known rendition of Child's life, focused on the time before the publication of Mastering, Julia follows the early part of her television career, and thus a different period of her life: She was already highly successful because of the book; this is the time when she became not only successful but famous. The television kind of famous, not the book kind – and those were very different, even in the 1960s.
This is complicated by the fact that in this telling, Child's husband Paul (David Hyde Pierce) doesn't really approve of television; he is an old-fashioned snob when the story begins. It's only because he is so devoted to her – and because of what they're both convinced television can do to educate people – that he accepts that perhaps doing public TV would be okay. The irony is that at the same time Paul Child thinks his wife is above being on television, much of the staff at WGBH thinks public television is high-minded and should be above airing what they see as a cooking show for housewives.
So to a great degree, this series is about cultural adjustments that working with audiences can require: Child adjusting to being a television personality, and public television adjusting to a different idea of what its viewers really want. (Jefferson Mays plays Albert Duhamel, the host of I've Been Reading who first puts Child on television to demonstrate making an omelet; his show about books and authors is more what the station thinks of as its bread and butter BJC – Before Julia Child.)
As a show about Julia Child the person, I'm not sure how much Julia adds to what we already know of her – her passionate partnership with her husband, her life in France before she published books, her history in the intelligence community. It's certainly different to look at the most successful segment of someone's life as opposed to the underdog segment that Julie & Julia focused on, given that the latter lends itself more easily to the sympathy and rooting interest that people often prefer in their stories (especially their stories about women).
But what this series explores that perhaps I hadn't seen is that Child has some ambivalence about how instantly viewers in this story feel entitled to pieces of her — of her attention, her time, her personal life. (You'll recognize this entitlement as an element of what people now often call parasocial relationships.) She begins her television career advocating hard for herself, offering to pay the expenses of her own show. But she becomes frustrated by the punishing production schedule — particularly once the show begins to be sold to other local public TV stations — and exhausted by the inability to retreat into her marriage, the relationship in which she's most comfortable, once everyone knows who she is. She enjoys recognition and attention, she wants success, she wants people to think she's great at her job. But she wants to be able to take breaks from being Julia Child The Star to be Julia Child The Person, and she realizes that isn't really one of her choices.
Furthermore, here, Julia isn't always gracious in her dealings with other people. Even with Paul, whom she adores, she can be impatient. Her producers can feel unappreciated, and her friends can feel ignored. Her book editor, the famous Judith Jones (Fiona Glascott), treasures their personal and professional relationships, and she grieves a little as television becomes more and more the focus of Child's career.
There's a solid argument that's been made elsewhere that there was no need for another piece about Julia Child, and that there are countless other interesting chefs who could have been the focus of a series like this, and that's true. But it's also true that Child occupies a pretty rarefied space if what you're trying to get at is the history of the celebrity food personality, specifically on television, and specifically in this kind of home-cook-oriented demonstration setting. So there's more justification, I think, to have made this show than there would have been a straight biopic.
Are there lots of brilliant chefs who led fascinating lives and changed the world of food? Absolutely. But are there lots of TV hosts who stand at the same place Julia Child did at the intersection of changing media, who navigated the adjustment to fame when they were much older than most food personalities who become famous now? There are certainly less, and that made the show feel less repetitive to me.
You won't necessarily learn a lot of new facts about Julia Child from this show, but you might see dramatic moments that ask you to focus on different things about her than other treatments have, and some of them might pop up again and surprise you in contexts well outside the kitchen.
This essay first appeared in NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter so you don't miss the next one, plus get weekly recommendations on what's making us happy.
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