RPG makers find a rich vein: feminist love stories
New York The label “history film” has not traditionally been applied to documentaries, but filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen have now made two non-fiction films of pioneering female icons that also happen to be images of loving and supportive marriages.
In “RBG,” the vital 2018 Academy Award-nominated documentary by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the filmmakers reflect on the encouraging role of her longtime husband, attorney Martin de Ginsburg. Their latest work, “Julia”, currently in theaters, is also about a pioneering woman of the 20th century, the adventurous television chef Julia Child, whose rise was advocated passionately and enthusiastically by her husband, Paul Child. He even wrote her a sonnet.
“Because there was no food or wine
Whose flavor equals your flavor for sheer delight.
O luscious dish! O delicious taste!
You satisfy my taste immeasurably.”
“Feminist love stories are our kind,” Cohen said in an interview with West when “Julia” premiered in September at the Toronto Film Festival. “RBG” was a great history movie. ‘Julia’ is a slightly more expensive dating movie because it really needs to be a movie and then a good dinner.”
‘Julia’ is a hearty and delicious tribute to a beloved culinary figure. The film chronicles the life that found fame relatively late. The child was about 50 years old by the time the first cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was released in 1961. Hare began his career on television, beginning with an omelette at WGBH in Boston, the following year. There and beyond, the charismatic 6-foot-2 Child was an exception to the male-dominated culinary world and a gentle antidote to the force-fed portrait of a TV cooking housewife in the 1950s.
Her husband, a former diplomat, took on a background role with conviction. In “The French Chef Cookbook,” Julia Child writes: “Paul Child, the man who’s always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom gambler and onion chopper, editor, fish painter, manager, gourmet, idea owner, resident poet, and husband .”
“Julia” is only partially set between the pots and pans (and the piles of butter) that made Child famous. (The filmmakers even built a replica of her kitchen to make and photograph some of her most famous dishes.) But Julia’s heart may lie outside the kitchen in portraying her life and her greatest passion. Over time, she has spoken more openly about her political beliefs. She became a champion of family planning.
The child wrote a letter in 1982 that was sent to Planned Parenthood’s donors. “Few politicians would risk publicly endorsing contraception or abortion – and who’s ‘pro-abortion’ anyway? We’re concerned with freedom of choice,” it reads.
“What Julia did at the time was very risky. This was not a time when celebrities or celebrity chefs were trying their best to take controversial positions,” says West. “Julia was very confident in her beliefs and determined to bring her fame to something she truly believed in.”
For West and Cohen, “Julia” is only a part of their production after the blockbuster RPG documentary that collected more than $14 million in ticket sales. “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” which debuted last month on Amazon Prime Video, offers a glimpse into a pivotal but sometimes overlooked activist and writer who helped set the legal framework for both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Ginsburg credited Murray, who was black and gender-neutral, for inspiring her argument in the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, in which the court recognized women as victims of sexism for the first time.
“There’s just a huge scene of women whose stories aren’t told appropriately,” West says. “It’s an opportunity for us, frankly, to tell these stories.”
West and Cohen worked on a documentary in a variety of jobs before the RPG ramped up their profiles in a big way. Oftentimes, they enjoyed themselves along the way. At the 2019 National Board of Review Awards, they performed the panels onstage as a tribute to the Supreme Court justice’s training routine.
“We’re very fortunate that ‘RBG’ got the attention it got because it kind of opened some doors,” Cohen says. “It is a sad and frustrating fact that some of these historical stories about women are not as well known or understood as they should be. But our perspective as documentary filmmakers is that it is like a goldmine.”
It is an ongoing project. Cohen and West are currently editing another documentary about an extraordinary American woman that they are due to release next year. They won’t say who their subject is this time, except to say she’s alive. And yes, Cohen promised, this movie also showcases what she calls a great feminist love story.
Follow AP Film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP
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