Many critics debated whether yet another focus on Julia Child was necessary when HBO Max gave the green light to their new series starring British talent Sarah Lancashire; after all, there was the most recent documentary of the same name, a PBS mini-series airing last year on Julia as a tv cook with commentary from contemporaries sharing how she influenced them, and of course Nora Ephron’s film Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep as Child just to name the most recent and well-known. However, notably, not one of the video/films have focused on her journey through name recognition to national fame, nor have any of the aforementioned productions included a true real look into her life.
Thankfully, there are many well-researched biographies that do this, and as I had hoped the documentary Julia would include much of depth shared in the long-list of biographies, to my disappointment, it did not as it seemed to have been hampered by the limitations the pandemic caused as well as focused on one message that while insightful was lacking in the actual journey Child herself had to navigate beginning with breaking from the expectations of an ardent and unwaveringly conservative father to the American culture itself during the mid-20th century.
Thankfully, HBO Max as well thought a more extensive portrayal of Julia Child’s life worth sharing with the world. After all, Julia Child shared much of her life journey in letters exchanged with Avis (read As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (DeVoto is played by BeBe Neuwirth in the series), her own detailed memoir (My Life in France), nterviews (read Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations) and in her many books and cookbooks (see the list of what I have read and explored below).
While there is some ‘filling in of the blanks’ as the show’s creator Daniel Goldfarb admits, there was far more fact to work with and bring to the screen that has not been known to viewers before if they only watched Julie & Julia or the documentary Julia. For example, Russ Morash, the producer tasked with The French Chef is actually praised by Julia and in biographies, and there has not been a mention ever written that he was against the show being produced which is played up quite strongly in the new series. However, the idea of what public television was ‘supposed’ to be as it was a new medium was wrestling with what it could be, and The French Chef challenged who the audience of public television would be. This theme is focused on heavily and necessarily as Child was the catalyst that did change public television in a dramatic and significant way.
Having had the opportunity to speak in-person with three people, ex-pats living in France – Patricia Wells and her husband Walter as well as Susan Hermann Loomis (one of her children’s godmother is Julia Child’s sister Dorothy), the stories and experiences each of them have shared about Julia and from the Wells, Julia and Paul, speak to the devotion of Julia to Paul (as they knew the couple after Paul’s health had been abruptly changed due to a botched surgery in the early 1970s), and to her love of food and France. Many a book speaks of their affection for one another, and while Ephron’s Julie & Julia plays this up quite grandly and to the audience’s delight, I think it is important, and I am grateful HBO Max tends to this, to show both Julia and Paul as real people, and not the romanticized versions.
That Paul Child was distrustful and disinterested in the new fad that was television is not a surprise. He was an intellectual, a polygot, curious about the world, and a devoted, life-long diplomat until his forced retirement far earlier than he had anticipated due to changes in the administration at the White House. And the mere fact that his wife entertains the idea of starring on a television show, even if it is about cooking, something he wholeheartedly supports and encourages, understandably poses a quandary for what is best for both Julia’s career and the culture.
As well, the determination and desire Julia shares to pursue the production of the series in its early stages as well as her ability to finance it on her own will not surprise readers who have read the biographies listed below. Julia received a healthy inheritance from her mother (who passed away when Julia was in her 20s and to whom Julia deeply loved). As well, Julia received an ‘allowance’ from her father well into her adult years as her family was notably financially sound and while Julia and her father’s relationship was strained due to their differing political and thereby ‘how a lady should live/behave’ ideologies, she did love him, and maintained a relationship with him, although if you read her letters to Avis, you will understand why there was strain in their relationship (Julia and her father’s).
Yes, I am admittedly and unabashedly more than a bit of a Julia Child ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, superfan and this will come to no surprise to long-time readers of the blog. I am delighted that the series gives us Julia Child the person as well as the persona glorified (for good reason) on television. But the true is, she was a real person, and this series, at least so far in the first three episodes, aims to show the person that became who we, as a country, fell in love with and are still in love with.
Sarah Lancashire shared in an interview with Vanity Fair recently that having now starred as Julia Child, someone she didn’t entirely know much about before accepting the role, is “now at the stage where I will not have one word said against the woman.” As well there is an anecdote Lancashire shares having spoken to a man who gladly boasts he had the opportunity to drive Julia home after an event she was the featured guest, and Lancashire, having asked him, what did she say while you were driving, he said, she didn’t say anything, just exhaled deeply, then sat quietly the entire journey home.
