But the finest of all Ephron’s pictures was Julie & Julia (2009). I saw it under somewhat strange circumstances. For various reasons I had not watched a picture in a movie theater in a couple of years – then, within a period of a few days, I saw two pictures in movie theaters. One of them was This Is It, to which I was dragged by my significant other, who is a major Michael Jackson fan. The other was Julie & Julia, to which I dragged him after giving him, a Norwegian who had never heard of Julia Child, a brief education in her life and career, consisting mainly of You Tube videos of her old shows, a wonderful, hours-long TV interview with her, and Dan Aykroyd’s famous Saturday Night Live parody of The French Chef.
Both films made a strong, and surprisingly similar, impression upon me. Part of the reason was that both turned out to have powerful, if unintentional, conservative messages, in the very best sense of the term. Both were portraits of Americans who had made significant contributions to modern American culture. Both were testimonies to the importance of working hard at one’s art or craft. The Jackson documentary showed just what a perfectionist Jackson was, how much he knew about every detail that went into his shows, from the musical arrangements to the lighting, and how hard he struggled every day to ensure that every aspect of his own contribution to his shows would turn out just the way he wanted it. We saw that movie in a theater packed with children and teenagers, and I couldn’t help but be warmed by the feeling that those kids were acquiring a terrific lesson in the fact that being a pop icon wasn’t just about being covered in glitter and swimming in money – it was about knowing every last detail about your craft (and other people’s craft, too) and about working yourself to exhaustion every day to get every last little detail, not only of your contribution but of your collaborators’ contributions, absolutely right. World-class success was about work – but it could be fun work, rewarding work, meaningful work, work that gave a life its meaning.
And Julie & Julia taught the same lesson – only it took the lesson a step further. In the movie, Ephron recounted the story of Julia Child, who, living in Paris in the 1950s with her diplomat husband, develops from a hapless and almost universally mocked aspiring French chef into an immortal figure who changed American cuisine forever. But that wasn’t the whole film: Ephron also told the story of Julie Powell, who in 2002 decided to bring meaning to her life by spending a year tacking every recipe in Child’s classic work Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and who got a bestselling book (and Ephron’s movie) out of it. The film is not just about how one person’s hard work and dedication can change the world – it’s about how that hard work and dedication can serve as an inspiration to others who, in turn, have their own ameliorative impact upon the society around them. The lesson being that this is how civilization, at its best, works.
There were only two discordant notes in the whole movie, and they were of a piece. In the Julia scenes, Child’s father visits her and her husband, Paul, in Paris, and we’re made to understand that he’s a moneyed Pasadena Republican who supports Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade; since McCarthy’s efforts have made things difficult professionally for Paul, a cultural attaché at the U.S. embassy, an unpleasant exchange ensues. It felt out of place – you felt the presence of the writer and director, insistent upon making a political statement and determined to make sure we understand that our heroes are on the side of the angels. An even less believable exchange mars the scenes about Julie. Her boss at the New York City government office where she works, trying to deal with the problems of the victims of 9/11 and their survivors, blasts her for spending her time cooking, telling her that she’s lucky he’s a Democrat – a Republican would fire her. Right.
Ephron, who both wrote and directed Julie & Julia, was better than these cheap, superfluous political touches. It’s not hard to figure out why she included these bits in the picture. That’s what can happen when you’re raised in Hollywood and move in certain bicoastal showbiz (and literary) social circles. What matters, however – what’s striking – is just how conservative, nonetheless, the message of Julia & Julia ultimately is. It’s a beautiful movie about an American woman whose genius, determination, and hard work overcame all kinds of obstacles, leaving such a lasting impact on our society that her home kitchen ended up being immortalized at the Smithsonian. It says something very admirable about Ephron that she was so passionately drawn to that story, and to many of the other stories she told in her career. She was, in her heart, not a sneering cynic about America but a child of the Hollywood of her parents – a Hollywood that celebrated the very best of America.
So watch her movies. Read her books. See for yourself.
Rest in peace, Nora Ephron.
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