Julie & Julia is available to watch on Netflix and BoB
While Nora Ephron’s novel and film Heartburn is a scathing, semi-autobiographical account of her infamous marriage and divorce from Carl Bernstein, Ephron’s 2009 film, Julie & Julia, depicts quite the opposite. The film’s intersecting storylines of American chef, Julia Child, in 1950s Europe, and Julie Powell, a blogger in 2002 New York, narrate these women’s inspiring career progressions. Equally at the heart of these stories, however, is the two women’s marriages, both deeply loving, supportive relationships based on a mutual respect. As many close to Ephron have noted, it was her own happy marriage to Nick Pileggi that influenced her cinematic representation of Julie and Julia’s relationships: Ephron’s sister Delia commenting that the film is about Ephron’s two great loves, ‘her love of food and her love of her husband, Nick’. This wholesome film, dripping in warm buttery goodness, is a fitting conclusion to Ephron’s oeuvre and life. Moving on from the chase, dramas and first kisses that punctuate much of Ephron’s work, Julie & Julia is about the gentle comfort of going through life with the person you love at your side.
While a supportive partnership doesn’t seem like a big ask, a look into the normalised standards of both Julie and Julia’s time periods suggests that their marriages are relatively unique. Julia’s storyline falls in a period in which women, after having proved themselves in the workplace during the war, were pushed out of employment as men flooded the job market again, leaving them with limited career opportunities. Julia Child herself worked within the US Office of Strategic Services in Washington and abroad, before meeting her husband Paul and moving to France with him. The film shows that this move does not abate Julia’s thirst for occupation as she comments that ‘These wives don’t do anything here. That’s not me,’ to Paul’s agreement. Julia drifts listlessly between hat-making lessons and bridge classes but through Stanley Tucci’s incredible portrayal of Paul, it’s clear how much he wishes for her to find a true passion. Paul’s support of Julia’s culinary endeavours juxtaposes both normalised social attitudes towards working women, and cultural depictions of them at the time. Take The Thrill of It All (1963) for instance, where suburban housewife Beverly Boyer (Doris Day) becomes a successful television commercial star, much to her husband’s jealousy and resentment. After her husband launches a vengeful campaign of emotional manipulation, the ‘happy ending’ sees Beverly renounce her career and become a dutiful housewife again. This bleak conclusion feels like a twisted fable designed to warn women away from working. Against this, Paul’s support and pride in Julia’s successes is a breath of fresh air, both then and now.
This trend of male partners not supporting their wives’ careers unfortunately does not wane as we move into a more contemporary context. Despite the 50-year gap, Julie and Eric’s relationship also remains a more unique, positive portrayal of a respectful marriage. On screen, heterosexual relationships between working women and their partners often begin displaying strain when the women start a new job. With greater responsibility, less free time and a heightened passion for their work, understandably these women will not always prioritise their partners. Cue rampant jealousy and feelings of neglect, as their partners find themselves unable to cope with reduced attention. Remember Nate’s anger and resentment when Andy increasingly dedicates time to her job in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) or Denny’s jealousy towards Rita’s academic career in Educating Rita (1983)?
Julie and Julia similarly take new career paths, but their husbands support them in this change. Eric helps Julie set up her blog, spends evenings watching Julia Child’s cooking show to pander to Julie’s obsession, and helps her track down and tame obscure ingredients. Similarly, Paul encourages Julia’s culinary passion, finances her classes at Le Cordon Bleu, and after her first book rejection, reminds her that ‘[her] book is genius’, bolstering her throughout the writing process. While obviously all four characters are real figures, it seems likely that Ephron drew on her own marriage for inspiration as, in an interview, Pileggi describes a similar supportive relationship, giving honest and open feedback on each other’s work, and bouncing ideas off each other. With such a template to work from, it’s hardly surprising that Ephron’s depiction of Julie and Julia’s marriages is so successful and touching.
Paul and Eric are unselfishly supportive, motivated entirely by wanting Julie and Julia to achieve happiness and success for themselves. In this way, they subvert the classic chick flick ‘nice guy trope’ (which you can watch a great video essay on here): men who purportedly act out of love and feeling they know best for their partner, when in reality they act in their own self-interest. A dark, extreme example would be You’s Joe, who gets off on the idea that he’s a really supportive, nice guy, while dismissing his rapidly growing pile of bodies as fodder for a greater cause. In contrast to the classic ‘nice guy’, Eric and Paul genuinely are nice. Interestingly, Eric becomes angry at Julie for calling him a ‘saint’, shouting ‘it makes me feel like an asshole every time you say it!’ He doesn’t want to be put on a pedestal for his support, he sees himself as just doing the best he can.
The gifts Eric and Paul give to Julie and Julia respectively symbolise their unselfish support. A French cookbook and a pestle and mortar for Julia, and pearls, like Julia’s, for Julie. These gifts starkly contrast gifts given by Ross in Friends, another ‘nice guy’, who floods Rachel’s work desk with flowers and cuddly toys, and even sends in a barbershop quarter. While supposedly tokens of his support for her new job, these gifts represent a total disrespect for her working environment and are performative declarations of their relationship to warn away other men. The love that Ephron represents in Julie & Julia is different, it’s not performative or selfish, it’s honest and softly articulated.
This isn’t to say that Julie and Julia’s relationships are perfect: if they were, they wouldn’t feel genuine. Julie’s project weighs on her marriage, and at one point, Eric snaps, raging about her self-obsession before storming out of their flat and spending a tragic couple of nights sleeping in his office. However, Eric’s outburst compared to Paul’s consistent calm does not make him a worse husband, it’s a product of context. Privilege massively divides Julie and Julia’s experiences, wealth making it much easier for Paul to be supportive than Eric. Julia starts cooking while ‘looking for something to do’, whereas Julie juggles her cooking and writing alongside an emotionally strenuous full-time job answering calls from 9/11 victims. Julia cooks in a spacious apartment that looks like ‘Versailles’ and takes leisurely lunch breaks to shag Paul. Meanwhile, Julie’s cooking succumbs her and Eric’s small apartment and occupies her every evening, leaving her too exhausted for sex. No doubt Julia’s unassailable and cheery perseverance are easier to live with than Julie’s emotional strops, but their different settings are of critical importance too, and Ephron was smart to take note of the respective impacts on their marriages. Eric’s wobble does not undermine his general support and must be read in the context of the couple’s comparative lack of privilege.
Julie & Julia isn’t about two women and their marriages as the title might suggest, it’s about three. As Jeanine D. Basinger, a professor of film studies, says, these relationships ‘could only have been put on-screen by somebody who understands the delights of a really terrific marriage.’ Ephron’s intelligently crafted script and her direction of the tangible chemistry between the two couples comes from a woman who knows what it is to love and be loved. Also, she knows that career-driven women are hot. Objectively, the absolute best scene of the film comes when Julie returns home to 65 answering machine messages acclaiming her success and offering her book contracts. Julie jigs with excitement, ‘Eric, I’m going to be a writer’, and he smiles, ‘You are a writer.’ Turned on by Julie’s achievement, they then have sex to the soundtrack of these voicemail messages. If you ever find a man who’ll shag you to the sound of your success, I’d say he’s a keeper.
Featured Image Credit: Megan Shepherd