And that is just it, Julia Child was a person. And while all the ‘highs’ of her life are focused on, focusing on the human side, the everyday joys, wonders, navigations is helpful for viewers as well.
I am most curious to know as the series unfolds (there are eight episodes, a new one airing each Thursday) if the series will include her breast cancer of which she survived but did have a unilateral mastectomy. Paul’s letters to his brother about his fear he would lose her during this time reveal even more soundly his love and devotion to Julia. She too speaks about the mastectomy and navigating through this time, again revealing her tenacity and determination to move forward and not dwell.
If I could share one unnecessarily exaggerated aspect of the series thus far, it is Lancashire’s portrayal of Julia as doubtful on the set of her cooking show. No where have I read, even in her own words, that she was fearful on set. In fact, just the opposite (read this post – check out the enumerated list of quotes from Julia). Even her producer, Russ Morash shared, “[she was] curious, professional, and scholarly about her art . . . these are the three keys too Julia. She was never casual. She does not sit around and worry, she trusts professionals.”
Admittedly, after ten seasons of The French Chef, each season Julia no doubt became more confident in front of the television, but she does seem to have a genuine love of being in front of the camera, and in the biographies, it is revealed she clamored to be on television throughout her entire life. Just watching the episodes of Baking with Julia as well Julia & Jacques: Cooking At Home shares her ease and playfulness in front of the camera.
All of this is to say, after watching the first three episodes of Julia on HBO Max, I highly recommend watching. The cast and acting (Lancashire embodies Child brilliantly) is sublime, the sets and food scenes oh so delicious and welcoming (the shots of the Child’s home – interior and exterior – are abundant with warmth and richness of savoring everyday good living and eating) and the depth and breadth of accuracy portrayed of a woman America adores very much appreciated. I have included the trailer below.
Books on or written by Julia Child I have read and recommend:
- The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act by Alex Prud’homme (2016)
- Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz
- In Julia’s Kitchen: Practical and Convivial Kitchen Design Inspired by Julia Child by Pamela Heyne and Jim Scherer (2016)
- Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life by Karen Karbo
- As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto (2011)
- My Life in France by Julia Child (2006)
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (1961)
- Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 2 by Julia Child and Simone Beck (1970)
- The French Chef Cookbook (1968), based on the black and white series of the PBS The French Chef
- The Way to Cook by Julia Child (1989)
- Baking with Julia: Savor the Joys of Baking with America’s Best Bakers by Dorie Greenspan w introduction from Julia Child
TSLL POSTS ON JULIA CHILD
6 Life Lessons for Living Well from Julia Child, episode #155
~Explore more Julia Child focused posts and episodes in TSLL Archives
This Petit Plaisir appeared in episode #326 of the podcast, A Life of Abundant Bliss: A Natural State of True Contentment
6 thoughts on “Julia, the HBO Max series: Petit Plaisir #326”
Thank you Shannon for this petit plaisir of Julia Child. I enjoyed the film Julia and Julia and thought Meryl Streep was superb. I don’t have access to HBO max so will not be able to see the series but all the reviews I’ve read are extremely positive for Sarah Lancashire. She is a great choice. She is the highest paid British female TV and one can see why. She has done almost everything in her career. She is a star and looks amazing in the trailer. One question though. Is anyone over there miffed that
a British actress was chosen rather than an American? Enjoy the series xx
Kameela, I don’t know what channel’s are like in France but I often find HBO series on Sky Atlantic or Sky Max here in the UK. I’ve not found it yet though.
Sarah Lancashire is PERFECT as Julia. I am a big fan of hers and am excited that we may be seeing more work from her on this side of the pond now that she is being broadcast to a wider American audience. I’ve only watched Episode 1 so far but I’m going to watch it one more time before moving on. I love it!
I am so intrigued to watch this series, knowing little about Julia Child but enjoying Sarah Lancashire. Usually I find HBO Max series on Sky channels here in the UK – Sky Max or Atlantic but haven’t seemed to find it yet. I hope they air it!
Ah the power of Google! I have just found for any UK viewers it will premier on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday April 12th! A double bill to start.
I began the series Monday, but since I was having a procedure the following day and could not eat, I chose to turn it off after the first few minutes. Watching her make the perfect omelet, found me wanting to dash to the kitchen and make one of my own. Hopefully, I will catch up tonight so I will be prepared for the next episode to be released tomorrow.
Thanks for sharing.