Documentary on TV cook Julia Child has all the right ingredients

Julia. M, 95 minutes. 4 stars

There's a brief shot in this documentary showing Julia Child with Fred Rogers. While she was a cooking-show host and he had a children's program, they had several things in common. Both were popular and influential American TV personalities for decades, starting in the 1960s. Both had distinctive voices and mannerisms that made them easy to parody. For whatever reasons, neither featured on Australian TV. And both have had a docudrama and a documentary made about them in recent years - all worth watching.

Julia, the Child documentary directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West (RBG), is loaded with food porn. There are lots of loving, lingering close-ups of ingredients and dishes being prepared - but like any good documentary, it's of wider appeal.

Some will know Child's books - including her debut, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which she wrote with two French women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle - and many will remember Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in the film Julie and Julia. If Streep's flamboyant performance, employing a high, hooty, breathless voice, seems over the top, watching the footage here of the real Child shows that it was quite accurate. Child might have seemed a little goofy but she was serious about food.

Child was born to a wealthy, conservative California family, graduated from college, and worked in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Her wartime work isn't given much attention but importantly, after being posted to Sri Lanka, she met fellow OSS employee Paul Child, who was a major cultural and personal influence on her.

The film addresses some of the less cheerful aspects of Child's life. Picture: Supplied

The film addresses some of the less cheerful aspects of Child's life. Picture: Supplied

They married and after he was posted to Paris by the government, she was introduced to, and fell in love with, French cuisine.

Child attended the Cordon Bleu cooking school and worked on the French Cooking book, which was finally published in 1961.

After she and her husband returned to the US, she did a spot cooking an omelette on a literary show on public TV. She landed her own show, The French Chef, becoming a media sensation in her 50s and an inspiration to many women.

While the film is generally upbeat and (sometimes a little too) brisk, it does address some of the less cheerful aspects of Child's life.

She was a tough negotiator on the second French Cooking book, insisting on a larger cut of the royalties and straining her friendship with Beck (Bertholle is not mentioned).

Although politically liberal and a longtime supporter of Planned Parenthood - drawing ire from anti-abortion advocates - she was casually dismissive of "homos" until her longtime lawyer died of AIDS, whereupon her thinking changed and she began raising money to help fight the disease.

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, Child had to have a mastectomy but maintained public stoicism.

She also saw her beloved husband - a major support and help to her - suffer major health problems and eventually die from dementia.

Child's popularity waned somewhat as new attitudes to food became popular. She eventually left public television for a commercial TV morning show, adjusting to the shorter time span it demanded, and had no shortage of books and other projects to keep her busy.

There was plenty of archival material to draw on for this film, which also features interviews with relatives, colleagues, chefs, food critics and others.

Julia is well assembled and flows smoothly: it's a pleasure to watch.

This story Doco has all the right ingredients first appeared on The Canberra Times.