‘RBG’ filmmakers find a rich vein: Feminist love stories

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2021 Invision

FILE - Betsy West, left, and Julie Cohen, the co-directors of the documentary film "Julia," pose during the Toronto International Film Festival, on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Toronto. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

NEW YORK – The label “date movie” hasn’t traditionally been applied much to documentaries but filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen have twice now made non-fiction films of trailblazing female icons that also happen to be portraits of loving, supportive marriages.

In “RBG,” the 2018 Oscar-nominated bio-documentary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the filmmakers lingered over the encouraging role of her longtime husband, the lawyer Martin D. Ginsburg. Their latest, “Julia,” which is currently playing in theaters, is likewise about a pioneering 20th century woman, the adventurous TV chef Julia Child, whose ascent was tenderly and enthusiastically advocated for by her husband, Paul Child. He even wrote a sonnet for her.

“For never were there foods, nor were there wines

Whose flavor equals yours for sheer delight.

O luscious dish! O gustatory pleasure!

You satisfy my taste buds beyond measure.”

“Feminist love stories are our genre,” Cohen said in an interview alongside West when “Julia” was premiering in September at the Toronto Film Festival. “‘RBG’ was a great date movie. ‘Julia’ is a slightly more expensive date movie because it really needs to be the movie and then a good dinner.”

“Julia" is an affectionate and flavorful tribute to a beloved culinary figure. The film surveys a life that found fame relatively late. Child was nearly 50 by the time her debut cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was released in 1961. Her career on TV, beginning with an omelet on Boston’s WGBH, came the year after. There and beyond, Child was a charismatic, 6-foot-2-inch exception to a male-dominated cooking world and a carefree antidote to the force-fed image of the TV-dinner cooking ’50s housewife.

Her husband, a former diplomat, contentedly took a background role. In “The French Chef Cookbook,” Julia Child wrote: “Paul Child, the man who is always there: porter, dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, fish illustrator, manager, taster, idea man, resident poet, and husband.”

“Julia” is only set partly among the pots and pans (and heaps of butter) that made Child famous. (The filmmakers even built a replica of her kitchen to make and photograph some of her best-known dishes.) But the heart of “Julia” may lie outside the kitchen in capturing her larger life and passions. Over time, she spoke more openly about her political beliefs. She became a champion for Planned Parenthood.

Child wrote a letter in 1982 that was sent to Planned Parenthood donors. It read: “Few politicians will take the risk of publicly supporting either contraception or abortion — and who is ‘for abortion’ anyway? We are concerned with freedom of choice.”

“What Julia did at the time was pretty risky. This was not a time when celebrities or celebrity chefs were going out of their way to take positions that were controversial,” says West. “Julia was very confident in her beliefs and determined to bring her celebrity to something she truly believed in.”

For West and Cohen, “Julia” is only part of their output following “RBG,” a blockbuster documentary that collected more than $14 million in ticket sales. Their “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” which debuted last month on Amazon Prime Video, profiles a pivotal but sometimes overlooked activist and writer who helped lay the legal framework for both the civil rights and women’s rights movements. Ginsburg credited Murray, who was Black and gender neutral, with inspiring her argument in the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v. Reed, in which the court recognized women as victims of sex discrimination for the first time.

“There is just a huge landscape of women out there whose stories haven’t been adequately told,” says West. “It’s frankly an opportunity for us to tell these stories.”

West and Cohen had worked in documentary film in various capacities before “RBG” dramatically raised their profiles. Often, they’ve enjoyed themselves along the way. At the National Board of Review Awards in 2019, they performed planks on stage as tribute to the Supreme Court justice’s workout routines.

“We’re hugely fortunate that ‘RBG’ got the attention that it did because it sort of opened up some doors,” says Cohen. “It’s a sad and discouraging fact that some of these historical stories of women aren’t as well known or as understood as they should be. But our perspective as documentary filmmakers is that it’s kind of like a gold mine.”

It’s an ongoing project. Cohen and West are currently editing another documentary about an extraordinary American woman they expect to release next year. They won’t say who their subject is this time, except to say that she’s alive. And, yes, Cohen promises, this film, too, features what she calls a great feminist love story.


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP