The Great Screenwriters: Part 23 – Diablo Cody

By Martin Keady · January 14, 2018

All screenwriters have their “inspirational quotes”, the expressions and sayings that often litter their desk but also provide that all-important shot of encouragement when they need it. One of my own particular favourites comes from Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno:  “Here’s my unsolicited advice to any aspiring screenwriters who might be reading this: Don’t ever agonize about the hordes of other writers who are ostensibly your competition. No one else is capable of doing what you do.” Cody herself is living proof of this, because in Juno and her other best films, especially Young Adult (2011) and the recently released Tully (2018), she often takes a subject that is incredibly familiar, such as teen pregnancy or postpartum depression, even one that has often been written about, but she puts her own unique spin on it, such that she often writes the definitive film on the subject.

Humble Beginnings

Sadly, “Diablo Cody” is not her real name but one of the finest noms de plumes ever invented. Cody was originally Brooke Busey-Maurio and was born in Lemont, a Chicago suburb, in 1978. She attended the University of Iowa, completing a media studies degree, and then threw herself into writing. However, it was not screenwriting that initially attracted her but blogging, which increasingly appears to be to young or aspiring screenwriters in the 21st century what journalism was to such screenwriters in the 20th century, namely a chance to make some kind of a living while developing their skill as a storyteller, and a regular source of ideas and inspiration. She blogged under a variety of names, including her own, but in each iteration what would become her trademark sarcasm and sharp wit were fully evident.

The First Great Stripper-Screenwriter

Having initially worked in a number of jobs in advertising and radio after leaving university, Cody started working as a self-proclaimed “feminist stripper” – that is, one who seeks to invert the usual downtrodden role of the stripper or burlesque artist by asserting their own independence and control over their performance. In the process, Cody became one of the first “stripper-screenwriters” in film history, and certainly the first great one. Her experiences at strip clubs in Minneapolis (where she had relocated from Iowa) formed the basis of what became her first non-blog publication, a book called, “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper”, which was published in 2005. It was so successful that it provided Cody with the opportunity to stop stripping and start writing full-time. 

Cody’s manager, Mason Novick, who had talent-spotted her after reading some of her blogs (especially those on stripping), persuaded her to try her hand at screenwriting and what followed was one of the most successful debut screenplays ever written, Juno (2007). 2017 was the 10th anniversary of its release and it is a testament to its enduring popularity that that anniversary was widely celebrated, and not just in the form of a new “deluxe” 10th anniversary DVD release.

All About Juno

Juno (played by Elliot Page) is the titular heroine of the movie, a teenage girl who becomes pregnant by her schoolmate and admirer, Paulie (played by Michael Cera). However, what is often forgotten is that Juno’s surname is “MacGuff”, which is surely a nod by Cody to the classic cinematic phrase, “McGuffin”. The “McGuffin”, which was popularised by Alfred Hitchcock, is a plot device (such as the stolen microfilm in North by Northwest) that exists purely to allow a more detailed explanation and analysis of other, broader themes and ideas. The “MacGuff” or “McGuffin” in Juno is Juno’s pregnancy, which is certainly more important than most McGuffins but is still secondary in importance to Cody’s analysis of what pregnancy does to all those concerned, especially the mother. 

Juno initially plans to have an abortion, but when she visits an abortion clinic (passing by the one-girl pro-life protest being conducted by a schoolmate outside) she has second thoughts and instead decides to have the baby but give it up for adoption. This is where Juno becomes so much more powerful and universal than most “teen pregnancy” storylines in films or TV shows, because the couple who contact Juno to try and adopt her baby provide a fascinating contrast with her and Paulie. In the process, the film becomes a profound meditation on subjects such as aging, loss of ambition and betrayal, rather than simply an analysis of what it is to be a teen mom.

The prospective adoptive couple are played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. For Bateman, Juno remains a career-best performance, in that his easy charm and subtle self-deprecation are eventually revealed to be evidence of the self-loathing that he feels at having abandoned his youthful ambition of being a rock star to become a writer of advertising jingles instead. While his wife remains focused on the adoption itself, Bateman’s middle-aged man instead becomes obsessed with Juno herself, even trying to initiate a romantic relationship with her, which Juno rejects completely. Finally, he abandons his wife completely and Juno is faced with what appears to be the complete destruction of her careful plan to find a home for her child. It is how she deals with that situation, rather than the pregnancy itself, that forms the film’s last act.

When a Debut Screenplay Wins the Best Original Screenplay Oscar

Juno was an enormous commercial and critical success, culminating in Cody winning the Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards, which was another testament to the script’s brilliance. It is rare that the notoriously old-fashioned (and often just plain old) Academy members will vote for a sarcastic, profanity-littered, debut screenplay about a teenage pregnancy (in which the teenage mother plans to give up the child rather than raise it herself), but the hard-won humor and wisdom of Juno proved utterly irresistible. 

