I love the name Julia. Itâ€™s aÂ beautiful name, inspiring artists and poets; Robert Herrickâ€™s sublime â€œUponÂ Juliaâ€™s Clothesâ€ might be my favorite example. A passel ofÂ perfectly lovely movies feature Julia (or variations thereon) inÂ their titles: Juliet of the Spirits, Jules and Jim, Julia Misbehaves to name but three. Letâ€™s consider a few others, oneÂ a recent wide release and the other something of a high-toned seventiesÂ classic. â€œJulie and Juliaâ€ doubleteam â€œJulia.â€ May the best Julia win.
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Nora Ephron cooks up more than BeefÂ Bourguignon in this deceptively slight comic biography; thereâ€™s more food forÂ thought than I ever expected. I knew that the magnificent Streep would deliverÂ another masterful tour de force, and that she certainly did. Her performanceÂ percolates and bubbles, her laugh wells up like water from a spring, anÂ indomitable and slightly ungainly life force inviting us in to share herÂ electrified air. Her Julia Child is vocally impeccable, but her eloquentlyÂ wordless moments tell us more than any others. A moment shared with Tucci afterÂ her sisterâ€™s letter arrives stands alone, saying everything about the Childsâ€™Â childlessness with no dialogue needed. Streep inhabits this giant among womenÂ (and men), her quick mind and undauntable spirit burning brilliant with deeplyÂ felt life.Â Streepâ€™s performanceÂ lights up the screen and nestles somewhere in the chair beside you, making youÂ realize how much you love food and Julia Child and being alive. There simplyÂ arenâ€™t enough glowing adjectives in my usually adequate vocabulary to praiseÂ this national treasure. She and Stanley Tucci portray an unusually lovingÂ marriage that inspires and amuses, capturing something true and real, a humanÂ connection well beyond biopicâ€™s usual parameters. And the food is beautiful;Â itâ€™s food porn, not quite â€œBig Nightâ€ caliber but up there with the rest of theÂ genre. And, yes, the Julie sections of the film are nowhere near so compellingÂ as the Julia story for reasons so obvious as to be almost unworthy of listing,Â but list them I shall for theyâ€™ll serve my greater purpose later on in thisÂ little rant.
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The Defending Champion
Based on Pentimento,Â Lillian Hellmannâ€™s book of memoirs (not blogs), â€œJuliaâ€ covers a period in theÂ uber-turbulent 1930â€™s, when she attained fame with the production of her firstÂ Broadway play, The Childrens’ Hour.Â Meanwhile, a world away acrossÂ the pond, Nazis and Fascists had their way with sitting-duck Europe. AsÂ Lillianâ€™s longtime friend Julia studies in Vienna and becomes embroiled in theÂ fight against Fascism, Lillian makes her mark on NY theater and forges anÂ intriguingly egalitarian relationship with writer Dashiel Hammett. When LillianÂ travels to Russia for a conference, Julia asks her a dangerous favor LillianÂ dares not refuse. Putting her very life on the line for a friend, Lillian risksÂ everything in the name of friendship and a larger cause.
The critical matter at hand: a fatallyÂ flawed Julia Child biopic that couldâ€™ve been a contender. Weâ€™re talking worldÂ class stuff with a big but. An entrÃ©e with impeccable ingredients and all theÂ finest intentions, a fallen soufflÃ©, an ill-conceived menu. These half-bakedÂ metaphors make me dizzy. Everyone has weighed in with the obvious: Meryl StreepÂ mops the floor with her characterization of Ms. Child, leaving poor ditheringÂ Amy Adamsâ€™ Julie Powell beaten, utterly outmatched. But might there be something more interesting than a simple unfair fight afoot here? MotherÂ Superior Streep took on Lightweight Novitiate Adams before in â€œDoubtâ€ and noÂ one suggested excising Ms. Adamsâ€™ role from the film. This is no personalÂ vendetta; Amy Adams is possessed of considerable charms, but this enterpriseÂ fails in ways that lead us to an intriguing discussion of achievement andÂ aggrandizement, adulthood and self awareness.
Adults, it seems, arenâ€™t what they used to be. The GreatestÂ Generation fought and won World War Two, and now we are left with their whiningÂ grandchildren and great grandchildren, the Not-So-Great generation. TheÂ smallest setback unleashes their barely secreted inner child ready to tantrumÂ and filing a non-stop list of grievances and complaints. No stiff upper lips,Â no grinning and bearing it for this bunch. Oh no. Nobody sucks up anything.Â Even the smallest current of disappointment registers as devastating on theirÂ emotionally retarded, reset Richter scale.
Julie follows her drippy husband to the outer boroughs atÂ the beginning of the film; her neighborhood is regrettably isolated andÂ unattractive, decidedly unglamorous. Okay, itâ€™s not Paris. But itâ€™s hardlyÂ tragic. Her whining begins before the stairs are scaled. Location, location,Â location, I wanted to yell. Julieâ€™s charming second floor walkup is but aÂ subway ride from Manhattan. Admittedly, itâ€™s a reeling, borderlineÂ post-apocalyptic Manhattan where Julie handles 9/11 survivor complaints allÂ day. Still, itâ€™s not nowhere. And her selfless act of going along is made lessÂ an act of love and sacrifice than a giant excuse for passive aggressiveÂ behavior. Would you like some cheese with that perpetual whine? One mightÂ inaccurately guess that dealing daily with 9/11 fallout, such overwhelming andÂ omnipresent tragedy and loss, could afford its ministers a kind of serenity, aÂ sense of purpose if not perspective. But no. A cog in a terribly slow-grindingÂ bureaucratic wheel, Julie feels powerless and unimportant, only occasionallyÂ able to deliver a useful answer or a vital link to a lost soul. So she blogs.Â And not to kick a dead horse or anything, but we all know that the average blogÂ readership hovers sadly right around one. The odds stacked against any success,Â she plugs away at her decidedly scaled-down Herculean task. Sheâ€™s not writing aÂ cookbook; sheâ€™s simply making all the recipes in one. In a year. Yawn. AndÂ blogging about it. Double yawn. Blogging isnâ€™t exactly writing; itâ€™s Â code for typing freely associativeÂ thoughts without much editing and publishing them with a click of a mouse. (AÂ small confession for my handful of faithful readers out there in the ether: IÂ tried mightily to make it all the way through the book version of these blogsÂ and failed. Julie Powell may be a lucky woman and a decent home cook, but sheâ€™sÂ not a great writer, and her musings struck me as tepid and ultimately dull.
Achievement means less in our age; a book deal can be gottenÂ rather too easily in this new wired millennium, and a fluke movie deal followsÂ not far behind. Julia Child and her collaborators toiled eight years inÂ relative obscurity, writing a cookbook that would truly revolutionize theÂ world, and she shares screen time with the petulant Ms. Powell. Julie followedÂ the bookâ€™s instructions and somehow got famous herself, finding and inventingÂ unworthy parallels in the process. Â Thereâ€™s a difference between James Joyce and someone who takes a year toÂ read Ulysses and blogs nightly (andÂ without much poetry, power or insight) on his â€œachievementâ€. TheÂ achieve of; the mastery of the thing! JamesÂ Joyce might make a great subject for a film; his reader probably wouldnâ€™t. Itâ€™sÂ simply not an accomplishment worth noting. No wonder the real Julia ChildÂ didnâ€™t much care for the real Julie Powellâ€™s blog. I hear tell that the realÂ Miss Powell isnâ€™t overly fond of the film. Can you say comeuppance?
Before 1978â€™s â€œThe Deer Hunter and â€œManhattanâ€ the followingÂ year, a lovely and already luminous Meryl Streep made her auspicious featureÂ film debut in a little movie called â€œJulia.â€ Surrounded by a company teemingÂ with highly esteemed and established actors like Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave,Â and Jason Robards, StreepÂ deliversÂ a memorable performance, steeped in an altogether rare maturity, with a uniqueÂ look that fit very comfortably in the period setting.
The film is an exploration of friendship and fealty andÂ responsibility, a rumination on the limitations of personal freedom and power,Â celebrity and fame on the world stage. With the highest of stakes, expensiveÂ and glossy production values, an undiluted seriousness ofÂ purpose and utter disregard for boxÂ office and accessibility, â€œJuliaâ€ is exactly the kind of adult movie fare theyÂ rarely make any more and probably hardly ever did.
â€œJuliaâ€ is a serious adult film, wellÂ worth your time but perhaps a tad over-praised in its time. If youâ€™ve not seenÂ it, you absolutely should, and if you have, it bears a revisit, if only toÂ catch a glimpse of the very young Ms. Streep. To see this actingÂ titan at the peak of her powers however, youâ€™re going to have to spend a fewÂ hours in a theater, watching â€œJulie and Juliaâ€ even though youâ€™ll wish theÂ title and the filmâ€™s entire focus were â€œJuliaâ€. So Julia wins this smackdown,Â and Julie loses. Bet she slides down a wall somewhere and cries like a littleÂ girl when she hears about it. The Julia part of â€œJulie and Juliaâ€ takes theÂ split decision smackdown prize from â€œJulia,â€ but everybody wins because Meryl Streep is stillÂ working after thirty-two remarkable years. Talk about the achieve of; theÂ mastery of the thing!
* The Smackdown’s title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkinsâ€™ terrific poem, â€œThe
Windhover,â€ written in 1877 about a bird in flight. Or love. Or both. You
decide. I think the poem and “Julie and Julia” are both about seeing something ordinary and recognizing the sacramental joy in
the beauty of it. Look up the rest on your own should you feel so moved. The
Thing(s) in Question herein? Filmmaking. Cooking. Acting. Grown Ups. Life. A
few more lines from the poemâ€¦
. . . then
off, off forth on a swing,
As a skateâ€™s heel sweeps smooth on a
bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in
Stirred for a bird, â€”the achieve of; the mastery of the