Diablo Cody vs. Judd Apatow at the Oscars

On the eve of the Oscars, Tara Thorne weighs the careers of two different forces in film.

“I think because I have this weird mythology surrounding my career, I feel very pressured to dispel any myths that there might be about me. I have done so much press that I think it could be construed as obnoxious, really. I mean, obviously I have free will---but it wasn’t something I went out and pursued. And I have to admit my feelings get hurt when I go on the internet and I see people implying that I’m this crazy ambitious climber, just desperate to get her name in the papers.”

Diablo Cody was speaking from Los Angeles in early December, before the film she wrote, Juno, was officially released---before the first screenplay she’d ever written set the making of a blockbuster in motion. The film has since crossed the $100-million US mark and has made Cody the most likely to turn one of Juno’s four Academy Award nominations into a win this Sunday.

It was also before the backlash against her reached its bewildering, sad, wretched height. Perhaps that’s happened because of the mythology she speaks of: stripper-turned-blogger-turned-memoirist-turned-Oscar nominee. Perhaps it’s because Juno received the kind of universal critical adoration that makes the reactionaries turn against things for the sake of doing so. Perhaps it’s because the film is an unavoidable cultural phenomenon, spinning off into a hit soundtrack and Oprah appearances.

But perhaps---per the haps, as one of Cody’s characters might say---it’s because it was so easy.

“I have to say, I’ve had a fairly serendipitous career trajectory,” Cody said when it was suggested her overnight success was part media creation, effortless as it is to dismiss years with one sentence. “A lot of people go out to Hollywood and pay their dues and that didn’t necessarily happen to me. I just wrote this script and people responded to it, and suddenly I was a screenwriter.”

It wasn’t easy for Judd Apatow, author of the year’s other pregnancy blockbuster, Knocked Up. Neither of his critically acclaimed television series, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared---from where much of his coterie emerged, including Canadians Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel---made it to a second season, despite Apatow’s cred-building writing gig on The Larry Sanders Show, attention to period detail and ability to turn atypical actors into convincing leads.

But buoyed by success as producer of the Will Ferrell hit Anchorman and the late-summer 2005 draw The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Apatow’s feature directorial debut, which helped make Steve Carell a star---The Office would come into its own soon after---Apatow became a Hollywood power player and hero to a generation of young men who loved his pop-culture references and candid sex talk.

Expectations for Knocked Up were high. Apatow, like Cody shortly after, became a media juggernaut. The movie grossed almost $150 million US in theatres and minted lead actor Rogen’s stardom. It also tricked Hollywood into thinking it had found its first romantic comedy star since Julia Roberts had babies and Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock turned 40, in an arguably bland and beautiful Katherine Heigl. (Dear Hollywood: it’s not working. Let it go.)

Two months later came Superbad, another Apatow-produced blockbuster, which Rogen co-wrote with BFF Evan Goldberg, about high schoolers Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) on the cusp of graduation. With its all-in-one-night structure and teen ensemble cast, the movie was a nod to Dazed and Confused and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, melded with the frankness and advanced sexuality of ‘kids today.’ Critics dug hard for a beating heart amid the dick jokes and Keystone Kops subplot, zeroing in on a scene where Cera and Hill share a sleeping bag and drunkenly declare their love forone another.

“Heterosexuality, that infinitely dangerous terrain, will be a place he enters gingerly and with more than a little regret,” David Denby generously wrote of Seth---and the film---in The New Yorker.

Because for all the things Judd Apatow’s film umbrella covers---big laughs, engaging and naturalistic dialogue, shrewd casting---it stops short of producing movies that exist in the real world or, more importantly, that are populated by real women. The 40-Year-Old Virgin lucked out by getting glorious Catherine Keener as the love interest; on paper Trish is nothing. Heigl as Alison in Knocked Up faced the same problem---and Heigl is no Keener---with the added plot misstep of giving her the on-air TV job she’d been gunning for, and, in real life, would never surrender for the sake of a baby with any one-night stand. (Joanna Kerns, as Alison’s mother, provides the film’s only abortion argument and gets dismissed within 45 seconds.) The similarly pretty and boring girls in Superbad are given a characteristic each---Jules (Emma Stone) doesn’t drink and Becca (Martha MacIssac) is Seth’s grade-school nemesis.

And then there is Leslie Mann---a caustic, gifted comedian. Too bad her husband has her vomiting into Carell’s face in Virgin and being a harpy bitch in Knocked, where even a potentially touching heart-to-heart with Paul Rudd undermines her. After breaking her down in tears over marriage distress, Apatow can’t resist a comic moment at her expense, having her cry, “I like Spider-Man!” as a reason why Rudd shouldn’t go to the movies alone. When he says they can go, she whines, “Well, I don’t wanna go now!”

Oh, women. What do you want?

This is why Diablo Cody is so vital. She’s an antidote to Apatow, but far beyond that, she’s the first visible female screenwriter since Tina Fey craftily penned Mean Girls in 2004. (“I love Tina Fey,” says Cody. “I aspire to that kind of career.”) The frenzy she’s created means she is our best defence against the coming Apatow onslaught: nine films in development (at press time). Cody’s next script, Jennifer’s Body, begins shooting in March with Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) at the helm. It’s a horror film about a cheerleader who begins eating the boys at her school.

In addition to actual Apatow-related productions, there will doubtless be dozens of imitators, meaning that, like in the post-Pulp Fiction era---and if you want to talk about media-created filmmakers, you cannot forget Tarantino, who doesn’t even have the grace to be humble---screens will be flooded with cheap and dirty dude-comedies for the next five years at least.

But because Diablo (real name, Brook) Cody sat in a Minneapolis Starbucks and wrote a script that changed Hollywood, there will be Juno imitators too. Writers will create scripts with confident teenage girls at their centres---girls who won’t be able to be played by anyone on TV’s Gossip Girl. It means more actors of Ellen Page’s kind will be found. More girls will finally have someone to look up to: an actor who’s never had a DUI, who shops at Value Village and who doesn’t let scalpels reshape her face for the sake of meeting an arbitrary standard.

It means that women---percentages in neither the writers’ or directors’ guilds reach double digits---might have a chance to finally make an impact on an industry that has never believed in them as professional artists, let alone as a viable audience.

“I feel that all screenwriters should be visible. Writing is important. It’s strange to me that writers are marginalized in Hollywood,” says Cody.

“But I also think writers have a responsibility to make themselves visible. So if I seem like an attention whore, you should know that it’s because I’m trying to help my people.”

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