Nora Ephron is nothing if not direct. Just try to tiptoe around asking this question: Could she have written and directed a movie like "Julie & Julia," which celebrates marriage as gloriously fulfilling, if she hadn't managed to, um, find happiness in her personal life after, well, "Heartburn," which she based on her infamously awful second marriage?
"Living alone in misery, would I have made this movie?" Ephron, 68, said. "Is that what you're asking? I happen to love my marriage" -- she's been married to the writer Nicholas Pileggi for 22 years -- "and you hope that you make movies that feel personal to you. But there is nothing autobiographical here. I could practically footnote every scene."
Mike Nichols, who directed "Heartburn" and counts Ephron as a close friend, doesn't buy it. "Nora is stronger, funnier, sexier than ever," he said. "You do feel like this movie is plugged into the life she's living."
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"Julie & Julia," which opens today, is the story of two lost women who find a professional purpose through food. Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is living in 1940s Paris, trying to figure out what to do with her life while her husband serves as a foreign diplomat. She decides to go to cooking school and write a cookbook.
Flash to the present, where a downtrodden cubicle inmate named Julie Powell (Amy Adams) decides to prepare all 524 of the often daunting recipes in said cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," and blog about it. (A chicken fricassee recipe described as "not difficult" has about 30 steps.) Ephron, a foodie from way back (one of her signature dishes is "spaghetti with sand," or bread crumbs), adapted the film from "My Life in France," Child's posthumously published autobiography, and Powell's blogging memoir, "Julie & Julia."
The film is food porn. (Seriously, don't come hungry.) And Streep's performance as the vowel-elongating chef will probably earn her another bushel of accolades and give Ephron her first hit movie in more than a decade. But it is the film's depiction of marriage -- particularly the union of Julia and Paul Child -- that has sparked chatter among people after screenings. Several aspects of the matrimonial portrait are astonishing, at least for a Hollywood movie. For starters, there's the sex: the old married folks have it.
The middle-age Julia and Paul (Stanley Tucci) are depicted, apparently accurately, as acutely libidinous. The strapping (6 foot 2) wife and her (shorter) husband have sex in the afternoon, with a cackling Julia ripping off Paul's suspenders. They photograph themselves naked in a bubble bath and use the picture as a Valentine's Day card.
"I don't know why everybody is so surprised," Streep said. "I guess people don't attach sexuality to people who look like their parents."
She thought for a minute and then laughed. "Oh, fine. I suppose they probably don't attach sexuality to Julia Child, either." (Dan Aykroyd parodied her lack of femininity in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, parts of which Ephron includes in her film.)
Hollywood movies about vibrant marriages are rare. There is "The Thin Man" (whose main characters, it should be noted, are Nick and Nora). But most often film unions are dreary and painful, a chore that must be slogged through en route to the real story line: divorce or an affair. Enter "marriage" as a keyword on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and the results are almost uniformly negative: "unhappy-marriage" (150 titles), "forced-marriage" (140 titles), "marriage-as-hell" (37 titles).
But happy, relaxed, rolling-along-together marriage? "It's like spotting a unicorn," she said.
Theories abound as to why. Jeanine D. Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, noted that male directors, producers and studio chiefs have always called most of the shots in Hollywood. "Men are just not as likely to care about that kind of story," said Basinger, who is writing a book about the depiction of marriage on screen.
Scott Rudin ("No Country for Old Men," "Doubt"), an executive producer of "Julie & Julia," said the answer wasn't a mystery. "Conflict is immediately captivating," he said. "Happy is harder."
Each husband in "Julie & Julia" takes pleasure in supporting his mate's commitment and ambition. Paul Child snaps pictures of his wife's cooking for her book. Julie Powell's husband, Eric (Chris Messina), encourages the blogging idea, even pushing her to keep going after her obsession with it starts to wear on him.
But the relationships aren't idyllic, Rudin noted. "That's what makes it feel real," he said. The modern couple struggles with money and fights over Julie's occasional self-involvement (although there is no mention of an affair she had after the publication of the book). Children are a painful topic to the Childs. In one scene Julia has a moment of despair, briefly, when her sister becomes pregnant.