Originally published in the 8/2/09 edition of The Source
By Chris Williams
In August 2002, Julie Powell was working at a job she hated and facing the prospect of turning 30 with her hopes of being a writer fading quickly into obscurity.
Rather than give up her dreams of literary stardom, Powell turned to the then-new fad of blogging and gave herself an assignment: over the course of one year she would cook her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The result was the online sensation “The Julie-Julia Project,” which then became the best-selling book “Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.”
Nearly seven years after typing her first entry, Powell’s work is the basis for “Julie and Julia,” the new film by director Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”). The film stars Amy Adams (“Enchanted”) as Powell and parallels her year-long adventure with the story of Child (Meryl Streep) coming into her own as a culinary genius.
It’s that parallel, Powell said in a recent phone interview, that gets to the heart of why she undertook the challenge.
“What the movie is about is these two women who come to a moment in their lives where they’re in their thirties and they decide they have to change their lives and figure out who they are,” Powell said. “The way that Nora portrays them side-by-side is, I think, very smart and an important part of what makes the movie work.”
When the project began, Powell was working a government job that required late hours and often left her emotionally drained. Her routine was to come home, take off her shoes, order in pizza and get drunk on the couch; not the way aspiring writer had planned her life. She began the project as a means of transformation. As she cooked her way through the book her routine changed to include trips to three grocery stores on the way home from work followed by three hours of cooking before finally sitting down to eat, only to clean up and go straight to bed.
“I completely went crazy. I was frantic all the time,” Powell recalled. “But in a strange way, the new routine was so much less soul-sucking and it felt like I had a goal and that gave me a lot of energy.”
Ephron’s film captures the hectic nature that such an enterprise brought upon Powell and her husband. Adams runs ragged from work to grocery stores, cooking late in into the night, falling asleep on the couch waiting for food to finish and collapsing on the floor in tears after one dinner turns into a disaster.
“I think it got the hysteria right on my end,” Powell said. “ Amy Adams does a great job of showing that sort of drive that comes out of not really planning anything or knowing where you’re going but just (having) a need to keep going with this irrational passion and the hysterical situations that sometimes ensue because of that. The moments with her on the floor crying and beating her head against the floor are quite authentic.”
A cornerstone of both Powell and Child’s stories centers on the support both women found in their husbands, Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) and Eric Powell (Chris Messina). While Ephron is best known as the director of light romantic comedies, “Julie and Julia” begins with both women happily married and shows the effect those strong relationships had on each woman.
“The depiction of marriages that work and strong men who love that their women are strong and are willing to support them in their goals is something that you don’t see in the movies too often,” Powell said. “It’s something that I was proud of in the book and that I’m proud comes through in the movie. Yes, to some degree it’s a chick flick. But instead of it being a woman who’s desperate to get married, who’s desperate to find a man, it’s about women who have men and are trying to find themselves. Their relationships and partnerships are part of the support systems for their individual journeys.”
The film also tracks the surprising fallout of Powell’s experiment. As she was gaining popularity in newspapers and magazines across the country, news came in that Child herself was not exactly pleased with the undertaking. While Powell never did have a chance to speak with Child before her death in 2004, she said she did receive a “cordial and kind reply” from the famous chef after sending her a letter thanking her for the lessons Powell learned during her year-long adventure.
“I think there’s no way to know, in the end, exactly how she felt. But I’m almost perfectly okay with that because I know what it meant. I realized that this year long project was a tribute to her confidence and spirit and I’m extraordinarily grateful to her for teaching me the lessons she had,” Powell said. “I do believe that Julia Child touched so many people and was such a profound influence on so many people that we who have been touched tend to have our little inner Julia, this particular presence to us. And I’ve just contended myself with the idea that my Julia thinks I’m okay, she thinks I’m pretty cool.”
While the film spends much of its time on the comedic complications that arise from the experiment, Powell stresses that it’s her personal journey toward transformation that was most important and rewarding. While she still takes pride in knowing that she can bone a duck, Powell said it’s the opportunities that arose from following through with her task that she is most pleased of.
“The challenge was a good thing because that’s exactly what I needed to pull myself out of this drudgery my life had become. So when I was doing what would technically be the biggest culinary challenge, that was the great stuff. That was the Indiana Jones stuff,” she said. “What I find especially rewarding now is that I really did sit down at a very personal point at a need for transformation and took kind of a blind stab in the dark as to what would affect change. And that echoed with people in the blogosphere enough that people wanted to read the book and that Nora picked it up and found that same sort of story to be appealing is extraordinarily moving to me and exciting.”
Powell is currently preparing for the release of her second book, “Cleaving,” which follows her six-month apprenticeship at a butcher’s shop in upstate New York. As “Julie and Julia” prepares to hit theaters on Aug. 7, Powell said she thinks audiences will find much to devour on the screen.
“I think it’s a lovely, very sweet movie. I think the four leads are wonderful and it’s a lovely, beautiful-looking film and I’m very pleased with it,” she said. “The food in this movie is amazing and I think Nora does a great job filming it; I think people will come out of this movie hungry.”