Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What Julie Powell and I Have in Common

Not very much, it turns out. It also turns out that the Julie Powell who impressed me so much was really the Amy Adams/Nora Ephron version of Julie Powell, not the real flesh-and-blood, cleaver-wielding Julie Powell.

Here is what I do have in common with Julie Powell—we both blog (as do gazillions of other people) and we both went to Amherst College. She actually graduated from Amherst, Class of '95, while I merely spent a year there (albeit as one of the first 23 women to attend the college). That's it, that's what we have in common.

Do I sound disillusioned? If so, it's because I am, having written about Julie and Julia last night in a fog of admiration for the little blog that could. My misapprehension about the nature of Julie Powell's blog is not Powell's fault. It's mine, for assuming that the movie character and the actual person were one and the same.

Here's Powell's own take, from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, on the difference between herself and her movie character—

"I think I am a little tougher than the Julie Powell of the movie. I say 'f---' a lot more and funny stuff happens to her rather than her being funny. A huge part of my year was discovering that I had a writing voice that could be humorous . . . They knock off her edges. I wouldn't say they dumb her down but they simplify her motives."

And here's Powell's explanation, from the same article, about why her blog became so popular and why she started it in the first place—

"First of all, I was in the right place at the right time. Blogging was in its infancy and there were 5000 blogs instead of the 130 million there are now, so I was easier to find. Also, the subject matter really resonated with people. I don't like to make too big a deal out of the timing, but it was post-9/11 New York, and a lot of people who were feeling lost felt the need to do something else with their lives.

"I didn't want to just sit and be miserable; I wanted to shake things up. I had this life that was driving me mad. I was so enervated. Every night I would come home, watch some garbage on TV, order pizza, get drunk, go to sleep and start all over again. I was tired all the time physically but, existentially speaking, [the cooking/blog project] was a new lease on life."

My Internet research indicates that Powell's blog was more open and far more coarse in style than the movie excerpts suggest. However, one entry included in the movie did surprise me. In it, Julie describes her husband leaving after they have a fight over her cooking obsession. I hadn't expected that the film Julie, with her gentle persona, would opt to air her intimate dirty laundry in public. Turns out Powell's actual blog concerned cooking and relationships all along. Everything that happened in her life was apparently fair game for the blog.

In her second blog, which also became a book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, Powell revealed an adulterous affair. So, she's clearly a person who's comfortable letting it all hang out. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, But it's not quite how the Julie of Julie and Julia came across.

A friend who read the blog entry I posted yesterday emailed me about an interview she heard with Julie Powell, in which Powell sounded "incredibly arrogant and extremely nasty." I have no idea whether Powell always displayed these qualities or whether her blog/book/movie fame has brought them out, but certainly this is not the Julie who was portrayed in the film.

Finally, the film does a disservice to Julia Child. We learn in the film that Julia told a reporter she didn't like Julie's blog because she thought Julie wasn't serious about cooking. The comment sounded ungracious and not like the good-natured Julia Child whom I admired from her cookbooks and television appearances. But here's the thing—the movie treated a genuine comment made by the real Julia as if it was directed at the film Julie. This gave a false impression about what Julia was reacting to.

According to Child's close friend and Knopf editor, Judith Jones, Child disliked Powell's coarse language, believed that the cooking project was a stunt, and didn't want to be perceived as endorsing the blog. She was of an older, more genteel, generation, and was responding to aspects of the blog that weren't depicted in the film. (Jone's remarks were made during an interview with Publishers Weekly in July, 2009.)

My friends have sometimes accused me of being too literal-minded. I plead guilty as charged. But in the future, I'll try not to take films too literally, even when they claim to be true stories about actual people.


  1. Read the Blind Side and then see the movie. Pretty close, some literary licenses but still close. End of movie fabulous pictures of the real family. Sandra Bullock does a pretty good job as the mother.....

  2. Thanks Barbara , I guess I was taking the whole thing pretty literally as well. Bonnie