By Julie Powell
Our cat Maxine died last week at the age of 17 without ever knowing that she'd been portrayed on the big screen. In mourning her this week, I can't help but think about the movie version of Maxine with mixed feelings. Julie & Julia-well, half of it, anyway-is based on my 2005 memoir of the same name, and in that book, Maxine played a not-inconsiderable role.
In the film, screenwriter/director Nora Ephron had to cram into two hours the stories of two very different women in different eras: the great Julia Child on one side of the Atlantic, and little 'ole me on the other. Thankfully, she managed to squeeze in the character of Julie Powell's cat as something more than a walk-on. My brother didn't get as much screen time-and neither, I can't help noticing, did Julia's own cat, Minette. I'm grateful that Maxine got into the movie at all. Still, as the Julie Powell character-played by the excellent, un-me-like Amy Adams-pouts in the film, while discussing the depiction of herself in a (fictional, by the way) New York magazine article, "There was so much more!"
"Maxine"-she remains unnamed in the credits, but there is no question of who the character is based on-is played by a vivacious, ginger-coated animal actor named Terry, with sass and a jaunty trot. Terry is a fine cat, well-trained, who manages to make the character of "Maxine" likeable, memorable, and not too cutesy-quite a feat given the limitations of the script. Terry has a couple of important scenes: She is masterful, for instance, as the watchful kitty who first notices the boeuf bourguignon is burning while "Julie Powell" lays passed out on the couch after too many gimlets (that part is totally true, by the way). But the role reflects very little of the real Maxine. It's not just that the two felines look nothing alike-Maxine was, in her prime, a zaftig girl, white with cunning black spots; Terry, I suspect, is a tom. It's also that Nora had no time, given the ambitious double storyline of the movie, to invest "Maxine" with much in the way of character. What we see is not the sardonic, complicated, talented cat of my longtime acquaintance, but a sweet, thin, red-headed doll of a thing who watches old episodes of The French Chef with her head pertly cocked, as if to echo the words of her owner, "Julie Powell," regarding Julia Child: "Isn't she adorable?"
The trouble is, I would never say something like "Isn't Julia Child adorable?" Julia Child, for chrissakes, this literal and figurative giant of a woman who changed the lives of thousands and the entire American culinary landscape ... adorable? And neither would Maxine. Maxine had a wry sense of humor, great self-awareness as well as an occasional (OK, more than occasional) tendency toward self-importance, and literary ambitions to boot. Her favorite game-in fact, the only one she'd deign to play-involved smartly batting any writing utensil in front of her off the table ledge. She'd do this for hours. And the thing was, she was doing it for love. She wasn't thinking to herself, "If I get good enough at this I'm going to be a YouTube sensation." She was simply thinking, "I love pens. I love knocking them off tables. And you know what, it turns out I'm damned good at it!"
She also had a profound appreciation of iambic pentameter. Seriously, I'm not making that up.
None of this comes through in the movie Julie & Julia. Which I understand was inevitable-a movie is not a book, ever, and the uplifting story Nora Ephron is telling-about how an extraordinary woman's transformation and the world-changing book that came out of that went on to inspire one secretary from Queens to change her own life-leaves little room for quirks and rough edges, for complex motives or attempts at self-awareness. Don't get me wrong; I remain thrilled with the film, and with my overwhelming good fortune in having had some small part in its creation. It's just that, in a perfect world, I'd have liked Maxine's true personality to shine through. A person who'd never met her might walk out of the film thinking, "Well, that cat is sweet enough. But I wish there'd been more Minette. Now that's a story I want to watch: Julia Child and her cat in Paris. Who cares about some rescue cat in Queens?" They might even think "'Julie Powell's' cat was vapid, or exploitative. She's just after a cut of the French leftovers!"
Of course, even in my book, Maxine didn't get the star treatment she deserved. Julie & Julia is a memoir, which means that I, the author, am front and center, and no one else in my life, feline or human, came under the intense (and yes, sure, narcissistic) scrutiny I did. Still, I worked to give an authentic, warts-and-all glimpse of my beloved eldest cat, who after all was there for every day of my cooking project, looking on, often from her spot on the countertop, stealing bits of sole meuniere if she could manage it, while my husband Eric cooed at her the Russian diminutives with which he always addressed her. (Another detail that didn't make it into the movie.) And I can stand by my depiction, flawed though it may be, because it's mine. Criticisms of the "Julie Powell's" cat of the movie are harder to withstand. Because it's someone else's interpretation (the interpretation, in fact, of someone who barely met Maxine at all), I don't have my authorship to stand behind. It is my role now to be the good author, to be meek and sweet and endlessly accepting of harsh words and misinterpretations, no matter how much I might want to scream, in weaker moments, "But that's not ME!"
Er. I meant, "That's not my cat."
It's a good thing Maxine didn't have to go on press junkets and speak to interviewers and answer blog comments. Because Maxine was many things, but meek was not one of them. She asked for attention not by rubbing against your legs and begging, but by calmly but persistently patting you from her perch on the kitchen counter. She did not suffer fools lightly. If she was asked, yet again, how thrilling it is to be played by Terry, she'd have yawned. And if asked to respond to some snotty comment about how she'd exploited Julia Child's cat's name for fame and fortune, she would definitely not have humbly explained that her love and awe for Minette was sincere and deep. Since she didn't have hands, she wouldn't have shot anyone the finger, either.
She would just, with an eloquent glare in her bright green eyes, walk away. Which is what cats, and not writers, get to do.