The New Julia Child Documentary Celebrates a Culinary Icon

"She changed our society in ways people don't think about."

Julia child opening wine at a table

The Spruce Eats / Photo Illustration by Michela Buttignol / Photograph by Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Courtesy of SonyPictures Classics

If you're a self-described Food Person with a capital “F” then chances are good that you’re familiar with the Grande Dame of French cooking in the United States. I’m of course talking about Julia Child. The Mastering the Art of French Cooking co-author and star of television series “The French Chef” is often credited with changing how many 20th-century Americans viewed and consumed food. For nearly 40 years She helped cooks swap convenience foods for Boeuf Bourguignon and made the kitchen pegboard an iconic design choice. But according to Julie Cohen and Betsy West, directors of "Julia," the soon-to-be-released documentary on Julia Child, the general public might not hold her in such high esteem today. 

“I think we wanted to move Julia away from the category of being a joke,” explains Cohen on their impetus behind making the film. “One of the things people will remember is the Saturday Night Live Dan Aykroyd impersonation of her—which is hilarious—and which Julia herself enjoyed. But she is actually someone who changed our society in ways that people don’t think about.” Cohen and West set out to show people exactly what Julia Child had accomplished in their new documentary. 

The film is essentially split into two sections: the first follows Julia Child in post-war Paris, where she lived with her husband, Paul Child, and attended Le Cordon Bleu. The second section follows Julia Child after the 1961 publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her subsequent TV career. Cohen and West worked with the Julia Child Foundation to bring their vision come to life with incredible archival photographs and video. The documentary is also littered with gorgeous shots of Julia’s recipes and interviews with her friends and food personalities like Ruth Reichl and Marcus Samuelsson. Overall it is a rich tapestry of Julia’s life—one that would delight viewers ranging from the most diehard of fans, to people completely new to her work.

Cohen and West are not new to making documentaries—the team paired up in the past to work on RBG, a documentary on the late Justice Ginsberg that was met with much acclaim. They also worked together on My Name Is Pauli Murray, a documentary that came out earlier this year that follows the late activist and lawyer Pauli Murray. With each documentary they had to find the essential element that would bring the subject alive, and in Julia's case, it was archival footage through the Julia Child Foundation.

“There are incredible photographs that Paul Child took of his wife when they were in France—and we knew we needed that material. That was the first step,” West continues. That connection between Paul and Julia was an essential story they wanted to explore in "Julia". “You could really feel the intimacy in their connection, the love coming through the lens,” says Cohen. 

Julia Child preparing fish and Julia Child with emmy

The Spruce Eats / Photo Illustration by Michela Buttignol / Photographs by Paul Child. © Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. Courtesy of SonyPictures Classics

While it’s hard for me to wrap my head around Julia Child ever being a joke, like Cohen and West suggested, I have wondered in recent years whether we should celebrate her so fervently. Wasn’t she, after all, another wealthy white woman who went to another country and wrote a book on their cuisine from a place of false authority? Watching this documentary, however, I was reminded that the impact of Julia’s work is less about bringing French food to the masses and more the way she upended the way middle-class Americans viewed food. Here was this tall, rather loud woman telling home cooks around the country that making dinner should be pleasurable— that was a radical idea. 

“I don’t think we started out with the idea of food, we started out with thinking about, who is a groundbreaking woman that we could profile who has really changed the world,” West explains on the impetus behind Julia Child as a subject. “Both [Julie and I] grew up in the 1960s—we knew what American cooking was like back then in the era of frozen and processed foods, and Julia changed all of that. She also changed who was acceptable to be on television. Julia was a middle aged, not great beauty—but she was someone with authority who Americans took to instantly.” 

One of the most interesting parts of the documentary showed Julia Child in a different light than I had seen before. In the second part of the film especially, we learn more about her own politics. “[Julia] was amazing, she was iconic, but that does not mean she was perfect,” Cohen explains. For example, "Julia" touches on Julia Child’s homophobia until a personal connection changed her view. “When Julia’s friend Bob Johnson became ill with AIDS she really stepped up to support him through his dying months.” Julia Child went on to be an outspoken AIDS activist. She also became a fierce supporter of Planned Parenthood in her later life, and a supporter of the California food movement. “[Julia] wasn’t a static person,” West explains. “She didn’t become a superstar and then just stay the same.”

Above all else, Cohen and West say they want people to enjoy themselves when watching their documentary. “Maybe that’s not what all documentary filmmakers would say about their primary goal, but we really wanted to make this feel like a date movie—a romantic comedy—and we hope that it comes off as feeling that way.” "Julia" comes out in U.S. theaters this Friday, November 12.