Nora Ephron: Stirring the Pot

Julie & Julia director-screenwriter-producer Nora Ephron addresses Julia Child's longtime homophobia and tackles the "tricky question" facing today's closeted gay actors.

BY Brandon Voss

August 07 2009 12:00 AM ET

MERYL STREEP CHER SILKWOOD X390 (20TH FOX) | ADVOCATE.COM

To be fair, you also earned a place in gay film history for co-writing the screenplay of Silkwood, which earned Cher an Oscar nomination for playing Karen Silkwood's lesbian friend Dolly Pelliker.
That I really do think was a breakthrough. I don't mean that she was the first gay character in a mainstream movie, but this was no joking, winking, interior decorator gay person; it was a person. That character was actually based on Karen's housemate [Sherri Ellis], who was gay, so we didn't make that up. We just made up all the plot points that went with it.

You definitely sexualized Dolly, giving her a girlfriend and an unrequited love for Karen Silkwood. As this was 1983, were you met with any concerns from studio bigwigs about fleshing out Dolly's lesbianism?
Not at all. They were so busy worrying about the radiation business suing us that they didn't even care. The studio's fears were elsewhere.

Like many of your previous female-focused films, Julie & Julia is being labeled a "chick flick," but your romantic comedies have obviously resonated with the gay community as well. Do you ever have the gay audience in mind when you're making a film?
People love to compartmentalize whom your movies are going to play with, but what you just want is for people to like them. So I don't ever think about whether or not the gay community is going to like something, because if it's all right, then of course they will.

Julia Child, later in her life, spoke beautifully at a 1988 AIDS benefit sponsored by the American Food and Wine Institute. But Laura Shapiro's 2007 biography, which referenced many of Julia's own letters, brought to light her previous love-hate relationship with the gay community. Sure they were buying her books and watching her shows, but she was afraid of gay men taking over the cooking industry and making the profession less attractive to straight men. She expressed pity for lesbians and called gay men "fags," "homovipers," and "pansies." Now here we are discussing a film celebrating her life and work. Should we forgive and forget her arguably harmless homophobia simply because it was another time and, well, because she's deceased?
That's an interesting question that I couldn't possibly answer for you, but Julia was wrong about many things. When Meryl was very seriously involved in stopping the spraying of apples with Alar in the '80s, she wrote to Julia Child, hoping that Julia would support the cause because that would've meant a huge amount. Julia wrote her a very snippy letter back, saying that she didn't care about or believe in that. To her the whole organic food thing was just not even worth bothering with. But she changed her mind about that and admitted she had been wrong. One of the good things about Julia is that she did know that she had been wrong about things, and I know she knew she was wrong about her homophobia. It's an interesting question of how we judge people whose politics we find reprehensible. There are people who still don't forgive Thomas Jefferson for having slaves. I believe that Julia Child was homophobic out of ignorance, but she became very good friends with lots of the gay men in the food business and forgave them all for being in the food business. It was a business that was not necessarily welcoming to newcomers, but everyone fell in love with her in a big way, and many of them were gay. Her career was launched by Craig Claiborne at The New York Times, and she was practically adopted by James Beard.

There's a brief scene in the film during which Julia's husband, Paul Child, is asked if he's a homosexual while being interrogated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. What were you trying to achieve by giving that particular question focus — is the audience supposed to question Paul's sexuality as well? 
No, not at all. That really happened, so I was only trying to be the dutiful storyteller. I thought it was fascinating. After they asked him if he was a homosexual — and he said he wasn't — they asked him to drop his pants. What on earth did they think they were going to discover? It gives you an idea of how unbelievably stupid [they] were. It's so bizarre that I didn't even put that into the movie because I was afraid people would think I made it up.

Tags: film

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