Movie Chat: The Help

I went to an afternoon showing of The Help with my daughter (who was clueless) and my friend Susie (who has her own stories to tell).  The movie would be a disappointment to fans of the book, but it’s visually very lovely.  It telescoped many events, dropped some complicated incidents, and softened (for me) the emotional impact of the human tragedy.  It has some fantastic performances from lesser-known actors, both black and white, and a breakthrough serious role for Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.

My complaints?  Skeeter is too beautiful for her role as a young woman whose mother despairs of her ever getting married and her curls are managed by modern mousse.  The queen bee, Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) is too beautiful and svelte, compared to the description in the novel.  Constantine, Skeeter’s nursemaid is too old, but wonderfully acted by Cicely Tyson.  The “white trash” bride Celia Foote is not vulgar enough in the fancy ballroom scene.  And Elaine Stein, the Jewish New York editor, is too smooth-faced and attractive (I imagined her being more masculine and angular).

Furthermore, Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle, is too dark, in a confusing switch from the novel, in which she was considered “too high yellow,” (meaning, looking white) to stay in the South, so Constantine sent her up North in Chicago to be raised in an orphanage.  She grew up empowered by the Black Panther movement, returns to visit her mother, and brazenly walks into a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Phelan plantation as if she’s a member or guest.  Her mother is abruptly fired after 29 years of employment and having raised Skeeter.

The messiness of politics and political campaigns was dropped.

But, most crucial was the decision to end the movie before the novel does.

Spoiler alert: The viewer does not know that Skeeter’s mother does die of cancer, so she’s released to move to New York to take the job at Harper & Row offered by Elaine Stein.  And she arranges for Aibileen Clark to take over her column on housekeeping tips, a racial breakthrough in publishing.  The novel is more hopeful, but the film leaves the viewer in suspense about their future.

Movie Chat: Julie & Julia

Fans of Julia Child would love the new film, Julie and Julia, as the director, Nora Ephron, depicted post-WWII Paris in bright, sunny colors and without reference to deprivations, electrical shortages or municipal strikes.  While I agree with A.O. Scott, the NYTimes film critic, that the cards were stacked against Amy Adams who plays the young memoirist, Julie Powell—the best scenes had Meryl Streep in it, naturally— Adams gave a fine, credible performance.  The director had eliminated the unpleasant parts of Powell’s memoir— the gratuitous cursing and the gossip about her friends’ love and sex lives— giving us a sweeter, cuter, slimmer Amy Adams-embodiment of Ms. Powell.  And 21st century New York City is unfairly  represented by industrial Queens (which does have some lovely neighborhoods after all), although there was a witty juxtaposition of an American water tower compared to the Eiffel Tower.

Meryl Streep continues to amaze and delight her fans with her ability to work her way into a character.  With the aid of cleverly placed camera angles, carpentry (Child’s size-12 feet do not fit on a French bed), a wig (?), and heels, she gives a convincing portrayal of a cultural icon, whom Americans of a certain age remember and love.

The husbands, played by Stanley Tucci (his best role yet!) and Chris Messina, were lovingly supportive, except for one made-up scene in which Eric Powell spitefully spikes his bowl of boeuf bourguignon with salt, then storms out of their apartment after she’s devastated by the last-minute no-show appearance by the renown Child-editor, Judith Jones.  My husband wonders, how supportive a spouse is he, when he lets down his wife when she’s vulnerable?

One of the funniest lines does not come from Child’s memoir:  having failed her examination for a diploma from the Le Cordon Bleu, Child informs the director that she intends to teach French cooking to the American people.  The haughty and spiteful director retorts: you cannot cook, you would never be able to cook, but your American audience would never know the difference.  In actuality, Child did flunk the exam, but only because it asked about housewifely dishes that Child had ignored in her quest to become a real, professional cook. After many appeals, including a faked reference to the disappointment of the American ambassador, Child won another chance to demonstrate her by-then formidable skills and she passed with flying colors.  By the time she met her future collaborators, she had become a certified graduate of an authentic French institution.

One of the most poignant scenes did not dwell fully on the full text of Child’s memoir: after Julia and her sister, Dorothy, had gotten dressed in their best dresses, chicest hats and spiffiest shoes (in sizes hard to find in Paris), they regard their reflections and declaim: nice but not nice enough (for the French).  The film also made much more of the Childs’ childlessness than Julia ever displayed in her memoir, although she did dote on her nieces and nephews.  Her memoir was written with the help of her grand-nephew.

My father-in-law asked if the film left us hungry and I replied that it wasn’t food we would eat anyway— meat and seafood prepared in butter and cream sauces.  No one cooks much in the classic French way anymore, not even the French.

I’d predicted that there wouldn’t be anyone under age 30 at the film and I wasn’t wrong, but we were both surprised by the number of very old patrons, including several in walkers and wheelchairs.  I guess these are the fans of Julia Child, who’d had taught them to appreciate French food.

The cinema we’d visited had been rescued from demolition and restored as an art institute.  It houses a coffee shop that touts its organic, local, and sustainable food, with 80% sourced from within 20 miles around.  My husband scoffed at this, as coffee and tea are not grown here in the Middle Atlantic states, but I said that they’re not counting beverages in their claim.

The sad truth is that Julie Powell never met her spiritual mentor, who died in 2004 at the age of 91.  In both her memoir as well as the film, a reporter calls for an interview, relaying the news that Child regards her blog as “disrespectful and not serious.”  I do not believe this could be fully accurate.  In an interview with Terry Gross, Child was asked if she knew that Dan Aykroyd had made a skit about her–  a crude and bloody one– for Saturday Night Live and Child chuckled and commented, yes and I have a tape of it.  Julia Child loved life and food and good humor, so I do not believe it is possible that she could be mean to an acolyte.  I bet she had not read Powell’s blog and did not realize the extent of Powell’s idolization.  True, one year cooking and blogging does not compare to eight years of recipe testing and writing–  not to mention the years before, in learning French and cooking– but Powell had anointed Julia Child as her lodestar and spiritual guide to what is right and good and just about life, love, and food.  We should all have such a mentor.