By Missy Schwartz
Updated August 05, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Julie & Julia

  • Movie

Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams
Directed by: Nora Ephron
Release date: August 7

Two summmers ago, Nora Ephron caught a performance of Romeo and Juliet in New York’s Central Park. She was set to write and direct Julie & Julia, a comedy about a young secretary obsessed with Julia Child. But she hadn’t figured out how to cast it. Who could play Child, the original celebrity chef, the exuberant Californian whose devotion to French cuisine transformed American palates? She found her answer as she was exiting the theater. ”I bumped into Meryl,” says Ephron, referring, of course, to the acting titan whose last name is Streep. ”She asked me what I was working on, and when I told her, she immediately ‘did’ Julia Child as we were coming down the stairs.” Streep’s imitation was quick — ”She did, like, a bon appétit or something” — but it was uncanny and effortless. And that was enough for Ephron. ”I just said to myself, ‘That’s that. Look no further.”’

Now Ephron is hoping that audiences will be as smitten with Streep’s Child as she was — enough to turn Julie & Julia into the actress’ third recent summer hit. Thanks to The Devil Wears Prada and last year’s Mamma Mia!, Streep has become the queen of counterprogramming, a box office draw for predominantly female audiences hungry for movies that are pyrotechnics-free. ”It’s completely improbable, and no one in Hollywood can understand it,” says Streep of her newfound bankability. ”Which is so thrilling!” Adds Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, ”Every now and then, the world rediscovers there’s a female audience — ‘Oh, my God! Women go to the movies!”’ That may be why this summer is packed with more female-centric fare than in recent years: The Ugly Truth, The Proposal, My Sister’s Keeper, to name a few. But only Julie & Julia boasts the mighty Streep.

Though the movie takes its title from Julie Powell’s 2005 memoir about tackling, in one year, all 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julie & Julia is based on both Powell’s book and Child’s posthumously released autobiography. Amy Adams costars as Powell, a frustrated New York professional who, on the eve of her 30th birthday, undertakes the absurdly ambitious culinary project. As she cooks, she imagines Child’s rise to gastronomic greatness in post-WWII France. Since this isn’t a sci-fi spectacle — no time-traveling boeuf bourguignon here — the two women never meet. ”It’s almost two movies that have blended together in a dialogue,” says Streep, who appeared with Adams in last year’s Doubt. ”We’re in different worlds. I’m in ’50s Paris and she’s in 2002 Queens. I got the better deal!” Sighs Adams in mock despair, ”Nothing wrong with that. Loooove Queens.”

When Pascal brought the project to Ephron in 2004, the director (You’ve Got Mail, Bewitched) was immediately sold. ”I love food,” says Ephron, who wrote about that passion in her 1983 novel, Heartburn, which she later adapted into a movie starring Streep. ”And I always had this wild crush on Julia Child. I learned to cook from her book.” She also knew that Child led an extraordinary pre-fame life: After working as an overseas spy in the 1940s, she became, at 38, one of the few female students at Paris’ Cordon Bleu cooking school. Then she co-wrote an 800-page cookbook. ”As I got into writing the movie, there turned out to be all these wonderful overlaps between the two women,” says Ephron. ”They both set out to do something that, in retrospect, is practically insane.”

The dual narrative appealed to both actresses, as did the script’s depiction of happy, supportive marriages. ”We’re so used to seeing movies about dysfunctional relationships,” says Streep. ”Here are these outsized, vivid, problematic women with great men of substance who love them in spite of all their prickliness.” The chance to spend months contemplating the perfect mousse au chocolat was another obvious draw. Both stars took private cooking lessons prior to shooting. ”I boned a duck. I had a talent for it, I have to say,” Adams admits. ”And ooooh, butter! I didn’t eat nearly enough butter before this movie!”

Streep might have knocked Ephron sideways with her off-the-cuff impersonation of Child, but she did little of it once the cameras rolled: Child didn’t adopt that arch, singsongy voice until her ’60s TV show, The French Chef. ”She hadn’t decided to dooo that yet!” trills Streep in spot-on Child-ese. ”So what I tried to capture was something more human-sized.” Trouble is, physically, Child was a giant: She stood 6’2”; Streep is 5’6”. So Ephron used a variety of tricks, including risers, camera angles, and casting shorter actors. Stanley Tucci, who plays Child’s devoted — and much smaller — husband, Paul, had no problem looking up to his costar. ”Meryl sent me a picture of the two of us on set, and it’s so funny. She’s just towering over me,” says the 5’9” actor. ”But that’s what the photos of Paul and Julia look like. It’s really adorable.”

Episode Recaps

Julie & Julia

  • Movie