The Trouble with Julie & Julia
I didn’t just read Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France—I devoured it. I was just as voracious for Julie & Julia, Julie Powell’s memoir based on the blog she wrote as she cooked all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. When the news broke that they would be making a film that covered not only Julie & Julia but also My Life in France, I was obsessed with who would be cast in the Julie role.
Julie Powell is a cocktail relishing, steak-eating Texan who wasn’t petite to start with and wrote about the effects of all that rich French food on her weight. In real life, she looks like this. More than anything, I wanted to see the part played by someone who looked like she actually enjoys cooking and eating. When the news broke that Julie would be played by Amy Adams, so thin I somehow doubt she would be willing to eat any of the recipes in either book, I was dejected. It was a squandered opportunity to cast an actress who is not Hollywood-slim. At the time, I thought little of the casting of Meryl Streep, 60, to play Julia Child during her late 30s.
I didn’t go see the film when it was in theaters, but it’s now out on DVD and I watched it last week. Only twice during the movie does the Julie Powell character refer to her weight. It’s a recurring theme in the book. At one point in the movie, in the midst of her cooking year, she says to a friend, “I looked fat,” regarding a photo of her that appeared in a magazine. The friend says, without a hint of irony, “just your face.” As if Amy Adam’s bony mug could ever look even the slightest bit chubby.
This whole exchange was so completely ridiculous that I almost had to turn the movie off. A similar moment occurred when she wails to her husband, “I used to be thin and now I’m getting fat.” Say what? Does Nora Ephron, writer and director of Julie & Julia, think I’m completely stupid? Am I really supposed to swallow that the professionally thin, eternally sample-size Amy Adams is anything close to fat? In the movie version of this story, she is nothing more than a reminder that for women, even if we are cookbook authors or food writers like Julie Powell and I, the only palatable version of us is a very thin one. You are only allowed to eat buttery French food for a whole year provided you start out thin and don’t gain an ounce, at least in the movies. (Julie Powell’s book makes it clear it didn’t go that way in real life.)
The day after I watched the movie, as my Amy-Adams-as-Julie-Powell anger was subsiding, I started to consider the Julia Child/Meryl Streep casting decision. When Julia ate that first meal in France, the oysters, sole, salad, and cheese that changed her life, she was 37. Meryl Streep, acting that scene, is 60. I am not suggesting that she doesn’t look younger than her years, nor am I saying that you can’t play an age other than your actual age, but a 60 year old woman playing a 37 year old woman? What is the thinking behind that? What does that mean?
There’s been a lot written and said about the scarcity of roles for actresses in their 30s and 40s, and the casting of Meryl Streep as Julia Child here made me think even more about it. Some actresses who are currently 37 include Gwyneth Paltrow, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Garner, and Selma Blair, not to mention the scores of undiscovered talents in that age range. What was wrong with all of them? I know she’s considered the most talent actress in Hollywood, but is Meryl Streep the only one with the talent to play that part?
The more I thought it about, the more I realized how reluctant movie makers, even female movie makers, are to let the world see women as we often are: hungry, non-skinny, aging but still sexually vibrant. Is it me or do we see dramatically less of Gwyneth, Cameron, and Selma than we did a few years ago? Conventional thinking is that the movie-going public hates to see icons of beauty, youth, and sex appeal somehow wane. But that thinking is flawed. I’d rather see us, especially in cases where a movie is depicting real women, as we actually are.
Movie makers don’t understand that we want to see these women mature as actors and as beauties. I have a sinking feeling that a 37 year old character (or actress) might as well be 60 in the eyes of Hollywood. As soon as you are one day older than Megan Fox (or whoever represents ultimate youth and hotness at a particular moment) you may as well be a grandmother. And in some ways this is even more disheartening than the impossibility of a large-as-life Julie Powell.