Nora Ephron makes an obvious choice

I finally got around to watching Julie & Julia, directed by Nora Ephron who also wrote the screenplay. She is Jewish and a typical Hollywood liberal. She donated to Al Franken and Obama. Here’s an example of her prose (titled “White Men” from the liberal (and very mainstream) website Huffington Post, written just before the Pennsylvania primary in 2008:

This is an election about whether the people of Pennsylvania hate blacks more than they hate women. And when I say people, I don’t mean people, I mean white men. How ironic is this? After all this time, after all these stupid articles about how powerless white men are and how they can’t even get into college because of overachieving women and affirmative action and mean lady teachers who expected them to sit still in the third grade even though they were all suffering from terminal attention deficit disorder — after all this, they turn out (surprise!) to have all the power. (As they always did, by the way; I hope you didn’t believe any of those articles.)

White men are nothing more than haters. Not even Bill Kristol is liberal enough for her.

Julie & Julia is basically about two women becoming famous cooks 50 years apart. But Ephron can’t resist an opportunity for a little propagandizing. The movie has a brief cameo appearance of Julia’s father, John McWilliams. The following is from a biography of Child:

Pasadena, where she was born in 1912, was a handsome city, known for its wealth and civic accomplishments; John McWilliams was a living symbol of the city’s prosperity. A Princeton graduate and devout Republican, he managed the Western landholdings and investments amassed by his own father and later became vice president of J. G. Boswell, one of California’s major landowners and developers. His personal and professional mission was to keep California booming, and he put a great deal of time into Pasadena community life. Julia was raised to admire his discipline and public spirit, which she did, but he also nurtured a set of rabidly right-wing convictions that she would come to abhor. The two of them split sharply during the 1950s, when John McWilliams became a strong supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy whom Julia found despicable. Her father was also outspoken about his contempt for Jews, artists, intellectuals, and foreigners; and for most of her adult life Julia viewed him with enormous dismay, though she managed to keep loving him.

In fact, McWilliams’ anti-Jewish views were well enough known that he was mentioned, along with well-known figures such as Gerald L. K. Smith and Methodist preacher Wesley Swift, as anti-Jewish supporters of McCarthy in Aviva Weingarten’s Jewish Organizations’ Response to Communism and Senator McCarthy (see my review here).

In Julie & Julia, McWilliams is presented as a cranky supporter of McCarthy who dislikes Julia’s husband Paul, a political liberal who had lived in Paris as a poet and artist — everything that McWilliams detested. In the movie, Paul is working as a librarian in the Foreign Service when he is called to Washington where he is grilled about possible communist associations and on his sexual orientation. Julia states that she knows many people who have been persecuted by McCarthy even though they have done nothing wrong. Paul returns to France dispirited by his experience.

The movie seems to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of McWilliams — a portrayal tailor made to hammer home one of Hollywood’s favority moral lessons about the evil 1950s.

However, Ephron could have taken another tack altogether. Although Julia renounced her father’s views on McCarthy, her views on homosexuality would certainly exclude her from the culture of the mainstream media today.

Homophobia was a socially acceptable form of bigotry in midcentury America, and Julia and Paul participated without shame for many years. She often used the term pedal or pedalo — French slang for a homosexual — draping it with condescension, pity, and disapproval. “I had my hair permanented at E. Arden’s, using the same pedalo I had before (I wish all the men in OUR profession in the USA were not pedals!),” she wrote to Simca. Fashion designers were “that little bunch of Pansies,” a cooking school was “a nest of homovipers,” a Boston dinner party was “peopled by 3 fags in an expensive house…. We felt hopelessly square and left when decently possible,” and San Francisco was beautiful but full of pedals—“It appears that SF is their favorite city! I’m tired of them, talented though they are.”

So Ephron had a choice if she wanted to bring up politically volatile issues. She could have played up the angle of Julia’s father as a cranky right-wing supporter of Sen. McCarthy, or she could have played up the angle of the Childs as homophobes.

But this was a feel-good movie, so it was a no-brainer. For Ephron, part of the feel-good message is to portray Julia’s character as an enlightened liberal, just like herself — and at the same time get in yet another dig at the retrogrades who supported McCarthy while avoiding any mention of McWilliams’ civic contributions or Julia’s homophobia.

Despite the fact that McCarthy was basically right about the people he hauled before his committee (see M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies), the cause of anti-McCarthyism remains a rallying cry for the Nora Ephrons of the world — at least partly because, as Weingarten shows, so many of them were Jews.

My only surprise is that we weren’t treated to a caricature of McWilliams’s anti-Jewish attitudes.

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