In the fourth episode of Julia, a new scripted series about Julia Child from HBO Max, the iconic chef has returned from a reunion at Smith College. She’s been fawned over all day, told that she is the only one in her class who sought the life of adventure and passion they all dreamed about in school. She listens politely as women project their fantasies onto her, assuming things she has no time to confirm or deny. One woman even credits Child with awakening her homosexuality, saying it’s because of a night of skinny dipping and gin that she now lives with a woman. Child returns home to her husband Paul in a daze. “It’s the strangest thing,” she says. “People thinking I belong to them now.”
When does a person become a myth? Julia Child may be one of America’s most recent, her celebrity only growing since her death in 2004. Regardless of who she was, her story — or versions of it — has been told so often that we know most of the beats. There’s her warbling voice and tall stature. There’s the doting and effeminate Paul with whom, by all accounts, she shared a wild chemistry. There’s the butter and the sole meuniere in France that changed her life, her time at le Cordon Bleu, and the nine-year process of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which revolutionized home kitchens across America. She had her cooking show, and voila, she became an icon, worthy of multiple biopics and representations in pop culture.
Julia, which premiers on March 31 and stars Sarah Lancashire as Julia Child and David Hyde Pierce as Paul, is the latest attempt to narrativize Child’s life, and you wouldn’t be wrong to ask what else is there to say? By now, we’ve had both the book and the movie Julie & Julia, multiple documentaries, numerous biographies, Dan Aykyrod’s memorable SNL impression, plus Child’s own contributions to the worlds of TV, writing, and eating. There’s an upcoming food competition series on which contestants will attempt to recreate her recipes. If you want to know what happened in Child’s life, the information is there.
What HBO Max’s Julia attempts to do is grasp the humanity behind the woman that so many of us now feel ownership over. Sometimes it succeeds, letting viewers soak in how remarkable her achievements were, but also the toll they must have taken on her emotionally and mentally. But for all the show’s best effort, I still wonder if it might be time to leave Julia Child alone.
The series positions itself as an exploration of the emergence of public television, and the changing nature of fame and feminism in the 1960s through the lens of Child’s The French Chef. Indeed, it’s at its best when it concerns itself with the muck of creating a cooking show.