Post-Juno, Cody was one of the most in-demand screenwriters in the world and certainly the most in-demand female screenwriter. However, rather than just concentrate on screenwriting itself, she developed her longstanding interest in producing scripts as well as writing them. In addition, her own utterly engaging and constantly wisecracking persona meant that she was approached by a number of TV shows and online streaming services to present her own talk shows. Although these diversions have undeniably made Cody both famous and wealthy, it could be argued that at times they have distracted her from doing the thing that she is most gifted at, namely screenwriting.

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Maintaining Relevance

Cody continued to write screenplays, notably Jennifer’s Body (2009), a rather disappointing high-school horror movie (which seemed to rely on some of the tropes and clichés of high-school movies that Juno had so deftly avoided or undercut), and even rewrote them, notably Burlesque (2010), which, as the title suggests, allowed her to draw on her own experience as a stripper. However, her next major screenplay, and the first to show that she had truly moved on from the world of Juno, was Young Adult (2011). 

Young Adult is the story of Mavis, a writer of “young adult” (i.e. teen) fiction, played by Charlize Theron, who has grown to loathe what she does, particularly as it seems to have condemned her to remain in the world of teenagers and teen parties that her own middle-aged friends and contemporaries have long since abandoned. Thus, when she learns that her childhood sweetheart has become a father, she comes up with the idea of returning to her home town to try and win him back, in a desperate attempt to recapture her lost youth and escape her current predicament. 

The plotline of Young Adult sounds as extraordinary as that of any actual young adult fiction, but such is the typically self-deprecating wit that Mavis employs throughout that the audience actually finds itself not only beginning to understand why she should attempt something so obviously insane but actually rooting for her as she tries to make her plan work. As with Jason Bateman in Juno, Charlize Theron seems to relish the opportunity of playing a genuinely complex character: one who is obviously gifted and imaginative, but who is also horrifically selfish and whose emotional development appears to have been stunted by the kind of work she has chosen to do.

The Success of Young Adult

Young Adult was another major success for Cody, if not perhaps on the generation-defining scale of Juno. However, it proved that Juno was not a one-off and that despite her fascination with horror (as shown in Jennifer’s Body) and continuing interest in stripping and sexual exhibitionism (as shown in Burlesque and her Candy book), she was also eminently capable of examining the most adult of themes, notably disillusion.

As was the case after Juno, Cody followed the success of Young Adult by continuing to work as a script doctor, chat show host and even awards presenter. However, she finally completed what could be regarded as the third part of her “Motherhood Trilogy” with Tully (2018). The idea of Tully forming a kind of loose trilogy with Juno and Young Adult is not so far-fetched when one considers the subject matter and the dilemma faced by the titular heroine. Indeed, Tully can almost be regarded as a bizarre hybrid or “mash-up” of Juno and Young Adult, as if the heroines of those two films had actually kept or acquired their babies and then been forced with the messy business of having to look after it.

Motherhood is No Joke

Ostensibly, Tully is a film about postpartum depression and what it can do to the truly unfortunate mothers who experience it. One such mother is Marlo, who not only becomes pregnant, completely unexpectedly, for the third time but then discovers that the child has a serious medical condition. Almost overwhelmed by the demands being placed upon her by her children and husband, Marlo resorts to hiring a “night nanny” called Tully, who soon proves herself to be a combination of Mary Poppins and Daphne from Frasier, in that she effortlessly restores some order to Marlo’s thoroughly confused life. However, that order is soon completely destroyed when Marlo, her husband Drew and Tully end up having a ménage-a-trois (or threesome).

Tully continues to explore all the themes that have fascinated Cody throughout her screenwriting career: pregnancy (and trying to avoid it); youthful confusion and adult disappointment; and, of course, sex. From the frank discussions that Juno and Paulie have, to the tortured imaginings of Mavis in Young Adult, right through to the threesome in Tully, Cody continues to show that she was not only enough of a physical exhibitionist to work as a stripper but, far more importantly, that she is sufficiently emotionally mature to discuss the kind of ideas that obsess (and often distress) almost all adults, from their teenage years onwards. 

The Ride’s Not Over Yet

Where Cody goes from here will be absolutely fascinating to see. Unlike most of the “Great Screenwriters” on this list, she is still very much alive and writing. Given the path that her career has taken, it is entirely likely that her next screenplays will be on subjects such as surviving long-term relationships, dealing with the disappointments of parenthood and, above all, aging and our apparent inability as a culture to deal with it. If that is the case, then Cody will almost certainly move on successfully from her “Motherhood Trilogy” to writing screenplays that allow her to look at the whole, epic range of human life, from the cradle to the grave. 

Martin Keady is an award-winning scriptwriter whose work has been produced for film, television, stage and radio. His major credits include: The Final, a short film about the famous ending of the 1979 FA Cup Final, which was shown on Channel Four; Moon the Loon, a play about the legendary Who drummer, Keith Moon, which was premiered at The Edinburgh Festival; and a collection of love poetry, Shards, extracts from which have been broadcast on Radio Four.”

Photo credit: REX/Shutterstock

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